Dan Tehan’s big homework list

by Peter Goss

Published by the Australian Financial Review, Tuesday 11 June

Dear Dan Tehan, congratulations on your reappointment as federal Education Minister. When you first got the role last August, you had just one job: make peace with Catholic schools. Your job now is much more important: help drive Australia’s future economic growth.

Education is an economic portfolio at least as much as a social one. As well as helping people take responsibility for their own lives, better educational outcomes mean higher wages, higher taxes, and less welfare.

It is particularly vital to reduce the one in four young Australians who don’t complete Year 12 or an equivalent vocational certificate, most of whom will struggle in the modern workforce. The ratio of working-age Australians compared to those too young or old to work is already shrinking. In effect, this economic ledger gets worse every time a young Australian misses out on the opportunities that education should bring.

You have work to do, Minister.

Let’s start with early childhood education, where your policy currently favours childcare over preschool. Affordable childcare is vital, but places like Quebec made educational outcomes worse by focusing on female workforce participation at the expense of early learning.

Meanwhile, your party keeps funding four-year-old preschool on a year-by-year basis. This creates uncertainty, and undercuts efforts to improve quality. Australia also lags the world in providing preschool for three-year-olds – but caution is warranted here, because rapid expansion could do more harm than good.

You should work with the Education Council on a plan to increase preschool access – including for three-year-olds – while improving quality. And then jointly underpin it with long-term state and federal funding.

In schooling, you’re absolutely right that literacy and numeracy are the foundations of later learning. But please, Minister, don’t fall into the “back to basics” trap. Think “yes-and” rather than “either-or”.

With computers increasingly doing routine tasks, young people need creative and critical thinking skills. These are best developed through deep understanding of traditional disciplines.

Generic capabilities such as communication and collaboration are equally important. More and more jobs require good social skills, and those jobs pay better wages. People with strong maths and social skills do even better.

The Commonwealth has a limited role in school education, but you should do three things.

First, push harder to improve initial teacher education. Christopher Pyne’s reforms to initial teacher education are mostly done. You should put under-performing education faculties on notice by announcing an independent review of their impact.

In some universities, up to a quarter of graduating teachers fail a literacy and numeracy test. If this continues, their education faculties should face real consequences, such as losing half of their funded places.

Second, properly resource the proposed national evidence institute, proposed by the Productivity Commission and supported by David Gonski. You’ve signed up in principle but didn’t fund it in the budget.

The institute needs real independence and a broad remit. It should compare learning progress across different states and sectors, and collect data on which teaching practices are actually being used in Australia’s classrooms. And it should analyse a broad range of educational outcomes beyond literacy and numeracy.

Third is the unfinished business of school funding.

It is a myth that Australia massively increased school funding in recent years. In fact, effective school funding went up just 4 per cent over the decade to 2017, after accounting for enrolments and wages. Public schools got just $155 more per student per year; private schools got nearly 10 times that amount.

This happened because the states dropped the ball for government schools, their major responsibility. Big funding increases from Canberra were virtually cancelled out by the fact that state funding to government schools grew slower than wages.

And your 2018 National Schools Reform Agreement made the problem worse. You required private schools to be fully funded, but you required state governments to top up public school funding only to 95 per cent of the agreed target. And you let states use depreciation to meet even that goal. Depreciation can’t hire teachers or buy textbooks.

This is as much about economics as equity. Most students who leave school unready for work come from disadvantaged backgrounds and attend public schools. Proper funding for every Australian school, regardless of sector, would reduce this number.

Beyond school, vocational and higher education must be better integrated, and it must become easier for people to learn new skills throughout their lives. Your government should aim to give students the best range of choices.

And you should start planning now for a larger post-secondary education system, because Australians born in the “Baby Boom bubble” that started in 2006 are now in high school, and will soon be thinking about university or vocational education.

Three years goes in a blink, Minister. What will your legacy be? Will you treat education mainly as a cost to be managed? Or will you fight to better educate future generations and underpin Australia’s economic prosperity?