Thursday, 3 June 2021
Australia's education system has been in decline for 20 years. An entire generation of students have learned less than they would have a generation earlier, through no fault of their own. Today, a 15-year-old is, on average, a year behind in learning compared with a 15-year-old in 2000. The same 15-year-old in Australia is three years behind a 15-year-old student in Singapore in regard to their knowledge of maths. Students haven't got worse; we've failed them. What's most distressing is that we've all been asleep at the wheel, no matter how many alarm bells have been rung.
It's been commonplace to read headlines about declining school performance and for a swathe of arguments to follow about how the tests aren't good enough or don't illustrate the whole picture, or how the government is not funding schools well enough. This is nonsense. It avoids us facing up to this generational crisis. While school funding has increased, school performance has declined. In the latest PISA reports, school principals reported fewer staff and material shortages than the OECD average, yet continual declines in key indicators of learning, literacy and numeracy, and science should trouble us all.
With such a serious challenge before us, it is little wonder that the revised national curriculum has drawn fire. Reading the proposed changes is depressing. As Kenneth Clark said:
It's lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.
Instead of raising aspiration and addressing the shortfalls, we see—
We see critical areas of learning removed and directed language about the sort of political instruction children should receive, instead of a serious engagement with the pedagogical challenges in front of us. It's the humanities curriculum that has drawn the most fire in this regard, with critical aspects of Australian and world history being reduced.
I am deeply in favour of Australians knowing more about the history, traditions and culture of Indigenous people. Our history and our knowledge of ourselves are so much richer for that. But we can surely both do that and understand the contribution that the West has made to the society that we have inherited. As a board member of the Ramsey Centre for Western Civilisation, I continue to be stunned by the myopia about teaching foundational knowledge about that Western history and culture. We're at serious risk of giving generations of children no guidance about how to understand and safeguard many of the aspects of our culture that are most precious. Without an appreciation for how we've developed some of the values which underpin our democracy and culture, we can abandon these things too cheaply and be ill-equipped to reform them when we need to.
Other things about the proposed curriculum are equally troubling. The proposed curriculum continues to support whole-language practices for teaching reading. This is despite consistent evidence that phonics is an essential part of children developing literacy. Perhaps we need a phonics protection act and need to make funding conditional on the teaching of phonics in schools. Similarly, child led instruction is being encouraged in STEM subject areas, which evidence doesn't support.
We cannot afford to continue to experiment with educational philosophy at the expense of essential learning. We need serious reform. It's true that curriculum alone can't do this. What we're doing in preparing initial teachers needs a thorough examination. We need to move away from the admission laws, the results of which have seen a teacher shortage deliberately created by the Teachers Federation and their puppet, Adrian Piccoli. That's why the initial teacher education review, launched last month by the education minister, is welcome news. The teacher education curriculum needs to be practical and prepare ITE students for a life in the classroom. State education departments, teachers unions, academics and school leaders need to put down their weapons and use this as an opportunity to learn and set a new course.
It's to my shame that my state government in New South Wales has the worst drop in PISA results for reading and science and that, after a decade of the coalition government, there has been no serious attempt to address the power of the teachers union my state. The New South Wales government continues to push against measures that would demonstrate seriousness about fixing the problem. When they announced they'd do their own review of NAPLAN rather than cooperate nationally, it suggested that accountability is something they fear rather than seek. This must change.
Our kids aren't the problem and neither are our teachers. Good people are burnt out and poorly equipped to do their jobs. They need to be given the room and the ongoing support—not tick boxes that make us feel better—that actually develop people in their professional lives. It should be normal for people to be evaluated and assessed in the classroom. It should be normal for people to strive for and be rewarded for excellence, just as they strive for excellence in their students, and it should be normal to have frank discussions about performance and improvement. Australia has the opportunity to look at our education system and strive to become world leading again. We cannot afford to delay.
Question agreed to.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 12:04