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The National Plan for School Improvement - a stronger focus on quality teaching: speech to the Eidos Institute Breakfast Forum, Brisbane

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Minister for School Education

Peter Garrett

Speech to the Eidos Institute Breakfast Forum, Brisbane

Friday 26 October 2012

The National Plan for School Improvement - a stronger focus on quality teaching


It’s a pleasure to join you to speak about our plan to improve Australia’s schools.

And with today being World Teachers Day (in Australia) - it’s appropriate to speak to you today about the Government’s plan for the next wave of education reforms through the National Plan for School Improvement, in which a strong focus on quality teaching is central.

But before I do that I think it’s important to reflect on the context within which the Government is now discussing a new national set of reforms to lift school and student performance.

Over the past five years, the Government has embarked on the busiest period of education reform since Federation.

We now have a national curriculum being implemented, national teacher standards and a national teacher performance and assessment framework.

There has been an unprecedented level of investment in school education - about $65 billion over four years. Double that of the former government [1]

These new investments are rapidly changing the face of schools - with new facilities, computers, teaching resources and extra support for schools serving disadvantaged communities.

In particular, these investments are giving us valuable information which shows that funding targeted to effective practice in disadvantaged schools can make a big difference to student results.

Despite the significant investments we’ve delivered and the improvements we are starting to see, it is true that nationally and internationally we must do better.

Recent international tests show that Australian schools have been slipping over the last decade compared to our international competitors.

In fact, tests show that Australia has fallen from:

 2nd to 7th in reading, and  5th to 13th in maths

The statistics also show that Australia has a persistent and growing tail of educational disadvantage - with the gap between our best and worst performers growing.

It is of significant concern to the Gillard Government that the statistics continue to show that for too many children their education opportunities and outcomes are too closely linked to their background or location.

For example, by Year 9, a student from the poorest quarter of Australian schools is, on average, up to two years behind a student from the wealthiest quarter of the population in reading and maths.

These statistics should convince us all that while we have made significant improvements - there is much more to do.

Because beyond the inequity in this situation for the children concerned, when we look across Australia’s workforce and potential workforce, it’s clear that we can get a valuable productivity boost by realising the untapped potential of kids who are not getting fair opportunities from the current school system.

That’s why the last month the Prime Minister announced a plan for the next wave of education reform - the National Plan for School Improvement.

National Plan for School Improvement

Under this plan, we want to see all schools adopt a new national focus on lifting the results of every student.

We want to see Australia ranked as a top five country in the world for educational performance in reading, science and mathematics by 2025.

And under this plan we want to see the core recommendation of the Gonski Review implemented - that all schools are funded on the basis of the needs of the students they enrol.

Delivering against these new national goals will take additional investment - from all governments.

The Government has clearly indicated that we are prepared to consider substantial investment over time - but any extra investment must be targeted to the areas evidence shows will lift results.

A key pillar of the National Plan recognises the conclusive evidence that quality teaching is critical to student performance.

So quality teaching is a big focus under the framework of the plan. I want to come back to this element shortly.

Under the plan we also want to see school leaders given more power over decision making in their schools along with greater transparency for parents and the community about how their local schools are performing.

Importantly, a new approach to school funding under the plan would be based on what research shows is needed to deliver great results, with additional funding for students facing educational disadvantage.

Under this approach we would ensure that every school would see their funding continue to rise.

Improving Initial Teacher Education

This morning, I want to focus on the critical element of how we can improve initial teacher education.

Specifically, I want to talk about how we can create what has been described as a ‘virtuous circle’ in our education systems.

The concept of a virtuous circle is broadly that an improvement at the start of the cycle has a compounding positive effect at every stage of the process.

Essentially it is a positive feedback loop that has more and more beneficial effects with every cycle.

This concept can be applied to the challenge of improving the quality of initial teacher education so that our best and brightest school leavers are entering high quality education that better prepares them for their profession.

When we demand excellence in initial teacher education, students wanting to become a teacher must first aim high to get into the course.

Let me sketch the picture.

Quality undergraduates arrive with high expectations and then work their way through a high quality course that gives them the intellectual rigor, the training and substantive feedback they need to be ready for their first day in front of a class.

Then in their first years of teaching they receive the support needed to become great teachers, further driving the excellence culture within schools to produce more high quality school leavers that in turn want to take on the challenge of becoming a teacher in the 21st century, and so on.

We see it at a smaller scale in initiatives like the HIPPY (Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters) program which helps children and parents to make a good transition from early childhood education to school. HIPPY provides a solid foundation for learning in the home for the child but it also changes the learning culture of the home which in turn has positive flow on effects.

There are any number of examples, but I’m excited by the impact this could have in teacher training - improving teacher training and building on past success with each new generation of teachers.

Achievements and current initiatives

In considering the next steps of reform, it’s important to reflect on what’s been achieved to date. I suspect it’s probably not as well known as it could be.

I first need to reinforce how critical improving teacher quality is for student results.

There are various research papers that provide the evidence base for its importance. But for me I am reminded of this impact when I visit schools.

I have now chalked up quite a few visits to some wonderful schools that have turned around their results in various ways but the common thread is a focus on high expectations driven by teacher quality.

Improving teacher quality is simply the major ‘in school’ factor affecting student achievement and no one in the education or broader community is arguing differently.

That’s why we committed $550 million over five years to implement system wide sustainable reforms under the Teacher Quality National Partnership.

States and territories have made significant progress in meeting the milestones set under this partnership.

As a result, we have a set of nationally agreed Professional Standards for teachers, we have further built up the capacity of our school leaders and we have improved reward structures for teachers who work in disadvantaged Indigenous, remote and hard-to-staff schools to name just a few.

There is much to reflect on and celebrate. But if we are to reach the ambitious national goals I mentioned earlier then we will have to find new ways to lift school and student performance.

Critical to this I believe, is to be sure that we are attracting the best and brightest into teaching, and that they are well prepared by the time they face their students.

Teaching is demanding and complex work, and new teachers need to be equipped to succeed from their very first day.

To teach our young people the skills they will need in the 21st century, teachers themselves need to better understand the modern student, create and maintain a supportive learning environment.

And, they also need to be highly literate and numerate.

We are already some way down this reform path, with all Australian Education Ministers agreeing in 2011, to a national approach to assuring the quality of initial teacher education courses.

As part of this historic agreement, we agreed to measures to improve the quality of entrants into initial teacher education, and to make sure that graduates have been assessed to ensure they have the knowledge and skills they will need in the classroom.

As part of this drive we want to ensure new teachers are top of their class. To achieve this we are committed to drawing our new teachers from the top 30 per cent of the population in literacy and numeracy.

And I’m pleased to report that the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (or AITSL) is working to identify levels of achievement in different senior secondary mathematics and English subjects that would put a student in the top 30 per cent of the population.

This work is ongoing but for example, in New South Wales, entrants to primary teaching programs would need to achieve at Band 4 or higher in HSC English and maths.

If they can’t achieve this straight away, they will have to undertake additional units in literacy and numeracy.

We also need to remember that less than half of all students enter initial teacher education from Year 12.

Mature age entrants, career changers and those who already have degrees in the subjects they intend to teach, all make a strong contribution to the teaching profession.

This means we need to be flexible in how we implement higher entry standards for initial teacher training.

This is why AITSL has also been working with the Australian Council of Deans of Education to develop a framework for universities to demonstrate that all their graduates are reaching the levels of literacy and numeracy needed for teaching.

The framework requires that students are assessed on entering a course, so they can be offered additional support if they need it.

It would also include an assessment before students can graduate.

These assessments will be designed to check that graduates are in the top 30 per cent of the population in literacy and numeracy.

These are important developments to ensure we have confidence that our teachers have high levels of literacy and numeracy.

This development will reinforce the implementation of National Professional Standards for Teachers which describe what teachers should know and be able to do throughout their careers.

They are specific about what graduates from initial teacher education need to achieve.

Further, initial teacher education courses will only be accredited if they provide convincing evidence that they will produce graduates that meet the National Professional Standards for Teachers at the graduate career stage.

To make sure we can be confident in teacher preparation, I believe we need a concerted national effort to improve assessment in initial teacher education.

AITSL will work with universities, teacher employers and regulatory authorities to develop a more rigorous and consistent approach to assessment, starting with the practicum.

The practicum is where student teachers can demonstrate their capabilities in the classroom, and be assessed by experienced teachers, as well as university staff.

If we can make sure these placements are assessed to a common standard and using a common language, it will increase confidence in the quality of graduate teachers.

In this regard, AITSL will also convene a major national forum early in 2013, involving teacher representatives, employers of teachers, universities, teacher regulatory authorities and experts in the field.

It will consider existing practices within Australia, and the best international evidence on developing assessments that accurately predict future performance in the classroom.

The intent of this forum is to reach agreement on a process to develop a more rigorous and consistent approach to practicum assessment.

The Government is committed to improving the quality of initial teacher education from entry through to a student’s first lesson as a new teacher.

This work is underway and will form an important component of our National Plan for School Improvement.

We want to see our plan implemented nationally and detailed discussions are underway with the states and the non-government sector.

We are prepared to make a substantial investment over time but we do expect the states to contribute a fair share and to sign up to the plan.

We all know that Australia’s future capacity as a nation is very much dependent on the quality of education that all students receive.

Improving initial teacher training has an enormous contribution to make to economic prosperity, as well as setting up steadily increasing improvements in future student results and future teacher capability.

The virtuous circle I am describing is well within our reach, if we have the will to recognise how important schooling and teaching is to our future economy and community life.

I’m excited by the progress we have already made in improving teacher training.

A National Plan for School Improvement is nothing less than a game changer for education for our nation, and I look to all sectors of the community to join us in supporting further improvements, so we continue to build on our success for the sake of future students.