Senator Birmingham’s ‘Five Truths’ – A response

In Online Opinion on Friday 17 June 2016, the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham presented what he called ‘Five truths’ about Australia’s education system (although in the published version of his presentation to the Christian Schools Forum there seemed to be only four of these). The main problem lies not with what the Minister said, but with what he left out.

I agree with his first ‘truth’ that currently our education system is performing fairly well, but the real problem is that by all measures there has been a decline in absolute terms over the last 12 years and to stop and reverse this trend will be like turning a large ship around: it will take years to get back to where we were and the longer we wait the harder it will be. As I indicated in an article 4 years ago the problem is real.

Further, in regard to funding, I agree that it is not the amount of funding that is important but how it is directed. When one looks at recurrent funding (that is basic operational funding including teachers’ salaries ) which comes from State, Federal and Private (parental) funding, the funding for Catholic and Government schools is almost equivalent at around $12,500 per student. For Catholic schools about one quarter of that comes from parent and church contributions.

However the total funding for Private Schools is about 45% more at $18,000 per student with $10,500 coming mainly from fees paid by parents and $7,500 from Governments. By comparing schools with similar socio-economic backgrounds on the My School website it is clear that when one takes socio-economic background into consideration there is no significant difference in results for students in public or private systems so where does the extra $5,400 per student go? Some will go on swimming pools, performance spaces and gymnasiums which are all nice to have, but do not contribute significantly to educational results. And it goes to school promotion – newspaper supplements and billboards -  or on providing covered car parking for teachers which may have relevance in a business sense but no relevance to quality education. It is likely that parents could spend $5000 per student per year in a way that was far more profitable for their children and for society as a whole.

If money is in short supply should one look at why it costs $5400 more to educate a student in a Private school than in a Public or Catholic school? The Minister has used a budget crisis to ignore that among developed nations Australia has one of the most inequitable systems and has made no mention of the Gonski report.

I also agree with his third ‘Truth’ that we should rely on the best evidence. Unfortunately the Minister then descends to what he says he rejects: ideology. There is little evidence that ‘Autonomy’ by itself makes any difference (see separate article), and almost all schools have as much autonomy as they need. To best use this autonomy schools need good leadership and strong support.

The Minister also raises the tired issue of phonics. Good teachers recognise that learning to read includes a variety of techniques of which phonics is one and these will vary depending on the needs of the students. Some students teach themselves to read, while others struggle through primary school.

Phonics is very good for a sentence like ‘The cat sat on the mat’ but what about the following: ‘He coughed as he said “It was tough finding your way through the forest when the boughs were bending and I got thoroughly soaked”’

Regarding the fourth ‘Truth’ again it is true that the Commonwealth does have limits to each influence, especially in Public Schools, but there is one area that it can, through its funding of Tertiary education, have a great impact: Teacher Education. Without quality teachers in the classroom, none of the other suggested reforms can make any real difference.

There is no shortage of evidence on what quality teaching looks like and on how to bring it about but we have created a basically unmonitored teacher training system; in 2013 across Australia there were 48 providers offering around 400 courses.

Of these 48 providers, only three (the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney, Monash and Queensland) are ranked in the top twenty in the world in the 2016 QS World University Ranking and in all only by 14 out of the 48 rank in the top 100.

This was a result of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's decision to fund all courses proposed by universities. Because Education, unlike Medicine or Engineering, required little capital expenditure and to get as much cash as possible, students with tertiary entry scores as low as 48 were accepted by Universities with little concern about how such ‘teachers’ would cope with students aiming for medicine, engineering or law.

On the false assumption that less is required of primary teachers, many more primary educator places have been provided than there are teaching positions available, while areas where there is a great need, such as science and mathematics, are not being catered for.

Accepting students with such low entry scores into the profession devalues the role of the profession and discourages the most able students from considering teaching as a profession. In Finland teaching is very difficult to get into – only 7% of those who apply are accepted and the selection process is rigorous

Genuine quality control is almost non-existent. It is impossible to thoroughly evaluate 48 providers and 400 courses. The process of assessment becomes one of ticking boxes and no course has yet been deemed unsatisfactory.

This is clearly where we need far more Government intervention. This would involve only providing funding should only be provided in areas where there is a need, and only to teacher education institutions with a proven track record.

We do not need any more political grandstanding but a long term bi-partisan strategy to begin turning our schools around.

Andrew Keese

Web designer, web developer and online marketing consultant. Co-owner of Silver Vine, a web design agency located in Melbourne and specialising in Squarespace.