PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: The government’s so-called education revolution is not working. The international PISA survey of students’ academic achievements show that Australia is going backwards in some subjects and is standing still in others. The NAPLAN results released last week confirm this: almost half of the 20 categories of results showed declines since 2008. We have no excuse.
Our country has been prosperous, free and harmonious for such a long time, our children should be at the top. The government is focused on the wrong areas. Computers in schools, overpriced school halls, national curriculum and plans to cut the funding of non-government schools will not have a substantial impact on education attainment. Decades of research show that it is teacher quality that matters.
To lift Australian education, we must recruit high quality people into teaching. Then we must give principals autonomy to properly manage their workforce, just like any other leader of a well-functioning people-based organisation.
In recent years, the government has been releasing policies that sound like they aim to achieve these goals; but the government goes weak on promising ideas and creates turgid bureaucratic rules when simplicity is required.
Let us first look at recruitment. Finland, Singapore and South Korea are world leaders largely because they got recruitment right. But it is not bureaucratically mandated standards for teacher education that determine the quality of the graduates. Causation runs the other way: the quality of the applicants sets the limits for the quality of teacher training. The national professional standards for teachers and principals, which the government announced this year, are likely to be too vague, generalised and centrally controlled, to be useful.
Minister Garrett’s other announcement, Empowering Local Schools, is the right idea but the implementation is tortuously slow—comprising only 10 per cent of schools by 2013—and fails on the most important point, which is to let each school recruit its teachers.
So what is to be done? Governments need to develop new policies for rebuilding the prestige of the teaching profession and allow autonomous schools to function more like other people-intensive organisations. We need to make admission to demanding teacher training programs selective. The world’s top performing school systems only recruit from the top 20 to 30 per cent of high school leavers. This should be matched in Australia. We also need to introduce absolute requirements of applicants, not only relative ones. Salaries, performance pay and retention bonuses are important to attract the best people and minimise people attrition, but most important is this overall raising of the status of the profession.
We also need to open up alternative pathways into teaching, such as the Teach for Australia program, which I am proud to have been involved in helping establish. Other pathways should be explored to attract top-calibre graduates. Most importantly, we need to give Australian school principals autonomy to manage and develop their teaching staff. School leaders should be able to recruit the right mix of graduates from highly selective teacher training programs and other initiatives such as Teach for Australia. There needs to be regular appraisal which helps teachers to improve. Principals need to be in control of this and in control of performance pay and promotion. Critically, when teachers do not perform, principals must be allowed to dismiss them quickly.
Australian schools need strong political leadership. Accept the brightest students into teacher training and give school leaders the power to hire, fire, lead evaluation, and promote and decide performance pay. Now, that would be a revolution. (Time expired)