Raising the status of teaching - Speech at the Teach for Australia TransformED conference

Release Date: 
9 October 2015
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It’s a pleasure to join you today for your TransformEd Conference on behalf of the new Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham.

I am so pleased to be here for two reasons.

First, because the organisation hosting it is one with which I have a strong affinity, and is making an important contribution to improving the quality of education in Australia.

Second, because of the topic of the conference (How do we raise the status of the teaching profession), which I believe goes to the heart of one of the great challenges, not just of schooling, but of our nation.

I am very familiar with the work of Teach for Australia having had a role to play in getting it up and running and having been a member of its Board since its inception until stepping down a couple of years ago when I became conflicted due to my appointment to the ministry.

Teach for Australia is demonstrating that teaching can attract the absolute best and brightest from our nation to teaching, and that those teachers can have a positive impact on disadvantaged schools and students.

The quality of the Associates – and I have met many – is impressive. The brand is strong, the corporate links continue to grow.

But it is the response from school principals that really tells the story. Most principals who have had a TFA Associate say they would recommend other schools follow their lead because of the passion and energy that Associates bring to the classroom.

Seventy five percent of principals find that Associates have a greater or significantly greater impact on student achievement than other graduate teachers after just one year in the classroom.

Almost 60 per cent of the Associates who are still teaching are now in school leadership roles.

And like its sister organisations in the US and the UK, TFA is now becoming one the most desirable destinations for top graduates.

I hope that with increased support from the states and further corporate and private sector contributions, Teach for Australia will continue to increase its impact.

The topic of your conference goes to the heart of school performance: how do we raise the status of the teaching profession?

I would like to spend most of my time describing how the federal government thinks about this question and what we are doing.


Before doing this, however, I would like to reflect on why this question is so important. Why is raising the status of the teaching profession critical to our success in schools and as a nation.

We can only do that by reference to where we are today in terms of education outcomes and what is driving this.

When we look at education outcomes, we find that over the last decade we have been one of the very few countries that has gone backwards in student outcomes in absolute terms and relative to other nations.

In 2000, we were equal third in science, and equal second in mathematics and reading out of 65 countries and economies surveyed by the OECD. By 2012, we were equal 17th in mathematics, equal 8th in science and equal 10th in reading.

Yet over this period of time, we did as a nation what many had said we had to do: massively increase school funding, shrink class sizes and invest in new buildings.

School funding increased by 37% in real terms over this period. Funding is of course important, but clearly it does not translate automatically to better outcomes.

Class sizes shrunk – adding to the cost of education – but with no demonstrable difference. In fact, the OECD has found no relation between class size and performance.

We have new buildings in almost every school in the country in part through the $16 billion Building the Education Revolution program. But again, no correlation with improved student performance.

So what does correlate with better student performance?

It seems to have taken a long time for academia to reach the conclusion that most parents have known intrinsically for years: what counts is school attendance and quality teaching.

If you are at school and you have a great teacher standing in front of the classroom, you have the best chance of performing well.

It is why parents get so concerned about which teacher their child is going to get each year, no matter what school they are in. It is the teacher that matters!

Of course, the research now backs this up. Perhaps the most compelling being research done by the now Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, who found that a student with a top decile teacher learns twice as fast as student with a bottom decile teacher.

Give struggling students a good teacher and watch their performance soar.


So how do we lift the quality of teaching and what role is the federal government playing in this area?

Dr Ben Jensen, formerly of the Grattan Institute, provides a nice framework in relation to this question. He says there are five conceptual things you can do:

  1. Improve the quality of applicants to the teaching profession
  2. Improve the quality of teachers’ initial education and training
  3. Accelerate their professional development while in the school
  4. Recognise and reward effective teachers
  5. Move on ineffective teachers who have been unable to increase their effectiveness through development programs

All five of these elements also impact on the status of teaching. High quality people who undertake rigorous training and are recognised for their effort and expertise boosts the status. In some respects, this is the TFA formula, where the recognition is through brand status.

Out of these five that I have mentioned, however, the federal government has the most direct role in the first two (1) Improving the quality of applicants; and (2) improving the quality of teachers' initial education; a partial role in the third (professional development while at school); and little role in the last two which concern employment conditions.

Naturally, those first three has been where our efforts are focused.

Our advice for action has come from the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) which was established by former Minister Pyne and was chaired by Professor Greg Craven.

Significantly, Ben Jensen and other leading experts as well as education practitioners, were members of TEMAG.

Their report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers released in February is providing the blueprint for long overdue action in this area.

This Government is determined that, unlike the reputed 101 previous federal and state reviews and parliamentary inquiries into teacher education over the previous 20 years, the TEMAG report is going to be implemented – and going to be implemented quickly.

That is why, when the TEMAG report was released, it was accompanied by the Government’s Response which accepted all but one of its 38 ground-breaking recommendations.

That is why we have provided $16.9 million over four years to a revised and more focussed and expert Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) under the leadership of Professor John Hattie to oversee its implementation.

And that is why we are working cooperatively with the states and territories and their key agencies to ensure TEMAG’s recommendations are actually implemented.

Consequently, most of TEMAG’s recommendations will be implemented within the next two years.

Let me outline the major thrusts of our reforms in those three themes:

1. More rigorous entry standards

A more rigorous selection for entry to teacher education courses is a key part of this. We have been concerned for some time that entry standards, at least measured by ATARs, have been slipping rapidly in recent years. The Business Council of Australia and others have shared this concern.

Teaching now attracts the highest proportion of university offers for school leavers with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of less than 50.

Academic aptitude is, of course, just one measure of quality in a profession which requires a much broader array of attributes. However, if content knowledge is not among the teacher’s skills, how can it be imparted to students?

The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading noted that education faculty members “reported that many students lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading.”

Meanwhile the McKinsey research finds that the world’s top performing school systems recruit “100 per cent of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort, and then screen for other important qualities as well.”

As a consequence of the TEMAG Report, last month education ministers agreed to guidelines for the selection of entrants to initial teacher education programmes. These guidelines, for the first time, will require initial education providers to only admit candidates who can demonstrate they have the necessary academic and non-academic capabilities to successfully graduate as classroom ready teachers.

The guidelines also require greater transparency of selection information to help aspiring teachers and the broader community to understand course requirements and what is needed to successfully enter the teaching profession.

We are also introducing the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education Students — another key recommendation of the TEMAG report.

The Test will ensure graduating teachers are in the top 30 per cent for the population in personal literacy and numeracy and are well equipped to meet the demands of teaching.

The Test is being introduced in two phases and will become a requirement for all undergraduate and post-graduate students doing initial teacher education courses from 1 July 2016.

This year, we funded up to 5000 students to sit the Test on a voluntary basis, to provide experience and feedback to inform the national implementation of the Test next year.

2. Strengthening initial teacher education courses

Through the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, the Government is also strengthening initial teacher education courses.

The Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group was damning on many of the courses in Australia that the taxpayer and students fund, stating that:

“The Advisory Group heard that some higher education providers and practitioners adopt teaching strategies that reflect populist thinking and have not been shown to provide positive outcomes to students learning. This advice was supported by inquiries into teacher education that found many teaching practices are not informed by research, are not up to date, or are not well understood by those teaching them.”

The frustrating thing is that this is not a new finding. A decade earlier, the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading, made similar conclusions.

How many thousands of students graduated in the last decade ill-prepared to properly teach children how to read or engage them in science and maths? How many hundreds of thousands of children have had a poorer education as a result?

The universities should be accountable for this.

Do the universities honestly need to be told the following in a formal government report?:

“The Advisory Group concluded that all teachers need to graduate with a solid foundation in numeracy skills and numeracy teaching practice to be well prepared to meet the needs of students in their classes”?

AITSL is using the extra funding provided by the Government to strengthen what initial teacher education students learn, and to develop instructions that make clear what universities must do to gain programme accreditation in a more rigorous regime.

Last month, education ministers agreed to an ambitious plan for all ongoing initial teacher education programmes to be brought into this reformed national accreditation regime by the end of 2016.

In addition, TEMAG report recommended that all initial teacher education primary graduates be equipped with a subject specialisation, with priority given to science, maths or languages.

It is expected that graduate primary teachers having specialist knowledge will be used to assist other teachers in the school to develop the knowledge and expertise to teach the subject effectively.

The expertise of specialist teachers will contribute to improved outcomes for students, including better engagement and confidence in targeted subjects, leading to increased take-up of these subjects in senior years.

These critical reforms will ensure that graduate teachers — who have been through a quality initial teacher education programme — will enter classrooms as quickly as possible and bring their skills and enthusiasm to the next generation.

3. Developing existing teachers

The Government, through AITSL, is also investing to improve the quality of the existing teacher pool.

One of AITSL’s key initiatives has been developing the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

These standards provide the foundation to strengthen the teaching profession, ensuring quality teaching and improvement of student outcomes.

By creating a common understanding of teaching standards and what represents excellence, we can begin to share best practice and really raise the profile of the teaching profession to its rightful place of importance.

State and territory government and non-government education authorities have an important role to play in promoting the uptake of the standards throughout the profession.

For example, by supporting their teachers to seek certification at the Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher levels of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

We want teaching to be a profession of choice for our best and brightest. We want our current teachers to be recognised for the fantastic work they do to shape the minds of future generations. National standards for teachers are an important step towards achieving this.


These are just some of the ways that we are answering the important question you pose today — of how we can raise the status of the teaching profession?

To be successful, we need to work together. Governments, teachers, school leaders and indeed whole school communities all need to be part of this if we are to get the best results.

Teach For Australia plays a key role in helping us achieve our shared goal, of raising the status of the teaching profession and supporting Australian teachers to be able to offer our students the highest quality learning experience.

I thank your organisation for its continuing work to get the best results for students and teachers alike.

By working together we can ensure that the Australian education system is one of the best in the world.

I wish you all the best for your conference and I know you will take the opportunity that it presents to share your ideas and your passion for teaching quality.