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Monday, 3 March 2014
Page: 1278

Ms MacTIERNAN (Perth) (11:30): I thank the member for Bass for raising this important issue—and much of what he has said I would agree with. People will perhaps recall that, in my maiden speech, I dealt with some of the failures of our education system, particularly in relation to the teaching of literacy. But I want to use the opportunity today in this debate to really talk about how, unfortunately, the Minister for Education has now got to a position where he is totally missing the most fundamental building block in this whole picture.

Ms Ryan: Hear, hear!

Ms MacTIERNAN: I note my friend the member for Lalor saying, 'Hear, hear!' I think there is a very, very strong case for ensuring that we put more money into areas of greatest need. I do agree across the board that money is not the complete answer in any way, shape or form and that we need a suite of reforms. But I say that the fundamental principle of Gonski is supported by international evidence that those states that do well heavily identify need and put money and locate additional resources to where there is the greatest need. Whilst money is not everything, it is certainly something and it is critical in areas where there are high levels of disadvantage.

I want to talk about what really makes the difference in these education systems. I agree that teacher quality is essential. Teacher quality is absolutely at the core of it—and any examination of the system tells us that. But one of the fundamental things that the Minister for Education is walking away from is ensuring that we actually have being brought into teacher education the intellectual ability to do the job.

I set out in the Federation Chamber the other day some appalling statistics. Around seven per cent of students going into teacher education have an ATAR of less than 50, around 16 per cent have an ATAR of less than 60 and around 27 per cent have an ATAR of less than 70. Initially, the Minister for Education, when he was the opposition education spokesperson, said that this was a significant issue. He made presentations to various forums, including the Sydney Institute, where he talked about the need for us to lift those standards and that, if we are actually going to have an education system that is characterised by rigour—the rigour that the member for Bass was talking about—we have to have personnel who are capable of reaching and delivering that rigour. If we are talking about ATAR performances and general performances that are not in that top 30 per cent, I think we are going to continue to struggle. If you look at what has happened around the world, we see precisely that.

What do they say most profoundly changed the performance of Finland? It was one of the lowest performers in the world, and within the space of around 15 years it became one of the highest achievers in literacy rates and the great achiever in PISA scores. They took a very strategic decision about who they were going to attract into teaching. They actually had a plethora of teacher-training organisations—little teacher-training colleges here and there around the country. They abolished all of them and put teacher training into a few elite universities, and only those people who could get into those elite universities were able to become teachers. Teaching then became a career that was prestigious. Finnish teachers are well paid but they are not paid massively more than teachers in other parts of the world. But, because teaching is seen as a career of choice, you get people really wanting to go into teaching, and that intellectual ability that you need to drive the rigour is there.

This whole debate, to which the Minister for Education, when he was in opposition, used to subscribe has now indeed gone somewhat backwards. He has put in place Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven—a man I know and personally like; a man I think is a very interesting person—of the Australian Catholic University, which is training around 8,000 students each year. It has an indicative ATAR score of 58 per cent for entry into their university.

I am very conscious that not all students get in under ATAR—and, indeed, a lot of students who have very low ATARs do a bridging course for their first semester and then go on to enter university—but I have to ask: have we got a bar that is set high enough? I want to talk about something that has been said by the Australian Catholic University—something that alarms me. The Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education said:

… ATAR cut-offs were an indication of supply and demand for a course, and that an individual's ATAR was no indication of how he or she would perform at university or in the workplace.

I totally understand that they are not the be-all and end-all, and any vice-chancellor of UWA will tell you that you would expect a kid that comes in from a government school with an ATAR of 85 to perform at the level of a kid from a private school with an ATAR of 90.

I get that there is a difference, but there has to be a minimum level which is acceptable. If we are wanting to attract people of ability and make sure that the people we are training to teach others are capable of a sufficient understanding to drive our system forward, to enable us to compete with those nations to our north, we have to be prepared to bite the bullet on this. We cannot let this issue be run by those universities that are providing mass entry level to teacher-training facilities who have a direct economic interest in keeping this wide open.

In 2011 we had a COAG agreement that we were going to make sure that anyone who got into teacher training was in the top 30 per cent of the population in terms of literacy and numeracy. This is being opposed by the Australian Catholic University—who have now been put in charge of overseeing teacher standards. Member for Bass, I know you are a very bright man and I hope that you can lead a party room challenge to the Minister for Education as he backtracks on this fundamental principle. It is not going to do us any good if we are lifting these standards and supposedly introducing more testing and harder curricula if we do not have people who are capable of doing that.

There is some very interesting evidence in the book The Smartest Kids in the World, particularly on the United States, where, in order to try to respond to this, they made the curriculum harder and made teachers do masters' degrees. What they found—because they had not addressed the fundamental principle of increasing the entry level into the teaching profession—is that all this has amounted to nought; that you have to get that fundamental building block right and make sure that people who go into teaching have the intellectual ability to drive the system forward.