Speech to Australian Principals Federation AGM

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much Rob, for that introduction, your kind introduction, following on from Julie’s kind introduction and impassioned words. It’s wonderful to be with you tonight. It’s always wonderful to be introduced as a former director of the Winemakers’ Federation when you’re at a dinner like this. The point that I need to always point out there is that my job when I worked at the Winemakers’ Federation was representing winemakers across the country and I learnt far more sadly about wine taxing than I did winemaking during my time working for the Winemakers’ and the scariest part of the job was board meetings, that would be a board table surrounded by winemakers and then you’d have dinner afterwards and somebody would flick the wine list across the table and say you choose the next bottle Simon. As I’d look around the table full of winemakers who were my board and think does my next performance bonus or pay negotiations depend on the bottle of wine I choose at this very moment?! But nonetheless I segue there, of course as a South Australian a key industry which is what partly led me into Parliament.

Now I begin by acknowledging the Kulin nation, all the traditional peoples of not just the Kulin nation of Australia and as I often do as Australia’s Education Minister acknowledge that we continue to learn as a nation much more about, from and fuelled upon the knowledge of our traditional owners. 

Can I acknowledge my state counterpart James Merlino, Minister for Education, Deputy Premier and Minister for just about everything else, as we heard before, and James nice to see you again and thank you for the cooperative way in which we’ve worked across a few issues both in my current role and when I was Assistant Minister on a couple of matters. To your international guests, Bill, look forward to hearing from you later, other guests speaking through your conference and AGMm, ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here. 

You’ve asked specifically for me to talk about the role of education in the future prosperity of Australia – and I’ll do that and I’ll touch a little bit about the role of principals and perhaps in response to Julie I’ll segue a little at some stage to touch on funding as well.

Of course in one sense the role of education in our future prosperity is a given because we want to ensure our future prosperity, we naturally want to remain competitive internationally and thus the Australian Government is committed to ensuring, as indeed all governments aspire to, whatever political persuasion, whatever level of government aspire to ensuring that students have access to a high quality school education. 

Our work as a federal government who don’t run any schools, employ any principals or teachers, is to work collaboratively with states, territories and non-government authorities to improve student outcomes and transitions, to and from school through parent engagement, teaching quality, learning environments, affective curriculum. Perhaps a key question is what exactly does that contribute to the nation’s prosperity? Well, there’s one blunt answer in relation to education and that is that our future economic prosperity rests evermore so on the shoulders of hotel owners, bankers, IT consultants, teachers, principals, university administrators and lecturers. That’s certainly the view of many economists who point out the growth in the export of services such as tourism and education, is helping to compensate for the steep drop in investment in the resources sector. They argue that part of Australia’s great rebalancing act following the end of the mining boom is a shift towards growth driven by service exports and Australia’s education exports generated some $20.1 billion over the last 12 months up from $17.6 billion in the previous year. Economists are predicting this will continue. The growth of export services has been particularly in the categories of tourism, business services and education.

Now that’s one reason to keep a focus on lifting education performance in Australia. But important though this is and increasingly important though it has become, the support for Australian students to be their best, achieve their best, have the best of opportunities, is of course our prime motivation in education. Although the Federal Government doesn’t run schools and necessarily has to focus on matters such as funding formula and broad national issues, we cannot do that in a way that is ignorant of what is happening in the classroom. Hence our efforts as a Government to work to improve teacher quality, particularly initial teacher education quality, through the TEMAG reforms, our interest in rigorous and up to date national curriculum, our support for the important role of school leadership and of course therefore of principals. 

The role of the school principal is vital – I don’t need to tell you that, but I’m certainly reminded of studies such as that from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education which showed that effective leadership is second only to quality teaching in contributing to what students learn at school. Evidence from the 2013 report called School Leaders Matter shows that a highly effective principal raises achievement of a typical student by between two and seven months of learning in a given school year. But like most leadership jobs it’s not an easy one. When the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, looked into principal preparation for the Government, they noted that the role of the principal was complex and evolving. Principals often have big entities to manage, school finances to balance, they’re looking after and nurturing students from a range of ages and backgrounds and from a range of different family circumstances that can make life incredibly challenging for some of those students. They’re looking after big teams, full of staff, like any staff each come with their own style, quirks, preferences and challenges again. And through all of that you’re expected to offer pedagogical leadership, direction that actually ensures what happens in the classroom is enhancing the opportunities for the students.

I’ve heard from educators, and indeed we heard again in the introductory remarks, who say the job has become so challenging and in some cases that’s the reason why aspiring principals are thin on the ground. Concerns about this are backed up by some of the workforce data that’s available. Just a couple of years ago the staff in Australia’s Schools Report from the Australian Council for Educational Research, found that one-third of school leaders see principal and deputy principal jobs as unattractive or very unattractive. That’s pretty concerning. 


I’m getting different adjectives put around the room now I think! On a scale of one to 10 between where one is unattractive and 10 is very unattractive now that’s [inaudible].


But despite the difficulties and despite these concerns the vast majority of principals, the people who do make the decision to go through, equally report that you would do it all again because they relish the emotional reward, the non-tangible rewards they receive as a result of leading Australian schools and seeing the difference they can make to others in the profession, the teachers and of course, to students. Australia, our students’, young people in the country’s future, need more school leaders. I want to assure you that I strongly believe that autonomy and power of leadership is vital for our principals, is a foundation upon which expert, professional practice rests. Without strong levels of autonomy how can a principal truly bring their expertise to bare or do what is best for their schools. Australian and international research in the 2012 OECD analysis of PISA results, for example, does show that autonomous leadership increases school outcomes, student outcomes, where it is employed in combination with appropriate levels of accountability.

My predecessor Christopher Pyne sought to open the door to greater school autonomy via our Independent Public Schools initiative which has supported changes in capacity building in 3600 schools so far. And I note that in a gathering largely of Victorians and Western Australians that you are two jurisdictions, one in Victoria who has historically sat ahead of many others in granting principals greater levels of school autonomy, and the other in WA who has made significant strides in recent years to establish more autonomous frameworks, coupled with accountability mechanisms, coupled with capacity building to make sure that autonomy has the right structures and capacity and disciplines around it. 

Certainly research says that principals yearn for more say over how their schools are run. Research commissioned by my department called ‘What Principals Say’ found that even though around half of Australian principals have more autonomy than they did five years ago, around 58 per cent wanted more still. Two in three principals have confidence in more autonomous leadership as one strategy for helping to achieve better student outcomes. That confidence appears to be driven by principals having the power to determine which staff to hire, how to adapt the curriculum to their student populations and their ability to determine how fundraising is used to support the school community. It paints a picture of local people being able to make local decisions for their local school. However, in the same survey principals reported that autonomy creates its own challenges. They raised concerns about the increased workloads and compliance requirements they face as a result. 

School leavers responding to last year’s Principal Wellbeing Survey reported that their greatest source of stress is the sheer quantity of work, closely followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, the very things of course we want you to spend the most time focusing on. Disturbingly, they also reported facing violence in the workplace at seven to eight times the rate experienced by the general population. So not only do principals play an incredibly important role in the lives of our children, you do so under pressures that might make others [inaudible] and for that I sincerely thank you.

The Turnbull Government knows that school systems must support principals and our mission is to keep working with school authorities everywhere and AITSL to find better ways to recognise and support your efforts. 

As you know the framework began to fall into place with the development of the Australian Professional Standard for principals in 2011. Those standards reflect the breadth and depth of the principal’s task. Since then educators, employers and regulators have used the principal standard in the subsequent leadership profiles as a guide for professional learning, self reflection and self improvement. As I’m sure you would have seen or heard in our Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes schools reform document released at the time of this year’s federal budget, we indicated that the Federal Government believes it’s time to take the next step and create a national process of principal certification for new principals, based on the skills required to meet the principal standard, to fully recognise the complexity and value of school leadership. A national certification process can provide a clear and [inaudible] pathway for aspiring leaders to follow as they seek to demonstrate that they are ready to meet the principal challenge.

We will set a clear quality benchmark to meet before being appointed to a principal position and set evidence of achievement that can be assessed by expert educators and educational leaders to ensure impartiality and quality. This can ensure that all new school principals are better equipped to stand in the role, to start in the role and better able to maximise their impact at an early stage. States and territories would also be able to establish proper incentives to encourage those aspiring to seek such recognition and of course further incentives to attract and retain qualified school leaders, especially in our most disadvantaged areas.

Sometimes policymakers can forget that schools consist of real people: principals, teachers, aides, administrators and of course students and their parents or guardians, all making their own particular contribution to the school community and Australia’s education system. There can be no real improvement in the quality of our education system, regardless of how much money is provided unless we also focus our attention on the evidence-based measures that will work and work in a classroom. 

To do this, I know we must have open dialogue with school leavers like you and teachers, not just with governments, systems or sectors. We need to know what is doable and achievable in the classroom and to gain support for actions that will make an impact. I’ve promised to try to be a consultative minister and I hope that you have seen that. Over the last month, we’ve been having a conversation about Australia’s school system. Measures we need to put in place to lift student achievement and indeed future funding arrangements. Future funding arrangements that we want to ensure are fair, transparent and informed by [inaudible] and I have been clear that everything is on the table and up for dialogue.

I’m pleased to hear there is some cautious optimism. There are some things that I need to make sure are well understood so that optimism doesn’t run too far out of control.


The first is to say that the Federal Budget is the Federal Budget. Our federal funding will grow from $16 billion of federal funding this year to around $20.1 billion of federal funding for Australian schools in 2020 and it will keep growing thereafter. One of the things that surprised and concerned me in my early days as minister was that even some of the most knowledgeable individuals in Australian schools were worried that the end of the Gonski deal, not doing years five or six, however people want to word it, might see funding go back to where it was before it all started. That’s not true, each year of additional funding has become the new baseline upon which the next year grows and that will be the case right into the future, every year more growth. I’ve been quite honest, Malcolm Turnbull and I were quite honest in the last election; it’s not growth at the level the Labor Party promised, that’s not changing, but it is real growth, growth above enrolment and above inflation into the future.

We also – because I don’t want comments about non-government schools versus government schools to be misinterpreted, we continue to believe that every Australian student deserves support. It doesn’t matter what school a family chooses to send their child to, every student deserves some level of taxpayer support for their education. But the methodology outlined in the Gonski report of a discounting by the capacity to contribute of parent bodies in the non-government sector is not a bad methodology upon which to base equity in considering this scale of contribution for non-government schools relative to government schools and that sees discounts of up to 80 per cent applied so that a student in the wealthiest of non-government schools would receive only 20 per cent of the funding of a student in a comparable – a comparable non-government school and that’s before of course you then note the fact that they’re probably unlikely to be comparable in the demographic composition and would therefore be receiving even further support in other locums. 

So there is a principle there: everybody gets support but absolutely it should reflect degrees of need. Now, in terms of moving forward, what I’ve been at pains to point out over the last few weeks in particular is that the mythology that surrounds some of the so-called Gonski arrangements is just that – a mythology. It does have a lot of different fields built into it; 27 different fields across the country that mean that an identical government school in Victoria or New South Wales receives significantly more funding from the Federal Government to that same school in Western Australia and the same differences apply across the Catholic sector and the independent sector. That you can look at identical demographic schools and we’ve built a system that rewards them differently, and somehow thinks that over time it’s going to be sustainable for the Federal Government to pay more into jurisdictions where some states pay less for their schools and less into jurisdictions where some states contribute more to their schools. That’s not going to be a long term sustainable arrangement, because the states getting less will of course eventually revolve around such arrangements. 

The approach I’ve sought to outline is that I believe people expect the Federal Government should absolutely distribute the funding we have according to need. They should do so equitably across the nation. The states and the territories then have to be held to account for their end of the bargain. The money we’re providing to government schools already is a greater share of federal funding for government schools, than has ever been the case in Australia’s history. And it is still forecast to keep growing as a share over the next few years. But that is not an excuse to say the states are let off the hook, for keeping up their end of the bargain. So we want to make sure we have a model that takes record growing funding, distributes it according to need, does so equitably across the country and hopefully is also tied and linked to helping deliver reforms that can help to improve classroom operations.

We do, as I say, have to live within our means. But I am determined to try to make sure that in living within our means, we also get the fairest, simplest arrangements possible, and arrangements that allow us to then go forward with confidence and certainty about the Federal Government’s approach and hopefully in using fair, needs-based distribution models also ensure that there is then pressure upon the states and territories to do likewise for their share of the bargain. 

As part of the discussion about broader changes in reform across education, we will shortly launch the first Australian Principal’s Survey which will be open to all Australian principals. This is intended to enable my department to reach out to all principals and I want to extend an invitation for all to share your views about a raft of different important issues in education. As I said, the importance of schools and leadership in the roll out of initiatives is critical; essential for their success. And principals have a clear line of sight, of how government initiatives affect students, how they support and uplift or how they might present challenges. I want and need your feedback, your data information about student practice, to help inform our policy settings, our discussions and negotiations with the states and territories about what we expect to see in return for funding. We need to know what literacy and numeracy instruction tools are the best to support student’s learning. We need to know what principal’s think work best to assist aspiring leaders to achieve their goal of becoming the principal of the school. The survey has been developed in consultation with many of the different principal and school leadership bodies around the country. And it allows us to ask you a range of questions like how many chronically ill students are being supported in our schools? What has it meant to schools who have received NDIS services already in terms of the change of approach? Are graduate teachers entering schools ready to teach? What helps and hinders principals to get the right people with the right skills teaching in your schools? 

We’re asking principals to spare 20 minutes of your time before the end of October to answer these questions in a survey that will go live shortly and to join in the conversation about how we can work together. And while this may take some of your time, I equally want to assure you, that I hear you every time almost as I walk into a school your concerns about the red tape, bureaucracy and administrative burdens you face. It goes right back to the comments at the start of the speech about of course, the burdens and pressures that are upon you. 

I am eager to also hear how you think the states and territories and federal Government can best streamline the burdens of paperwork you face, without the loss of quality data, or critical information. It is something that I hope we can work cooperatively with James and the other state and territory ministers to try to find streamlined pathways for your report. 

Survey responses will complement other important feedback mechanisms, such as the wellbeing survey, to help build a rich understanding of principal’s experiences as we work forward. 

Finally, can I thank you all once again for your work, all of the APFmembers and all principals across Australia for the resilience, strength of character and determination you bring. Our children rely on you; you know that far better than anybody else. As Federal Minister for Education, I derive genuine satisfaction from attending events such as this one, hearing your views but perhaps not quite as much satisfaction as I do when I have the opportunity to visit your schools and genuinely see on the ground, the difference you are making. We want to work with you, we want to make sure that we get the best possible return for investment in education, because we know that that can make your lives easier, your experiences richer, because of the rewards of seeing more students do better in the future, at what we all hope to achieve.  

Thanks so very much, and I look forward to taking a couple of your questions.