PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: I rise tonight to speak on raising the bar in education.
In this Olympic year as we see countries vie to be the best in sport I want to say: why not in education?
Our country has been prosperous, free and harmonious for such a long time that our children should be at the top. Unfortunately, while we excel in sport, in education we are one of only a few countries that has declined in standards in recent years both in an absolute sense as well as relative to other countries.
We are no longer in the top band of performers but have been overtaken by our Asian neighbours, four of which are now in the top five of the world’s best performing school systems: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea and Singapore. Students from those systems are considerably ahead in some key areas. For example, in Shanghai the average 15-year-old mathematics student is performing at a level two to three years, on average, above his or her counterpart in Australia. In science the average 15-year-old is 15 months ahead of Australian students and in reading is about 13 months ahead. Similarly in Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea 15-year-old students are now a year in advance of Australian students in mathematics and about half a year in front in science and reading.
As the Prime Minster reminds us, we are entering the Asian century yet we are not keeping up with their education standards. Australia is not alone in this regard, although this should not give us comfort. The UK and the US are in a similar position to us. The difference, however, is how these countries are approaching the challenge, particularly the United Kingdom. The UK has deliberately set out to match the best performing school systems, particularly in relation to curriculum standards. Through the draft curriculum the British Conservatives led by Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, have explicitly set the standards to be taught by reference to the best performing school systems in the world. They also reintroduced back-to-basics principles such as learning times tables and a narrative approach to history.
For example, in maths, their draft curriculum document, which was released last week, states that pupils will be expected to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions at a similar standard to what is expected in Singapore and Hong Kong. By the age of 9 pupils should know their times tables up to 12 times 12. It is currently only to 10 times 10, but the higher level is in keeping with the high-performing jurisdiction in Massachusetts.
In English, students will be taught to read fluently through systemic phonics with a stronger emphasis on reading for pleasure. There will be a focus on spelling, which includes a list of words that all children should be able to spell by the end of primary school. There will be a stronger emphasis on grammar and the learning of poetry once again.
The UK is changing the look of history classes as well. Children will be expected to learn significant dates, events and the names of important historical figures. Instead of forcing cultural relativism on schools, teachers will also be expected to introduce children to the grand narrative that distinguishes the UK from other countries and cultures. Key institutions and the importance of Western civilisation and the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage are emphasised, as is the need to instil civic responsibility and to teach values like reciprocity and a commitment to the common good. These are all positive developments and indicate a strong desire to ensure that UK students can perform as well as students from other countries.
We should be taking a similar approach in relation to our curriculum. Importantly, we should be benchmarking our national curriculum against the curriculum of our near neighbours to ensure that our standards are not falling behind. We should also be learning from what the UK is doing so that universities and employers can have confidence that grammar, spelling and basic maths concepts are well understood upon leaving school.
I have written about our history curriculum in the past and about how earlier drafts failed to mention basic institutions which have made Australia prosperous and free or acknowledge our western Judaeo-Christian heritage. Without glossing over past mistakes, our Westminster system of government affords us a proud tradition of democracy, individual freedom and human rights. A history curriculum should reflect this.
The Rudd-Gillard government promised an education revolution but it has not delivered. Under ALP governments, state and federal, schools have often been forced to adopt a curriculum based on lower standards that ignores the basics and preaches a politically correct view of the world.
We need to do better.
Parents deserve to know that their children are learning at the highest standards. Employers want to know that students are graduating with solid literacy, numeracy and analytical skills, and higher education institutions do not want to have to provide remedial courses.
The UK has set its sights to reach the top. We should be doing likewise.