By Michael Andrew
Chairman, BCA Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force
Julia Gillard has announced that, if re-elected, the government will give school principals the power to appoint teachers and a greater say over school budgets.
The Opposition has said that it too favours the idea of giving more responsibility to principals.
This signals a welcome commitment to continuing the task of improving Australia’s education system.
While good progress has been made in recent times, a range of actions are still needed to ensure all students are equipped for life after school.
Education and training is a priority for business because we depend, more than ever, on the skills of our people.
We expect everyone in a workplace to have a good understanding of their profession or their trade, whether they are an accountant or a mechanic.
We also rely on everybody to work as a member of a team and to show initiative in solving problems and engaging with outside organisations.
If people do their jobs well then businesses will do well and contribute to creating more highly skilled jobs and a stronger economy.
The foundation for this is an education system that prepares young people to go into the increasing number of well-paid and challenging jobs.
The problem is that far too many primary and secondary school students are not gaining the literacy, numeracy and broader skills they need to succeed.
This is despite growing demand from employers for people to possess higher-level skills and qualifications.
We must make sure that efforts to improve our education system are focused on improving the effectiveness of teaching, and making sure that students learn, starting with the earliest years of school.
Over the past two years, the federal government has taken some important steps to improve school education. We have seen the start of a new era in transparency with the My School website allowing the literacy and numeracy test results of all schools to be compared.
A new, high-quality national curriculum is close to being finalised. This will improve consistency across state and territory education systems.
In addition, new approaches to improving teacher quality by developing national teaching standards and rewarding the very best teachers are being progressed.
Each of these initiatives will make a valuable contribution, but a broad range of measures to improve the quality of teaching is required.
Giving principals more control over teaching appointments and other key resources was a central recommendation of the Business Council of Australia’s 2007 report, Restoring Our Edge in Education.
In most states and territories, principals do not have the authority to select staff, with centralised arrangements still in place. We see this as a way to improve the quality of teaching because principals are in the best position to know the needs of their school and to choose the best available teachers.
Governments also must go further in rewarding the very best teachers.
A career structure is required that will attract and retain the best teachers in our classrooms.
The Teach for Australia initiative has begun in Victoria and has succeeded in attracting highly talented graduates. This important program should be supported in every state and territory.
Improving the quality of learning must extend to providing students who are falling behind with the extra tuition they need to catch up.
Our aspiration should be for all young Australians to be equipped for the skilled jobs. The key to realising this goal is to continue to improve our education system so that all students gain a first-rate education.