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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1197

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (13:00): I rise to express concern over what I see as an increasing disconnect in Australia's education system, a circumstance in which children have become incidental to the whole process and in which process has replaced outcomes. It is delightful to see representatives of the primary schoolchildren of Australia sitting in the chamber observing today.

In Senate estimates recently, in the Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, I could not help but think I was on the set of Yes, Minister, that iconic program in which Sir Humphrey Appleby explained to the minister why there were no patients in the hospital beds. This is by no means a reflection on the excellence of Ms Paul and her staff, because I believe they are very diligent officers, but I could not help but think of Minister Hacker saying, 'But, Humphrey, there are no patients!' I am concerned that we have lost the focus. We have taken children out of the centralism for which education should be there. It seems now to have become all about the dollars. It seems to have become all about the process and not about the outcomes. We are not learning about the opportunities for children and what is holding them back from their aspirational goals in education and in development.

It seems to me that we have almost lost the plot for the direction of education delivery in this country. Despite being some two generations after the postwar period, in which time there has been heavy emphasis on education in this country, and despite an increase in education funding of only 40 per cent in the last 10 or 20 years, where are we? I draw attention to an article by Ms Louise Maher on 24 February on the ABC, in which she recorded that recent surveys have indicated seven million adult Australians have low literacy levels. Some 46 per cent of this survey were poor on prose literacy and 47 per cent were poor on documentary literacy, and it was even lower for numeracy and problem solving. This has to be holding them back in both their life and their employment opportunities. It must be holding business, industry and government back, and therefore it must be affecting productivity.

It is a decline which Australia cannot afford. For the current generation of children, surveys indicate that in 2000 only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy, and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. Moving forward from 2000 to 2009, not one but six countries outperformed us in reading and science, and we went from third to 13th in mathematical literacy. This is not good enough. It is not good enough for the investment we make, and I believe that this place is where we should be examining it.

Only recently, following Senate estimates, did we have the release of the Grattan Institute report, in which comparisons were made with equivalent schoolchildren in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. Only then did we learn that we were at least two years behind in those same literacy and numeracy skills. I spoke to primary school principals last night who said to me: 'Yes, but they're only rote learners in Asia. Our students are far more developed. Our excellent students are internationally in demand in engineering, medicine, science and the arts.' Of course they are, but education, as we all know, is across the board. I said to these principals, 'I hope you're not being drawn into a 1960s "Japanese cars are inferior" type of scenario,' and they assured me they were not.

These are great causes for concern, and I ask, 'Where are the solutions?' In the consultations I have had it seems clear that the solutions lie in developing the team theme. The saying is that it takes a community to raise a child, and it takes a team of three key members to educate that child and to develop them educationally. Those three key members are the parents, the student, and the teacher and those who support them. The point is that if one of that triumvirate—that holy Trinity—is absent then the outcome will be compromised and the child will not develop. I support the strongly made point from teachers that they cannot play the role of two of those three. So I give the challenge: let us get back to the basics; let us let teachers teach; let us promote an image of professionalism in teachers and their profession.

Those of us who have worked in and moved through Asia and India know the reverence with which teachers are held there. Only last night on the ABC program Lateline, I saw the Director-General of Education for Finland being interviewed, telling us that is harder to get into primary school teaching in Finland than it is to get into medicine, that only 10 per cent of applicants for teaching are successful and that nearly all teachers have a master's degree. I say that we must commit parents to engaging in and supporting their children's education and their school, and that they must be there on the positive side and not on the neutral or the negative side. We ought to be putting resources into teaching—not into school halls but into teaching. You can teach a child under a tree if they want to learn. In fact, there are many instances in which many children might be better off spending a good deal of their time outside. They tell me that in Scandinavia, up to year 10, a lot of the learning is done outside. The focus has to be on teaching.

We have to identify the poorly performing teachers. We must counsel them to improve, or if teaching is not for them we must counsel them out of teaching. How would it be, being in charge of children from nine in the morning until 3.30 in the afternoon, if you hate the job day in and day out? All of us know teachers like that. One of us at least I know has been married to a teacher who found themselves in that position. I say we must improve transparency and visibility in the education system—to children, to parents, to the parents' peers, to the teachers' peers and to the wider community. There is a perception being expressed out there that we have lost the truth and that we need to tell it as it is. It is not about the dollars, I believe; it is about how we spend them.

I am glad my colleague and leader in this area, Senator Mason, is here. We should be asking these questions of the department, the state education systems and the Catholic and independent schools. Why is education so poorly valued in this country? Why do so many teachers have such a poor self-image when it comes to teaching? How many teachers of year 12 students recommend teaching as a profession for their graduating students leaving school? If the answer is zero then we must be asking why that is the case. We must be asking: what aptitude tests are undertaken by universities to identify those students before they commence their course? I richly benefited last night from speaking to primary school principals. There were three groups of five, and I think they all said to me that they believed too many young teachers were graduating without the aptitude for teaching. For heaven's sake, these things are basic! We know that in so many professions now—medicine, veterinary science, nursing and many others—we try to understand whether this is a career for that student.

Why is it that so many young teachers go into teaching with so much vim and vigour—usually in country areas—only to find that the isolation and the complexity drags them down, and then they either leave that school or that town, or teaching, dispirited? Why is that the case? Are we examining what the wastage rate is? What number of teachers after one, three or five years are no longer teaching? I would like to see that information in the state system and also in the Catholic and independent school systems.

I would like to know the movement rate between those schools. In my own state of Western Australia I think up to 40 per cent of state schools now have, or are moving to, independent public status. We in this place need to understand what I term the 'wastage rate'—that is, those who are leaving the profession—in the independent public schools as opposed to the traditional state schools. We all know, and probably we in this place are an example, that people move between professions. I have the privilege of being in my eighth complete career change. I ask the question because we know in many instances people will leave a profession but at some time in the future they will go back to it because the original career was of enormous interest and benefit. Among those of my associates and family members who have been or still are teachers, I do not know of a single one who left the profession to go into something else who then said teaching was more appealing and more satisfying and they wanted to go back into teaching. Even those who remain in the education system and get elevated into the halls of power—how many of them go back into the classroom? This is the disconnect about which I speak, and I think we simply do not have sufficient information to be able to assist and drive that process.

From listening to the director-general of education from Finland, and also from reading briefly the executive summary of the Grattan Institute report, I know about the amount of mentoring that younger teachers get from more senior teachers, the support in the classroom and the emphasis and focus on the students themselves. A teacher very close to me made the point that teaching can be a very isolating experience: 'Parents, principals and local communities need to back the teachers. They are often left to defend themselves in the face of unreasonable parents and unsupportive principals and, in many cases, students who are totally unresponsive.' Principals must have the right, in my belief, to hire and fire and should also be able to set reasonable standards not only for their own teachers but for classroom behaviour, and they must be able to deal with students who do not fit in. This is a three-part race: it is the teachers, it is the parents and it is the students. Disruptive students should not have the right to dominate a class environment, a team environment, and disrupt others from learning.

I was asking a principal about this once and he said to me: 'Why can't we look at an option in the same geographic area, so as to not disturb people residentially, where we classify schools into 'excellent', 'ordinary' and 'poor' and teachers rotate on a two-yearly basis so that one who is in an excellent school moves to a poor school and hopefully takes some of the practices of that excellent school to the poor school.? A teacher in an underperforming school will know they have got only that two years and then they we will be moving up, so, over time, we will see continual improvement.' All too often we have a scenario in which teachers find themselves in the one school and never move.

I believe very firmly that we have got to get away from this practice in Australia where nobody is allowed to fail. We do fail; we all fail. Teachers must be able to be honest. Teachers must be able to make mistakes, and so must their students. Teachers must be able to grade honestly and they must be able to fail students. Students must know where they fit in the group; only then can a student start to make reasonable choices and realise that more work is required of them if they are to achieve. If they do not learn this in the school environment, they are in for an almighty shock, as we all know, when they get into the postschool environment. I believe that we are underselling our students. We must tell students that life is what they make of it: that, if a door opens and they do not take the opportunity behind it, the opportunity will not be there again—but who knows what other opportunities will emerge? We must tell them that success is the direct result of determination and effort. Incidentally, I have seen these comments made in the media recently. We must allow students to stop looking for easy options and to get out of their comfort zone. I urge young teachers to apply that thinking as well—get out of your comfort zone and take responsibility for your own decisions and courses of action and for their consequences. It is okay to make a mistake; but learn from it and do not repeat it—learn about risk. I believe that, at the moment, the education system is not imparting the skills that students and teachers need. (Time expired)