To lift Australian education, focus on teachers
JULIA Gillard has begun 2013 by declaring her passion is education and that this year's top priority is to improve Australia's schools. The Prime Minister had signalled her resolve in November, when she said the Australian Education Bill 2012 ''will be the most important Act of 2013''. The National Plan for School Improvement aims for Australia to have one of the world's top five schooling systems by 2025, but this won't happen if, as The Age has reported, entry standards for teaching keep falling.
A decade's decline in academic entry requirements for teaching courses continued this year. In this context, Ms Gillard's vow to ''drive school improvement so every child in every school is getting a great education'' brings to mind the apocryphal farmer who tells a driver seeking directions: ''I wouldn't be starting from here.''
The Age, while welcoming any recognition that national prosperity and wellbeing depend on high-quality schooling for all, despairs of the neglect of the most critical part of the equation: teaching. Even as she stressed last week that ''we need to take a giant leap forward in education'', Ms Gillard did not mention teachers. Yet the key to improving Australian schooling is to attract more academically able teachers. As Melbourne University professor Stephen Dinham said: ''A teacher who has struggled academically through their own schooling is going to find teaching difficult.'' They certainly won't teach to an elite standard.
To be blunt, the average Australian teaching recruit would not get into the world's best systems. In 2004, the average cut-off mark for Victorian undergraduate teaching courses was 75.26 and it has fallen every year since. ''Clearly in'' ATARs in Victoria range from 73.05 to 43.35. Secondary teaching/arts at Deakin, the university that is Victoria's second-biggest provider of teachers, now has a clearly in ATAR of 51.55, in large part due to a much bigger intake. That has no bearing on the question of what sort of teaching one can expect from people with ATARs in the 40s and 50s. If they could not master their subjects, how will they ensure their students do?
The ATAR is a ranking of the whole cohort that began year 7, so students with ATARs under 60 are in the lower half of year 12. While only a third of the total teaching intake is decided by ATARs, this still means many are below average academically.
The contrast with the world leaders is extreme. Finland's teachers are drawn from the top 20 per cent of students and only one in 10 applicants is accepted. Singapore accepts only one in eight who make the top 30 per cent cut-off. South Korea draws from the top 5 per cent.
These nations have something else in common. They realise standards are best lifted by raising the weakest schools and students, because that is where the biggest gains are made. The bottom 10 per cent of Finnish schools outperform 50 per cent of schools in the OECD. Two years ago, The Age quoted an education official's simple explanation for Finland's success: ''Three words: teachers, teachers, teachers.'' We also quoted a South Korean official: ''The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.''
So what do our politicians have to say when they do remember the role of teachers? Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett last week reaffirmed a goal of requiring teachers to rank in the top 30 per cent for literacy and numeracy, but added: ''If people starting their university courses aren't meeting that requirement but can demonstrate potential, universities will have to work with them to ensure they reach these standards before they graduate.'' If 13 years' schooling did not bring them up to scratch, such remedial work won't create teachers who can deliver world-leading results. When Victoria's annual report on teacher supply observes ''a lowering of the average literacy and numeracy skills'' of entrants to teaching, we should not be surprised that students are slipping down the global rankings.
In setting out ''core reform directions'' in November, Ms Gillard did include ''quality teaching - making sure we have the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms''. We are a very long way from achieving that, and will not do so until teaching becomes a profession of first choice. This can only be done by improving teachers' status, pay and conditions of work. It won't be easy, quick or cheap, but there are no short cuts. Until governments and taxpayers accept this, improvements in our school standards will be marginal at best.