A Plan to Improve Our Schools Is on the Table; Now Governments Must Act

The Age

By Hutch Ranck
Chairman
BCA Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force

Anyone interested in the future of Australian education should pay attention to COAG this weekend. The change to our education system now under consideration holds much promise for lifting the quality of learning in schools across the country.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have developed a substantial reform plan for Australia’s education system.

For the first time, the leaders of Australia’s governments will together directly address what is most important in education: how to provide better learning in the classroom.

What is needed is the co-operation of the states and territories to implement this plan, and the Business Council of Australia is calling on all governments to do just this.

The reforms are overdue. In a world where education and training play more of a role than ever before in determining economic success and social stability, Australia needs to do better. Too many principals and teachers struggle to make the best of our outdated system. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of young Australians have dropped out of the school system before completing Year 12 or the training equivalent. As a result, many young people have become marginalised, living on the dole or working part-time in unskilled jobs. This should not be allowed to continue.

Business Council research shows that smart reforms really can help children learn more –especially those from disadvantaged families. We can improve our children’s literacy, numeracy and technical skills, make them better communicators, help them work better in teams, and give them stronger cultural and language skills. That will also build Australia’s economic prosperity.

Education specialists have been working quietly on new federal–state agreements that would deliver some of the needed changes. This weekend at COAG, governments need to agree on them. They include:

  • Recognising and rewarding the best classroom teachers based on the excellence and effectiveness of their methods.
  • Increasing autonomy, transparency and accountability within the school system, including release of information about school performance.
  • Prioritising literacy and numeracy skills for all students.
  • Providing extra tuition and support to children in their first years of school who are at risk of falling behind.
  • Improving learning outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Indigenous students.
  • Introducing an engaging national curriculum in key subjects.
  • Increasing the number of students learning at least one Asian language.

The first of these is the most important. Our society undervalues the contribution of the teaching profession. Raise the quality of teaching, and students will learn more.

We can only get better teaching by recruiting more of the best and brightest. That means paying teachers more and giving them incentives to continue developing their skills. They need a career path that recognises and rewards efforts to improve their teaching.

Earlier this year, the Business Council recommended that teachers who demonstrate rigorous standards of excellence should be rewarded with substantially higher salaries. This would be a voluntary system, with teachers assessed by an independent expert body. Those meeting the standard would receive Australia-wide recognition as an ‘Accomplished Teacher’ or ‘Leading Teacher’. Such a system would encourage teachers to strive to improve their teaching practice. It would also help attract people who aspire to reach these higher levels.

The federal government’s commitment of $500 million to recognise and reward excellent teachers is to be applauded. While remuneration is certainly not the only reason women and men choose to go into teaching, it is an important consideration. Too often it causes talented individuals to leave the profession prematurely.

Business leaders also support incentives for excellent teachers to work in schools with large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research has shown that being taught by effective and committed teachers makes the greatest difference in the progress of disadvantaged students.

Lifting the outcomes of all students requires a sustained commitment from governments, schools, communities and the business sector to lift the quality of the school system. The COAG education agreements are a vital first step in which our education future can be changed for the better.