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Senator Wright speaks on the tabling of teaching and learning report.

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 14 May 2013

I rise to speak on the tabling of this report of the Senate References Committee for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Teaching and learning—maximising our investment in Australian schools. I participated in this inquiry as the Australian Greens spokesperson for schools and education, and I would like to acknowledge the high quality of submissions received and the time given up by witnesses to the inquiry. I must acknowledge that there have been an inordinate number of inquiries into education and schools over the last three decades, but it is a matter of enduring importance and concern to the Australian community. Nevertheless, there is still always work to be done and consideration to be given to emerging issues.

I would like to thank those who took the time to contribute their knowledge, their experience, their wisdom and, indeed, their passion. One thing about the education area is that most people have an opinion and many people have passions about Australia doing the best it possibly can in this area. We heard from educators, primary and secondary teachers, some of whom were relatively recently admitted to the profession and others of whom were retired and looked back on a lifetime of experience. We heard from principals, teacher educators and other academics, non-government organisations and interested citizens. They all reflected the fact that education is so important to us as a society.

The recommendations of the report reflect the constitutional reality that states and territories are primarily responsible for education. But we also know that the Commonwealth government has become increasingly involved and has assumed an increasingly important role both in education policy development and in funding. There is certainly a role for Commonwealth leadership in collaboration with the states and territories.

It is a comprehensive report, so I will highlight just three themes which were of particular interest to me. But I encourage those who are interested to read the full report. The first theme of particular interest to me is covered in the chapter on Australia's performance, and it is the issue of testing—how we actually ascertain what Australia's performance is. There was a great deal of discussion about issues relating to what is currently quite a topical subject: NAPLAN testing, or the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy. This subject evoked strong views from witnesses and from people and organisations making submissions to the committee, both from those in favour of the current NAPLAN program and how it is being administered and from those against. Certainly many in the latter group, including many retired teachers and principals, expressed serious concerns, including that NAPLAN is causing more competition among students and among schools, to the detriment of some students and to the detriment of teaching and the curriculum. I suggest that people look at the submissions and the way the report has covered this subject, but I believe that there is sufficient evidence of ongoing disagreement in this area to suggest that it warrants further inquiry. We really need to look at the evidence for the efficacy of NAPLAN testing and whether it is achieving its objectives.

The second theme is the relevance of various factors in student performance and achievement, particularly the role of socioeconomic background in influencing educational outcomes in Australia. It is not the only important factor influencing outcomes for Australia students, but there is no denying that it is an important factor. This has been recognised by PISA. In their tests, they compare like countries in the OECD. Paragraph 3.42 of the report says:

PISA measures socioeconomic background by taking into account economic, social and cultural status. Across the three tests, the mean score for students from the highest socioeconomic quartile was much higher than the other three quartiles—indeed the schooling gap was between 1 and 3 years.

Basically, this gap was referable to the socioeconomic band in which those students were located. That was true for both literacy and numeracy.

The Smith Family is a notable Australian non-government organisation particularly devoted to assisting students of disadvantaged backgrounds in their education. It noted the importance of socioeconomic background and the fact that inequalities need to be addressed to ensure that all children can achieve their full potential, irrespective of their background. Paragraph 3.47 of the report refers to the Smith Family's submission and points out that, if we do not address this disparity in achievement levels arising out of socioeconomic background, there will be consequences for the whole nation as well as for individual students. It is not only inherently terribly unfair but also squanders the potential of those students—making us all worse off in the long run. The Smith Family stated:

The individual and collective impact of not addressing this situation is significant. Young people with poor educational outcomes are more likely to experience unemployment and poorer health outcomes, and rely more heavily on income support payments. This creates additional economic and social costs for individuals and the community as a whole.

The third theme I wanted to highlight is training support for teachers and their retention and development. It is obvious just how pivotal teachers are in our education system and in educational outcomes. There were some very interesting insights gained from the witnesses to the inquiry, and the recommendations reflect this. Particularly highlighted was the importance of mentoring for teachers, not only for new teachers and preservice teachers—although clearly it is particularly important for them as they find their way in this profession, one most of them have chosen with passion—but even for more experienced teachers. They too can gain from mentoring, support, collaboration and sufficient time to reflect and plan lessons. This is reflected in recommendation 19 of the report.

Having heard the evidence put before the inquiry, a particular issue of concern to me is the incidence of casualisation in the teaching workforce. Even in the case of very experienced teachers, there was evidence that this leads to insecurity. They lurch from contract to contract. There are obviously economic consequences for them, but as well as that it impedes a sense of security and continuity—really being able to commit to long-term development of the school knowing that they will be able to stay on there. It is unsettling, it undermines their confidence and it often means that professional development opportunities are not as available to contract teachers as they are to permanent teachers. There was anecdotal evidence put before the inquiry, but in my own visits to schools throughout Australia there was a constant refrain. I heard about this issue not only from those teachers being employed on contract but from their peers and from principals. Principals would often say things like: 'This teacher is wonderful, remarkable. We absolutely want to hang onto this person, but there is no guarantee from year to year that we will be able to.' It is quite corrosive of confidence and security. My view is that we lose highly qualified and high-quality teachers from the system because, ultimately, they feel undervalued and leave.

We know there is attrition in the teaching profession. Recommendation 18 of the report is for further research to be undertaken into why teachers are leaving the profession. Although it does not specifically refer to casualisation, I would be very surprised if the research did not identify it as an important factor behind teachers, ultimately, voting with their feet.

To conclude, I thank all who made submissions and attended hearings. I also thank the hardworking and enthusiastic secretariat. I commend the report to the Senate.

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