Speech to Parent Engagement Conference, Melbourne

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much Steve for that warm welcome, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the chance to be with you. What a wonderful video with which to start the day and don’t we all aspire to be called the “Ace Master” as one of the young lads in that video described. As parents, as teachers, as educators I think there’s no greater ambition than, in a sense, that strong and positive endorsement that you provided. Such motivation to a young person and I pay tribute to Steve Moneghetti and the Australian Sports Commission for their engagement and participation in this conference and commitment to lifting and enhancing sports participation, but their recognition of sports participation is just one vehicle in which we can help to ensure Australia’s children be their best, achieve their best and fulfil their potential.

Can I too acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly as Minister for Education and Training I acknowledge that we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture and heritage from Indigenous culture and heritage together as a nation, to build upon that culture and heritage. I particularly acknowledge ARACY and The Smith Family, the conference hosts here, who do, both of them, exceptional work; ARACY in establishing their engagement network and really building the profile of parent engagement through events such as this; The Smith Family, with their contribution in so many ways – the Prime Minister and I were proud, just a couple of months ago, to acknowledge, to support with enhanced government funding through the Learning for Life Program. The various peak parental bodies who are here today, the Australian Parents Council, the Australian Council of State School Organisations – organisations who are partnering with government support to refresh the Family Schools Partnership Framework, and to develop materials to support learning at home, educators and parents. Other organisations such as Catholic School Parents Association for undertaking research into effective parent engagement practices in primary and secondary schools around Australia. Those who helped some of you to be here today such as Goodstart and the Ian Potter Foundation – I thank you for enhancing the accessibility of this conference to people who may not have otherwise been able to be here.

And particularly can I warmly welcome and acknowledge the many researchers who are participating in these proceedings. We’re sharing their learnings and knowledge with all of you. The likes of Dr Heather Weiss who created the Family Involvement Network of Educators; Jenni Brasington, the founding partner of the Center for Active Family Engagement; Karen Mapp who developed the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships; Dr Debbie Pushor whose own research into parental engagement and leadership is leading; Bill Lucas looking at how the schools can enable parent engagement, and Dr Kristy Goodwin, your conference dinner speaker tonight, researching parenting in the digital age. This wide range of organisations and researchers undertaking such targeted work into different features of parental engagement is testament to the importance of parental engagement.

I stand here today not only as the Federal Minister for Education and Training, and a representative of the Australian Government, but, like so many of you, as a parent – in my case, a parent of two young girls aged four and six, and also as a son, a grandson, a nephew, a neighbour and a former student. We all bring with us a legacy of influence from our family networks, the impact of the so-called ‘village’ that helps to raise and sustain us. Their example, the example of others, their encouragement and interest impressed upon me the value of education and gave me the motivation to make an effort and to seek challenging tasks. It is the example and encouragement of others that provides the resilience to persist, even when the learning is hard, the exams seem daunting or the hurdles of life present disruption or failure.

Part of the village is what gets most of us through, particularly the tough times. We know that many children, many students, don’t fulfil their full potential. And from what many principals and teachers tell me, it seems in parts of our society some of these challenges are getting worse. In too many cases, educators are expected to fill the gap of parental disengagement or disinterest. If this conference is going to have a lasting impact, and if we’re going to move from gesture politics to real policy action, then we need to keep the focus on what works, and indeed on what doesn’t. We need to identify the barriers, consider how these can be overcome, and appreciate both the capacity and limits of government action in this area, and of course the importance of collective societal action in parental engagement.

Society must acknowledge that parental and family factors are not just some add-on to student success, but are at the core and centre of it. We’ve known this for a long time; we can track research back to the 1966 US Coleman Report highlighting the importance of the home environment in affecting education outcomes. The 1989 review of NSW schools, chaired by Sir John Carrick, himself a former federal education minister, got it right when it concluded and I quote: “The key to education is motivation at the parent’s knee… The parent is the primary teacher … Schools help parents to educate their children.” The NSW Education Act subsequently reflected this philosophy, and clearly stated that “the education of a child is primarily the responsibility of the child’s parents.” It’s a principle that has been included in other state education acts. Through their parents, grandparents or carers, children can learn to value education; be motivated and engaged in learning; to be interested in books and reading; and to develop the social and behavioural skills they’ll need later in life to flourish both inside and outside the classroom.  

We know that parents have the greatest impact on a child’s learning. We know that children have the best chance of success when their parents hold high but reasonable and realistic expectations of them, and when they provide a home environment that encourages and supports learning. We should not be surprised in this because, after all, approximately 86 per cent of a child’s life and time is spent outside of school, mainly at home. More recent research by Professor John Hattie has assigned over 50 per cent of the responsibility for a student’s achievement to outside school factors, including students’ own abilities, personalities, as well as parental examples, behaviours, expectations and encouragement. Some have misinterpreted this research to suggest that somehow schools, teacher quality and government education and funding policies are less important. They’re wrong. Schools, preschools and early learning environments are a critical part of teaching and learning, and can also play a critical role in helping parents to play a more effective role in their child’s learning. Good teaching is important, critical, for students, and to help families to educate their children. Sometimes great teaching can even repair or overcome some of the damage done by a home environment of neglect or dysfunction. Schools can of course play a big role in fostering appropriate behaviours in the classroom between students themselves, and with teachers by creating an environment of learning, high expectations, wellbeing and resilience.

However, the odds of student success are at their greatest, at their best, when home and school work hand in glove. The evidence shows that, ideally, schools and families work together as part of a continuum of learning. Schools can build on the foundations already learned at home.  Children do better when relationships are developed, and maintained, between home and school, and when the messages children receive are consistent, clear and motivated.

Changing social trends, many of which were identified by reports such as the 1985 Karmel Report, and some of which have accelerated since, affected levels of parental responsibility or the extent of engagement with children in schools. These challenges include: the growth in single parent families; the time pressures in dual income households; entrenched pockets of intergenerational welfare dependency; areas of drug or alcohol addiction, and struggles with mental health problems. Then there are, of course, modern day mixed blessings of technology in the digital age which create so many new opportunities, but equally present so many new challenges, especially for parents and educators. I’m sure that for many Australians the recent research by Murdoch and Griffith universities on the detrimental effect of our children’s mobile phone use is having on sleep, mental health and general wellbeing resonated strongly with people. Workforce changes, the style of friends, different family constructs and technology have also changed the way engagement occurs. There is simply less time spent nowadays engaging in community clubs and events, and more time spent connecting by various social media platforms.

These trends have variously put new strains on schools and teachers and on parents, as they are at times all expected to fill the gap or to teach around new distractions or intrusions. Schools can make a difference, but their influence has limits in the face of different social, cultural and individual factors. All of which, again, highlights the importance of helping parents, whatever their circumstances, to give their children the best start in life. 

With so many outside the school-gate factors driving student performance, what is the role of government and government policy? Obviously, once children arrive in an environment of early learning, preschool or school, all governments have a responsibility to ensure that in education terms, our systems are as good as they possibly can be. 

There must be high quality educators and teachers working in schools with strong professional leadership and well equipped classrooms teaching a relevant, robust curriculum that, wherever possible, involves, engages and supports parents in their children’s education. Of course, as the Federal Government neither runs schools nor employs teachers, so many of these matters are in the hands of states – different school systems in individual schools. But as the national Government – and the single largest contributor to school funding – we do have a key role to play. 

In addition to many reforms we have led over recent years in areas such as Initial Teacher Education and the national curriculum, we have, through our Quality Schools package announced in last month’s Budget, provided for regular levels of school funding and a model for enduring funding certainty that provides a strong basis for a quality education system. While supporting continued parental choice, we are equally committed to treating all schools and therefore, all parents, children and families, in government and non-government sectors consistently; fairly. Our new needs-based school funding model is a transparent and fair approach. And further, our funding seeks to ensure that it is time to further school reforms to boost student results. We will be asking states and territories for greater transparency on spending and outcomes for the benefit of parents, taxpayers, but most importantly, children and students.

All of these initiatives mean that parents will have a clearer and more transparent view of what’s happening in their children’s school, so they can amplify the learning in everyday situations and in conversations at home. That’s why we’re delighted that David Gonski has agreed to do a further report, making particular recommendations on the most effective teaching and learning strategies to reverse declining results, and to raise the performance of all schools and all students of all capabilities across Australia. I strongly encourage you – particularly the parent bodies – to participate in this process. We want to hear those views. 

It’d be remiss of me not to quickly mention the Learning Potential App, which our Government launched in 2015. A tool to try to help busy parents with practical assistance on how to engage their children, featuring easy to read articles grouped by theme and by age, it’s a resource that I know that I’ve used in my household with my daughters. Covering topics such as the Top tips for years 4-6 starting ‘big school’, or School refusal – what it is and how you can help, or Learning and the teen brain, or of course, at the age range of my girls, the basics of numeracy and literacy and how we integrate that into cooking or gardening or those things that you undertake around the house. The Learning Potential App has been recognised internationally, having won the Education Category for the Best Mobile Government Award, and of course, the stall is here for all to be able to discuss that resource. 

We’re also making it easier for parents to get more involved in their preschool aged child’s learning of languages – languages other than English. And there’s no need for busy parents to have to brush up on their rusty high school French or Italian to do so. The Early Learning Languages Program, or ELLA, allows children to learn the sounds of language concepts of Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian, Spanish, Italian, Arabic or French. Making the best use of technology is a positive way of providing new resources into preschool settings that actually help children develop these new capabilities.

Teachers, schools, childhood educators cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting in education. Ultimately, parents have a very big responsibility. No matter how busy we all are, how ill-prepared we sometimes feel for the task of parenting, there is of course, no greater responsibility. That’s why all of us engaged in education must ensure the best support is available for families, that they know that it is out there and how to use it. So many of the organisations participating in this event provide that helping hand to those families who need it most. And it’s through those types of measures that we can ensure that we have more engaged parents. That although becoming a parent doesn’t see you pick up a box that gives you the exact guide, although every circumstance is different, every child is different, every family’s construct is different, and all of them come, therefore, with different challenges, the opportunity is there for us, based on good research, good sound practice and practical measures to help schools, to help early educators, to help other health and welfare practitioners to all then collectively help families to achieve their best.

I applaud all of you for engaging in one of the most important discussions in education – parental engagement – where the greatest gains can be made, often at the least cost. And I really look forward to hearing some of the outcomes of your deliberations and hopefully I’ll have time for one or two quick questions today.

Thanks very much.