Jason Clare’s mission: ambitious school reform - Grattan Institute

After three years of unprecedented disruption to schooling and growing alarm about persistent pressures on teachers, the pre-Christmas meeting of education ministers provides the opportunity for political leaders to show they understand the challenges facing the national school system.

On the agenda is Education Minister Jason Clare’s draft National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, released last month. It sets out 28 items across six priority areas to tackle teacher shortages by making the profession more attractive.

But while Mr Clare deserves kudos for producing the plan quickly, the danger is that it becomes little more than a checklist of loosely connected commitments, many of which refer to work already completed or in train.

This would be a terrible result because what Australia urgently needs is greater ambition and co-ordination among governments and school-sector leaders across the board.

In 2019, Australia’s education ministers recommitted their governments to providing a world-class school system that promotes both excellence and equity for all young Australians, as set out in goal 1 of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

But today’s education ministers must know that Australia has no hope of achieving goal 1 unless all schools have a strong, resilient, and effective teaching workforce.

For the action plan to help deliver this, ministers will have to be driven by three key principles.

First, that the core purpose of schooling is to provide a first-rate education that ensures all children, regardless of background, can enter adulthood with the knowledge and skills they need to participate fully in Australian society and make choices about their own future.

This is not what Australian schooling currently provides. About four in 10 teenagers fall short of Australia’s national proficient standard of reading, maths, and science, the OECD’s PISA results show. Worse, student performance has been largely stagnant or declining for at least a decade. In maths, the latest PISA results show our 15-year-olds are more than a year behind where their 2003 counterparts were.

Meanwhile, NAPLAN data shows the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students more than doubles between Year 3 and Year 9, when students whose parents did not finish school are four years behind in maths and more than five years behind in reading, compared with classmates who have university-educated parents.

Turning this around will be hard. It will only happen if education ministers are prepared to upset various interest groups, and hold themselves, their departments, schools, and teachers to account, where necessary.

Second, that an expert – and evidence-based – teaching profession, equipped with the right tools of the trade, is essential to the delivery of excellent and equitable education.

Australia has not done enough to build a pipeline of school-based, subject-specific, expert teachers who can be appointed to senior roles within a new master teacher career track, with higher salaries to match much greater responsibility for developing the classroom practice of other teachers.

Getting this right would improve the quality of teaching and signal that teaching is a genuine profession that builds, rewards and uses expertise deliberately, and offers the intellectual challenge that high-achieving young people desire.

Similarly, much more work is needed to guarantee all teachers have the tools they need to work effectively in the classroom. Recent Grattan Institute research shows two-thirds of the profession regularly visit social media sites such as YouTube, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers, searching for materials to use in class.

Governments have radically underestimated the complexity of translating the Australian curriculum – and state-level variants – into high-quality classroom materials, and failed to emphasise the importance of using such materials within a coherent, whole-school approach to curriculum planning. These twin failures have exacerbated workload pressures on teachers and reduced the quality and consistency of student learning.

Turning this around will require improving access to, and the take up of high-quality comprehensive curriculum materials, underpinned by an independent quality assurance process, along with much greater levels of curriculum-specific professional development.

Third, that delivering on society’s broader expectations for schools, including building resilient, healthy, confident, and capable young people, requires a wider schools’ workforce, including teachers, teaching assistants, allied health professionals, and social workers, along with operational staff.

Ensuring schools have the workforce needed to meet these broader expectations is essential, not only to help students but to ease workload pressures on teachers, who are frequently expected to deliver priorities as disparate as mindfulness training and swimming programs, to obesity-prevention education and cyber-security awareness.

With the glaring exception of Australia’s lacklustre student learning results, Mr Clare’s draft action plan touches on these issues. But Australia won’t meet the complex challenges confronting the teacher workforce if the action plan becomes simply a checklist, rather than a genuine commitment to reform.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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