20 June 2016
by Simon Birmingham

Five truths about Australia's education system

I have said since day one in my job as the federal Minister for Education and Training that I would work with all groups, together, to strengthen our education system for this and future generations.

Every day I talk to families and educators across the country and from those discussions there are a number of truths that I think worth highlighting so we can continue to have a constructive national conversation about how best to support Australian students.

The first truth is that the Australian schooling system is not in crisis and overall continues to perform above the OECD average in all categories.

However, there is room for improvement as our PISA and NAPLAN data shows. There are some serious areas of concern such as poor literacy levels and the decline of our high performing students, as well as the persistence of the "long tail" and the need for more students to be studying STEM subjects.

For some, the education debate has become almost solely about a perceived funding crisis, even though Australia is not a low school spending country. Listen to those people and there are claims of cuts even though spending by all governments, especially the Commonwealth Government, has long been increasing in real terms, is at record levels now and is forecast to keep growing into the future, whoever wins the election on July 2nd.

This brings me to the second and often the most unpalatable of truths when confronting the questions around funding: that resources are finite and that Australia's economic fortunes have changed.

The resources boom is over. This is not calamitous, but it requires caution, readjustment and a moderation of future government spending. It also requires us to focus more on job creation and policies to support business growth that will create jobs for Australians today and for the students in schools today.

All areas of public policy, including education, have to accommodate this new reality of spending constraint. This doesn't mean living with less, but it does mean sustainable growth, living within our means and becoming more innovative and efficient in using available funds.

The message is clear and was repeated by the heads of Treasury and Finance in the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook.

Our economic success in the past has not been luck, but has been a result of careful economic management, a willingness to address long term endemic problems, and targeted spending. To afford to maintain our lifestyle and our public services, especially education, we must maintain this prudence.

It means governments, education departments and schools must prioritise, invest better, and at every level tackle those reforms, much talked about but to date never quite delivered.

As Professor John Hattie recently said:

It is a common plea for more money to be added into the education system, but there is less a plea to account for the efficiency or effectiveness of how the money is to be spent to improve outcomes. The program logic stops at some point in the causal chain: add more money to get more teachers, lower class sizes and more teacher aide support, but where is the evidence that all these extra resources lead to improved learning?

Experts like Professor Hattie argue that "how to spend money effectively" should be one of the key future drivers of education policy. He is right.

Which brings me to my third truth – that we need to act on what the best evidence informs us we should be doing in our schools and in our education systems.

While there is overwhelming evidence on a number of key areas ranging from: teacher quality, school autonomy, the value of private investment and choice, the limits of increased spending, and how best to teach literacy – too often the evidence is ignored or side-lined because of ideological dispositions, self-interest or because it just plain hard to do.

Examples include some resistance to the proper teaching of phonics despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of its value and public reports of more than a decade in age demonstrating the type of reforms that we should be pursuing.

So in our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy statement we have genuinely sought to identify only those reforms where there is clear evidence that they can have a positive impact and where public funds can be best invested to lift student achievement.

We have avoided a scatter-gun approach, of trying to intrude into every area of education, from classroom to playing field or swimming pool, or to meet every whim that every person may have. Our focus is specific, to lift the basic outcomes in reading and literacy, in numeracy, maths and STEM, in foreign languages, in teacher quality.

We also, and this is the fourth truth, recognise the limits of the Commonwealth to influence education outcomes.

It is not only that the Commonwealth runs no schools, employs no teachers and is only a partial funder of the whole school system, but also the levers to deliver reform are limited in our case.

Nevertheless, given Commonwealth spending on schools will grow from $16 billion in 2016 to more than $20 billion in 2020 it is understandable that we want our funds to be spent effectively and I am determined to leverage that funding to get the best possible outcomes especially from the states and territories.

For instance, further improving teacher quality will, if we are successful, be achieved by utilising existing professional standards and processes that are already operating in several states. We need effective incentives to reward our most capable teachers, our most highly accomplished teachers and to encourage them to ensure that they go and work in some of our most needy or disadvantaged schools. We are setting realistic timeframes to improve the take up of STEM subjects in years 11 and 12 because we know other measures have to be taken to implement this initiative, but we know having that clear requirement and ambition in those final years is central to ensuring that students have a commitment and maintain their interest in those subjects through the middle years.

These truths are just a small number of those that I could address. They serve as a reminder to focus on what matters and where we can make a difference.

With record growing yet affordable funding guaranteed, and a strong commitment to needs based funding distribution, the Turnbull Government will pursue the types of reforms that can support schools to get the best outcome for their students, in preparation for the dynamic world before them. We have an outstanding education system upon which we will build even better things into the future.