Speech at ACEL 2016 Conference
28 September 2016

Well, thank you ladies and gentlemen for that welcome and thank you for the introduction and perhaps most importantly, thank you very much to the conference organisers for facilitating the changing time in schedule for me to be able to be here to speak with you all in person, I was very keen to be able to do so and when I couldn’t be here in Melbourne this morning was very disappointed at the prospect that I may not be able to do so. So a very warm and hearty thank you because it’s no mean feat I know to organise a conference program for this many people, let alone to do so and have to reorganise it in the last day or two.

Can I acknowledge the traditional owners here in Melbourne, the Kulin Nation and as I often say as Australia’s Education Minister, acknowledge that we continue to learn so much from and of the knowledge of Australia’s traditional owners and to build upon it as a nation. And can I thank all of you for taking the time to be here today to participate in this important conference which I know many of you are doing during your time off and your time in that regard.

People often say they remember a teacher or teachers who changed their life and while there are no doubt a few I could name, the first in my life – the first teacher in my life, was unquestionably the most important. My nan, who had one of those fabulous names from her era, Madge, nan was a teacher and I had the great fortune when I was a little boy of living with my nan from age two to eight and I therefore had the benefit of living with a teacher from age two to eight and she was a primary school teacher and she of course, was the one who taught me how to read and established the foundations of my successful education and life from thereon in. But not just in terms of the educational foundations that nan provided, it was also, as I look back now as education minister, a reality that she also taught me much about the role and the value of teachers and educators in the local community. Because visits to the supermarket with nan were never a quick affair. We’d go along and of course, I’d discover in the local supermarket, though she’d been retired for a couple of years prior to me being born, we’d forever be stopped by former students or their parents or others who would all come up to say ‘thank you’. 

They’d come up to Mrs Herde to thank her and tell her what they were doing with their life. And so can I, to a room full of some of the nation’s great educators and educational leaders, say thank you. Thank you on behalf of the federal government but on behalf of people more generally for the amazing things that you do to make a difference to lives of young people right around Australia.

It is conferences like this — and people like you — that give me, as Minister, some of the thoughtful guidance and analysis of our policies and their potential impacts. This conference, in particular, also gives me great faith that the leadership of our education system is in good, thoughtful hands, preparing itself best for the future. Because your conference theme with its focus on leadership in schools, in classrooms and more widely in education is absolutely essential. 

It is important because we need to remind ourselves of the importance  of not spending all of our time debating, albeit important, matters of funding. Not having blame games between state or federal governments, or wars between different school sectors but we need to make sure we focus on the quality of education in Australia and that quality should be the focus of so much more of our public debate than it sometimes is. But I’m pleased as educators, that it’s at the forefront of your debate. 

We owe it to Australian students, current and future, to have mature conversations about these things. 

Today I want to connect the idea of leadership, and the conference themes of insight and innovation, with what happens in the classroom and the Turnbull Government’s reform priorities. But I will return to funding, not to disappoint you. 

You may well ask what has school leadership and what happens in the classroom got to with the federal government?

As you know, the Commonwealth does not run any schools, register any schools or employ any teachers. Schooling is clearly the prime responsibility of the states and territories. 

But as a federal minister and as a federal government we have a big stake in the outcomes of schooling. Because strong schooling, high student outcomes and effective post-school transitions are fundamental to Australia’s productivity, to our economy and to our society, to the equity of our society, to the lives that Australians will lead today and into the future. That’s why the Turnbull Government will not retreat from its direct interest in schools, our growing interest in schools as a growing and more significant funding partner, and for ensuring student outcomes are lifted by reforms to lift our international performance.

The Commonwealth plays a crucial role to identify gaps in the Australian school education system, to facilitate co-ordination, to promote change and most importantly perhaps to ensure there is independent, robust national assessment and data to evaluate performance and pinpoint areas that would benefit from national initiatives. 

That means really engaging with school leaders and teachers because you are the ones delivering in the classrooms. There can be no improvement in education without the ongoing support of the whole teaching profession. 

And I am very determined to make sure we pay attention to the ideas of the profession and adopt the approaches with the profession that the evidence and data demonstrate can deliver improving outcomes.

This, of course, relies upon us knowing what reliable evidence is and determining how we best use it. Often, not so much by teachers or people working in the profession but sometimes by those selling curriculum products or others into schools, I’m presented with requests for funding or stories about new initiatives that people tell me are ‘revolutionary’. But frequently lack the sort of robust evidence behind them to justify their expansion or funding support. Sometimes the discussions remind me a little bit of that much-loved Australian film The Castle where Daryl Kerrigan and his lawyer Dennis Denuto front up to court and, you know, the advocates will ultimately tell the judge that, “it’s the vibe”. Well in education, while I can applaud the passion of people selling the vibe, it’s the hard evidence that we need to be making decisions on into the future. 

Research and data should underpin education policy and inform improvements, as it should in other areas of public policy. I’d like to think that the bedrock for much of our decision-making is the evidence about what improves student outcomes based on the data we collect.

However, we know as emphasised by the recent Productivity Commission report that there gaps in our existing research and data collections. The largest gap of all is the evaluation of programs and teaching practices to clearly identify what works best, for whom and in what circumstances. 

We need a better evidence base, as the Productivity Commission identified, and we need to make better use of data. We need to improve the national availability and sharing of data, encourage greater information sharing arrangements. And while we need to collect data, and improve the quality of it, that, of course, is not an end in itself. 

It must ultimately inform optimal curriculum and teaching practices and be applied in the classroom to make a real difference.

It seems to me that there are three issues concerning evidence in the education domain which governments, academics and the profession must confront.

First, there has to be quality evidence – not subjective assessment or descriptive or qualitative studies, or those pushing a narrow ideological barrow – of which there are no shortages of some of those – but quality evidence which is rigorous and scientific. 

We look in other fields of policy, particularly in health policy and often there is far less debate or dispute about what works compared with what happens in education. So how we confirm what the data demonstrates to us and then how we use that to then influence our decisions, is critical. 

Once research and evidence has been developed of sufficient quality, it must be widely circulated, made understandable to everyone from the Minister to senior public servants, through school leaders and most importantly, to teachers. Teachers who have time pressures, large workloads and need to make sure where there is change to their practice that people believe is evidence-based and should be deployed, it is easily accessible for them and easily adaptable and understandable. 

Then third, where we know it works, it has to be adopted with an unwavering focus placed on effective implementation. 

There are too many examples that occur here and overseas of resistance to what the evidence says should be done, or poor implementation because not enough time was given to training or assistance to make sure people understood what was being asked of them. When reforms are adopted we must work with and support our teachers so they are in a position to deliver this reform.

The Productivity Commission’s work is an important piece of work and I hope that it will help to ensure, together with state and territory ministers, we can build a better, collaborative process in the future. Not just the collection of data for data’s sake, but for the analysis of it and the dissemination of real evidence-based outcomes to improve teaching in the future. 

Effective, informed and knowledgeable school leadership is, of course, critical to support teachers to transform their practice based on emerging evidence, and to pursue continual improvement in the school environment.

We know that effective leadership is second only to quality teaching in contributing to what students learn at school and I appreciate that effective school leadership is no easy job, just like effective leadership in any setting. 

Changes in levels of autonomy, responsibilities and technology are just some of the emerging issues facing our school leaders. 

To embrace these changes, principals need the freedom to bring their expertise to bear; and they need effective preparation for the big role ahead of them. 

The Turnbull Government knows that school leaders and their communities are usually the ones best-placed to know and understand the needs of their individual schools, and to make informed decisions about how to operate their schools effectively. But more can be done to ensure that our principals are being adequately prepared for and supported in their vital roles.

An important piece of the framework fell into place with the development of the Australian Professional Standard for Principals in 2011. Since then educators, employers and regulators have used the Principal Standard as a guide for professional learning, self-reflection and self-improvement. 

The Turnbull Government believes that it is time to take the next step, and to properly create a national process of principal certification for new principals, based on the Principal Standard, to fully recognise the complexity and the value of school leadership. 

A national certification process will provide a clear and tangible pathway for aspiring leaders to follow as they develop their skills and knowledge as instructional leaders. It will set a clear quality benchmark to meet before being appointed to a principal position and this will ensure that all new school principals are appropriately equipped for the role and able to maximise their impact.

Looking more broadly at the team that makes up a school, we can see how important teaching standards are because they contribute to the strong foundation we have in our Australian education system. We have led the way internationally with the development and implementation of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. These Standards provide a core agreement about what we expect teachers to know and do as they progress through their career. The Standards should ideally underpin classroom practice, guide professional learning and support the recognition of high achievers in the field. There are now, I’m pleased to say, 307 nationally certified Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers across Australia. We want to see more of them and we want all jurisdictions to commit to offering certification to their teachers.  

In addition, we want to see changes to state and territory industrial relations agreements so that teacher pay and progression across the nation are rewarded and linked to their progression through the Standards. And it can be done. For example, in January this year NSW introduced Standards-based teacher pay which means that all NSW government school teachers are now paid according to their achievement against the graduate, proficient and highly accomplished levels of the Standards.

These are important steps in rewarding expert practice and raising the status of the teaching profession across Australia that build on the effort of teachers to ensure they enhance their capabilities to get the best results in Australia’s classrooms. It builds on the work we’ve done to ensure new graduating teachers have minimum levels of literacy and numeracy and that primary teachers complete a subject specialisation. The Standards have been in place for some time. The challenge now is to embed these expectations more firmly, and to see them used more explicitly to help guide teaching practice. Teachers – how they teach and what they teach matters more than anything else in education and importantly the use of the standards and rewarding against them provides a great opportunity to ensure we are incentivising the best and rewarding the best of our teachers and keeping them in the profession for longer. Our calls for this and our policy around this has been misinterpreted in some places as being a push for ‘performance pay’. It’s not performance pay, it’s reward for those who’ve demonstrated their competency, have gone above and beyond in seeking to take on leadership and roles and demonstrated to their peers, the likes of all you in the audience, that they are ready to do so. 

You, the early childhood educators, the classroom teachers, the teacher aides, the principals or school leaders are the most important factors in student success. I stress this because in the current climate you could be forgiven for sometimes thinking otherwise. But funding is, I recognise, important to what you do and to your ability to do it. 

I’m pleased at this conference you’re spending your time largely focused on school leadership and how best to put it to use but I know that every single one of you would have a view on school funding, and I wanted to add a few thoughts on where we are and where we are going. 

I’m determined to deliver a simpler, fairer Commonwealth funding arrangement that will distribute according to need and ultimately be fairer and more transparent than any previous funding model. And which will also focus on the delivery of quality reforms that help our schools and our students. Now it seems over the last couple of weeks that we’ve ignited some public interest and debate in school funding again. What I have been seeking to do in the lead up to discussions with state and territory ministers and subsequent to them, is highlight some of the inequities that exist in the current system of 27 different federal funding models to make sure people appreciate that what they might have read or seen in the past about there being a single, national approach is actually not really what’s occurring.

Let me just pose a few examples to you and ask you to contemplate whether it’s fair or reasonable that in the current arrangement for federal funding, a Catholic school in Victoria can attract more than double the level of Commonwealth funding for a comparable Catholic systemic school in NSW or that an independent school in Canberra can receive around 49 per cent more funding than a comparable independent school in Sydney or that a government school on the Gold Coast can attract around 82 per cent more Commonwealth funding than a comparable government school in Perth. Right now, there are very significant differences in the amount of federal dollars that we give to schools of identical demographic composition across the government sector or within the independent sector or within the Catholic sector. We can see differences of more than $1,500 between the level of federal funding a student with a high level of disadvantage receives in one state compared to what the same student would attract in another. Since highlighting some of these discrepancies that exist from the different deals, I’ve heard some say, ‘yes but if we just let it run till 2019 it’ll all be fixed’. Well let me tell you that’s not the case. That $1,500 difference that can exist between federal funding for a student in a school of high disadvantage in the jurisdiction that gets the greatest funding from the federal government versus that which receives the least amount of funding actually grows if we let the model run out to more than $2,000 by 2019. So the problem does not fix itself under the current arrangements. My challenge is to make sure that within the budget we have available, which is a budget of federal funding that grows from $16 billion this year in 2016 to around $20.1 billion of federal funding by 2020, which is growth above inflation, above enrolments into this schooling sector, my challenge is to make sure that that funding is distributed as we committed it at the election – fairly and according to needs-based principles. That it is distributed equitably across the states and territories to iron these types of discrepancies and that we use it most effectively to drive and leverage reforms in our school system to help you, school leaders, to get the best possible outcomes in your school environment. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that school funding models continue to apply some of the important principles out of the Gonski report – additional support for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, for Indigenous students, students with disability, small rural and regional and remote schools. 

We are also absolutely committed to continuing to support parental choice in education, that every student in Australia should receive some level of government contribution and support towards their education regardless of the choice of school that their parents may make. But what I do want to make sure is that we step away from a system where as a federal government we are providing disparate levels of funding to government schools across the country of the same nature, demography or composition or to independent or Catholic or systemic schools across the country of similar nature or composition. Because to continue to do that is to betray, I think, the type of basic principles of fairness and equity, simplicity and transparency that people expect us to be pursuing. 

We also importantly need to make sure that funding is used in the most effective and efficient way possible. It is a reality that Australia’s school funding and spending and investment has been growing for several decades. It’s not a new or different thing in Australia to see increased investment in our schools. But our performance has not kept up with the type of growth in funding that we have seen. We’ve had many different attempts at reform, some with limited impact. There’ve been a few dry gullies or grand plans that have been developed often without reference to teachers, principals or schools. 

We also find ourselves now in a different economic environment to where we were just a few years ago — the growth in government revenues is nothing like it used to be. In fact, growth in government revenues struggles to keep up with inflation now. There’s an urgency to make sure that every dollar we have is not only distributed fairly and equitably, it is also used as effectively and efficiently on the type of evidence-based reforms that I was talking about earlier and in pursuit of evidence, as we discussed. 

I think Professor Brian Caldwell in his new book, The Autonomy Premium, one of the excellent keynote speakers at this conference summed up the situation well when he notes there and I quote: 

“We can’t keep doing the same things that have not worked well, even though we try harder and allocate more funds to support our efforts. An innovative nation calls for an innovative profession in innovative schools.”

I know that you as school leaders are up to this task and prove your discussions of school leadership are focused on innovations that are evidence-based that can deliver the best possible outcome for our record and growing levels of investment for our schools. 

As a federal government who may only be a partial funder of Australian schools, we are however a growing funder of Australian schools and have over a continued period of time been picking up a growing share of the cost. I am conscious though that if we are paying a greater amount and paying a greater share and making a greater investment, we should not just be an ATM that they states come knocking to. As our share increases, so too does our responsibility to make sure funding is invested effectively and efficiently. That’s why in addition to talking about how we can most effectively distribute funding we have through our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes statement put out some ideas about the way in which we think funding can be more effectively used to lift performance and to get the type of reforms to improve outcomes for Australian children. And what I look forward to getting over the coming months as we consider how we finalise future funding arrangements from 2018 in the first half of next year, is also feedback on how we can make sure that funding is utilised and directed to ensure within our schools we get the best possible reform to lift student outcomes. Because there can be no real improvement in the quality of our education system unless that funding that we’re providing, unless policymakers make decisions on how to support teachers and their use of it, start thinking from the classroom up and what goes on in those classrooms and to hear feedback from as broad a range of individuals as possible.

To make this change, governments need to make sure we have open dialogue with school leaders and teachers, not just systems and sectors and we need to find out what is do-able and achievable in the classroom and where we can free up time from administration, red tape or bureaucracy for principals, school leaders and teachers in asking them to focus on other or different or increasing responsibilities in different ways. 

School leaders and teachers equally have to make sure that they’re engaging constructively in the debates and appreciate some of the constraints that governments face in terms of competing demands and expectations from the public.  

Today I’ve sought to focus on, particularly in relation to school leadership and teacher skills, some of the areas the Turnbull Government believes in our policy we ought to pursue as a priority. I’ve also sought to at least hopefully give you some understanding of the principles that are driving some of the funding debate that we have there.

But I want to leave an open invitation to make sure that as federal minister that I hear your views and perspectives as school leaders, because if I think back to those days as a young boy and to my nan, I know that it is the teachers on the ground who have the greatest sense and touch of what is happening in their school community and of what works directly with the children in their classroom and that we need to be informed continually by their experiences and ensure that our systems reflect and share their experiences more broadly so that in the future you are all learning as you hope to do at a conference like this from each other’s best practice and experiences. 

I wish you well over the next couple of days as you continue participation and deliberations. Thank you once again for allowing to come and speak here and for accommodating the change in times and look forward to working with you well into the future. Thanks so very much.