Motions - Public Education


As parents, we know this to be true. In some years, your child goes to school and is inspired, and you see them going ahead in leaps and bounds. They get out of bed and they look forward to going to school. They come home excited and everything seems to be on track. Then, of course, you have other years when the complete reverse is the case: your child seems uninterested in school and uninspired.

It does not take much digging before you start talking to other parents at the school and a certain teacher's name pops up and you hear the common phrase, 'Oh, you've got that teacher this year.' Quite frankly, that is not good enough. I am a big believer that we do need workplace protections in place for teachers; however, it cannot be at the expense of student learning. Being an educator myself, I know which teachers are performing poorly and which students in those classes are not receiving the best outcome that they should be.

Principals will often talk to me, and as I was working my way through the ranks of the education profession, it was apparent that it became less and less appealing to move into the role of the principal because of the HR issues and the burden that managing poor performance put on a principal at that time. Whilst I agree and strongly state that we do need protections for teachers—a lot of my very close friends are teachers—it cannot be at the expense of what is right and what is just for students, particularly students in those classes. I often wonder whether the rights of a teacher outweigh the rights of a student.

As a former educator, I would like to say that teachers who perform poorly are overwhelmingly in the minority. Most of our teachers, certainly the ones that I worked with, are very hardworking and very conscientious and deliver amazing environments for students to thrive and grow in through their formative years. I would like to congratulate all those teachers who put in the hours and commit themselves fully to their profession and their vocation and see the results in their students. When you have been a teacher and seen the impact that you can personally have on a young person's life, you know it is an extremely rewarding yet demanding role that requires commitment and integrity.

If we want to deliver a world-class public education system right here in South Australia, there is no doubt that we need to employ teachers who are of the highest standard and who indeed are world class. I have put forward a suggestion to place a formal benchmark on that standard. In their annual report last year, the Teachers Registration Board of South Australia recorded over 35,000 registered teachers in the state of South Australia. Of those, 54 per cent are employed at a Department for Education site, whilst 27 per cent are employed at a non-government site and 19 per cent are not allocated to a site at all—they might be relief teachers or those who are entering semiretirement.

Far and away, the state government is the largest employer of teachers in South Australia. As the employer, we can exert some influence on the standards we expect our teachers to have in our public education system. If the universities will not set an admissions standard for teaching, then perhaps the state government, as the employer, can.

A recent report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership showed that 40 per cent of teaching undergraduates scored an ATAR of below 70. A high ATAR is not the be-all and end-all, and I am the first to acknowledge it. I have seen many fine teachers who may not have attained the highest ATAR. It takes more than high academic credentials to make a great teacher, but I would also argue that you need academic knowledge as a base, and a high ATAR is an indicator that you excel in that knowledge.

As a teacher, you need to have a deep understanding of what it means to be literate. You need to be able to spell, read and communicate at the highest level. Otherwise, how are you going to teach what you yourself do not know? I am backed in this opinion by many South Australian parents. In April this year, more than 60 per cent of parents who responded to a survey by the South Australian Association of State School Organisations backed lifting the minimum ATAR to 80. Obviously, the quality of teachers is also a concern to parents.

UniSA and Flinders University are two institutions supplying the largest number of teaching graduates. However, the guaranteed entry ATAR can vary across South Australian universities. I was interested to learn, from an article in The Advertiser, that last year less than a third of admissions to Flinders teaching degrees were based on ATAR scores alone.

Many students are admitted by other means, either by alternative pathways or getting in via other courses, only to swap to another six months later. There is also something known as 'applicable adjustment factors', which basically means you can get extra points added on to your ATAR if you complete approved courses. I have personally heard of students with ATARs in the low 50s who have gained admission to teaching courses at South Australian universities through this alternative pathway process.

If you want to go to university and study law, science or medicine, the minimum ATAR hovers around 90 to 95. This ensures only the highest level of students will achieve a place to study in those courses—the best of the best. Why should it be any different for our teachers? I support the state government's move requiring all teaching students from this year to pass literacy and numeracy tests before graduating. This means newly registered teachers will have to demonstrate that their skills are in the top 30 per cent of the population. But I question the timing of this test. Should this test not be conducted at the beginning of the university course, not the end? If they do not pass, students have conducted a three or four-year university degree for nothing—a complete waste of time.

If universities are graduating students who are not up to scratch on literacy and numeracy, I really question why they are allowing these students into courses in the first place. For the standard of teaching as a profession to improve in the eyes of the community, we need to ensure the standard of acceptance is not just high but extremely high.

The PISA test (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a comparison of education systems across the world. Every three years it tests 15 year olds from more than 80 countries in reading, maths and science. Australia has slowly but steadily declined in all three areas across the last 15 years. Interestingly, the coordinator of this program recently said the countries that are ranked the highest 'pay more attention to how they develop and retain the best teachers'.

I recently read a UNICEF survey that said that 17 per cent of Australian secondary students leave school without achieving basic educational skill levels. That is a pretty shocking fact in this day and age. Years 11 and 12 are preparation for life outside the school system, and without these basic skills future prospects are not overly bright. It is a fact that poor education can lead to unemployment, poor health outcomes, poverty and homelessness. This is not what we want for South Australia's next generation.

I have been interested to read about Finland, where teaching is a prestigious profession equivalent to that of a doctor or lawyer. High-quality teachers are the hallmark of their education system and opinion polls regularly show that primary school teaching is one of the most sought-after careers. Their teacher preparation programs are very selective and only one out of every 10 applicants are admitted. Following a lengthy screening process, applicants are observed in a teacher-student environment and only those with a clear aptitude for teaching, in addition to a strong academic performance, are admitted.

Students must also spent a full year teaching in a teacher training school associated with their university before graduation. The average retention rate for teachers in Finland is 90 per cent, a fact that speaks volumes. This is a country that really values its teachers and puts a lot of effort into selecting the best people for the job. I read an opinion piece by Caleb Bond in The Advertiser earlier this year on this issue and his words really resonated with me. He wrote:

Teaching is one of the most important professions—and teachers are some of the most important people in our society. Some children would see more of their teachers than they would their parents. They shape the future of our nation and its children.

It only follows that if you have dud teachers, you’ll have dud students. That leaves you with a dud workforce and a dud country…

If you cannot pass a basic literacy and numeracy test, there is no way you should be let loose in a classroom.

These people have the country’s future in their hands. The least we can ask is that they are up to scratch.

I could not agree more. The foundations for learning are laid early in life. Teachers have one of the highest responsibilities in any profession: the education and guidance of our children. For the next generation of South Australians to succeed, become leaders and take our state into the future, we need to give them the highest standard of education. That education should be delivered by the highest standard of teachers. I commend this motion to the house.

The Hon. J.A.W. GARDNER (Morialta—Minister for Education) (12:04): I am very pleased to be able to speak on the motion brought to the house by the member for Mount Gambier and thank him for his words. I indicate that I seek to move an amendment to the motion as follows:

Delete all the words in paragraph (b) and insert:

(b) notes that universities are increasingly moving to alternate entry pathways to the ATAR, calls on universities to continue to engage with all relevant sectors to ensure that students seeking to enrol in bachelor degrees, across all disciplines, meet the necessary standards in order to be able to succeed in their vocation.

A copy of the amendment has been supplied to the Chair, moved and seconded. I will address the amendment in a moment and my reasons for moving it, but I want to start by talking about the broad implications of the motion. The first part of the motion states:

That this house—

(a) recognises the importance of delivering a world-class public education system to South Australia's primary and secondary students;

Every member of this House of Assembly would give that first part of the motion their absolute wholehearted endorsement. We recognise that to support the potential and the capacity of each one of the young South Australians in our schools to be their best self and to live their best life, having a world-class public education system is critical. Having a world-class education system but particularly a world-class public education system, which is there to support particularly those who need the most support but indeed all South Australians, is one of the absolutely critical mechanisms to delivering that support.

Education is the enabler that ensures that a young person is able to identify their skills and pitch towards those skills, to be able to find that thing that they are meant to spend their life doing and give them the pathway to achieving those goals. That is the South Australian public education system's goal: world-class education that supports every student to fulfil their potential. It has the endorsement of this parliament. Reinforcing that goal is appreciated, and I thank the member for Mount Gambier for bringing it to us. I will go to the third part of the motion:

(c) congratulates all South Australian teachers on their commitment and professionalism to the students of South Australia.

I know that all our members of parliament also wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment. The shadow minister for education, when she was the minister, I as the minister now, and indeed all of us as local members of parliament, whenever we get the opportunity do thank our teachers. In the education department we have days when we celebrate the achievements of our retiring teachers and educators and other support staff, and particularly recognise those who are marking 30, 40 or 50 years in the system. That is a lifetime of contribution towards supporting young South Australians. It is an absolute calling.

We as a state would not be able to achieve the marvellous things that we have achieved in South Australia over generations without the endeavours of those teachers, supporting our young people to be all that they can be. Many of us have benefitted from it. Some, like the member for Mount Gambier, who have actually worked in our schools as teachers, are to be commended and thanked.

In relation to the purpose of the amendment to paragraph (b), I understand the spirit in which (b) was moved. I think there is a desire for us all to do what we can to ensure that our teaching workforce is held in the highest regard and has the greatest level of respect. Of course, we want to ensure that all the people going into teaching degrees, and therefore by implication working as teachers in schools, are capable of doing the job and capable of being the inspiring educators who are going to give our students the capacity and the confidence to be all they can be going forward.

The reason I have suggested this form of words is not necessarily to take away from the intent of the member for Mount Gambier but to recognise the complexity of the higher education entry system. I have sought to encapsulate what the member for Mount Gambier is seeking to do and remove the complexity, to basically say we want our universities to ensure that all of our young people who are doing their degrees, in all our courses but including teaching, are capable of succeeding in their vocations.

It is important that we recognise that fewer than half of our young people going into universities, or indeed adult re-entry students going into universities, do so with an ATAR. To all those students who are entering those pathways without an ATAR, or without using their ATAR to enter that pathway, the universities have a message from us that we are cognisant that we want them to ensure those students are going to be capable of doing it.

I will give one example of why I think it is important that we support the amendment, and I thank all members I have spoken to so far about the amendment for their willingness to take it on board. It is potentially not just to do with teaching but, as the member for Mount Gambier identified, in some of the other disciplines which have high standards in particular there are a number of programs in universities where they are now looking at, for example, taking a student who has done well at the end of stage 1 of their SACE (their year 11).

That might be through a mechanism of looking at their overall grades from their school—or some universities are looking at using the research project as an identifier, if the student has done the research project in year 11—and then offering the student a place prior to their doing their stage 2 (their year 12) on the basis that the student will undertake certain subjects, such as specialist maths in many courses, which are seen as being hard subjects to get good marks in and impacting their ATAR.

The universities want the students to do the hard subjects, the specialist maths, the physics, the chemistry and, potentially, the languages. They want them to do that. They do not want the potential risk that the student might see their ATAR score to be a disincentive to the student doing those perceived hard subjects. So the universities in these trial programs—and there are a couple of them out there at the moment—have given that student the surety of a place in university at the end of their stage 2, as long as they pass their SACE stage 2 doing these hard subjects, giving them that opportunity and that flexibility.

I think that those sorts of trial models that the universities are looking at are worthy and should be given the freedom to continue. It may well be that in teaching, for example, where we want to ensure high standards of language teachers, where we are critically desiring maths teachers and specialist maths teachers, having a disincentive put in place is not as desirable. So what I would prefer we do, as a parliament, is identify. It is critically important for our universities to offer places to students who are capable of meeting the required benchmarks without necessarily identifying forever more what that benchmark must be.

We will continue to work with universities, and I am sure we will continue to report back to the parliament on how that goes. Of course, there are other methods that people use to get that non-ATAR method into university. A common one is that they do a year of a TAFE degree and then transition into university. Indeed, they might get into one university course and then seek to transfer courses part way through. It may well be that a student has compassionate grounds because of illness or because of being a carer and that has meant they are given some exemption to the ATAR on the way through.

Having that flexibility is meritorious, but we want to continue to ensure that our universities have the high standards and the reputation for high standards, which goes to supporting all the reputations of the degrees they offer. We are very proud, as a government and as a parliament, of our teaching workforce in South Australia. We always want to enhance the status of the workforce. We always want to enhance the quality of the work we do—every one of us—and I know that that is an ambition that is spread across the government, across the education department and across our teachers.

As the member for Mount Gambier said, our focus, our priority, our reason for being and doing what we do is to give our students and those families the best possible support. Therefore, I commend the amendment and the motion to the house.

Dr CLOSE (Port Adelaide—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:14): I support the original motion and also indicate the support of the opposition for the amendment. As I understand, it has been supported by the original mover. I think we are all in furious agreement about the importance of teaching, the quality of teaching and the importance therefore of teachers being well trained, well prepared and having the right disposition to be good teachers.

The ATAR is one way of determining a perhaps narrow definition of intellectual capacity. It is a somewhat blunt instrument given it is heavily dependent on scaling marks and then ranking students in any given year; nonetheless, it is an attempt to determine intellectual capability. It is absolutely true that we need the teachers of our young people to be the most competent, intellectually curious and knowledgeable people possible, particularly as we need more and more of our young people to finish school, to get all the way through, which requires very strong foundations as well as the higher order skills.

I support the amendment on the basis that it is a recognition of the truth that about half the people who start university in any given year are not using the ATAR to get through. I support having multiple pathways. It is important that we not consign young people to their future at the age of maybe 17 or 18 on the basis of a single sum mark that not only is supposed to express the last 13 years of their education but defines what they are capable of in the future.

I think it is important that universities are able to recognise that students come through different experiences; nonetheless, as the amendment articulates, we are very clear that, whatever alternative pathway is used, it is rigorous so that we are not allowing in students who are not capable of finishing the course, which is a terrible waste of time for them and a terrible expense on the public purse, but also we get the best possible quality of teachers.

I recall that when former premier Jay Weatherill was the minister for education he was very interested in Finland in particular. It has such an outstanding education system in its performance. He recognised that one of the ways Finnish teachers are supported is that they are required to have a postgraduate degree before they teach. That is not a method that we have had traditionally in Australia, where it has tended to be a degree or a double degree—which is nonetheless pretty rigorous—but Jay Weatherill at that time, about to become premier, was very keen to see that we start introducing a requirement for a masters in South Australia.

Unfortunately, that was checked by the then federal minister. I think we first had Christopher Pyne then Simon Birmingham, both of whom refused to lift the cap on masters placements in our universities. Therefore, we were unable to guarantee that we would continue to have the supply of teachers in South Australia with the appropriate qualification to bring that in. The other approach that we took in government was to introduce scholarships for masters students so that, for currently registered teachers who did their degree some time ago or fairly recently and wanted to gain the postgraduate qualification, the department offered scholarships.

I have heard that those scholarships have been cut. If that is true, then I am disturbed that it is a step away from supporting current teachers to be as well qualified as possible. You do your degree usually when you are a relatively young person. There are some superb teachers who have had another life first and then gone to university to qualify as a teacher, but it is usually a young person. You graduate and then you enter the profession. With luck and increasingly with support, you stay a teacher for a number of decades.

Life changes. The requirements of our education system change all the time because the requirements of our society and our economy are changing. If we do not support or have the capacity to enable our teachers to go back and retrain to develop greater skills and to have an opportunity to reach that postgraduate level, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to have increasingly highly qualified teachers.

I am disturbed that I have heard that that is now the case, but I support both the intent and the wording of the motion and the amendment. I think that we are all united in the sense of understanding the importance of teaching in South Australia and also not wanting to trap people only by the number of the ATAR, to make sure that we get people of high intellectual capability and also high levels of personal skills.

I would add the plea that we continue to enable teachers to increase their qualifications, increase their knowledge and increase their skills and capability in teaching what is rightfully a diversifying population of students. The number of students who complete high school is creeping up. It has risen from 25 per cent to 50 per cent in a 20-year period, which is a magnificent achievement for our education system.

When I finished high school, the kids who graduated—or matriculated back then—were the ones who intended to go to university. We have now managed to break that down and we have seen that big lift from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, with more people going to university. But also you ought to be able to finish high school and also undertake vocational training, or be uncertain about what you want to do in the future, but you know that having your SACE is an important step towards whatever you choose to do.

As we have seen that increasing percentage, naturally we have seen a more diverse group of people who stay on at school. That requires extra skills from teachers. It requires better differentiation in the ways in which teaching occurs in an individual class. We want to make sure that we are training up teachers to be not only very good at the purely academic work but also very good at recognising potential that might struggle to emerge, that they are capable of stretching students who need to be stretched and supporting students who need a bit more of a hand, a bit more scaffolding, before they are able to be independent learners. All this is absolutely crucial to the future of teaching.

I conclude simply by expressing the gratitude of this side of the house, and I suspect the entire chamber, for the quality of teaching we have in South Australia. It is an incredibly difficult job. As the member for Mount Gambier pointed out, being a principal is an incredibly difficult job. We want to see more people take it up who are suited to it, who are well trained for it and who are the kinds of people, guides, mentors and teachers, our young people deserve.

Mr HUGHES (Giles) (12:21): As the shadow minister said, we are in furious agreement on this motion and the amended motion. I think that some of my teachers would be surprised that I am standing here today to fully endorse this motion. As some members know, I had the distinction of being expelled from two high schools, one for being a ratbag and the other for being a rebel, so this issue about ATAR scores is an important one.

Because I was expelled, my dad's dream of me being the first person in our family to go to university was in tatters. I spent 10 years labouring and then I applied to go to university. I did not have an ATAR score, or the equivalent of an ATAR score at that time, and I sat a scholastic exam for Flinders University and got in to do a science degree.

Subsequent to that, some years later, I ended up at the University of South Australia as a tutor in, of all things, sociology and social policy. In that role, I noted that some students started doing Foundational Studies as a prerequisite to get into university. These people did not have an ATAR score and some of them would not have done all that well at school, others did and others left early. There was a significant number of mature age students who undertook that Foundational Studies course. A number of them did go on to university and a number of them have been outstanding professionals.

As the Minister for Education said, when it comes to entry into university, there is complexity. People can get into university in all sorts of ways, but at the end of the day standards are incredibly important. One would hope that, during whatever course somebody does—whether it is teaching or another course—those standards and that rigour will apply for the duration of the course. So it is important that we are open to those people who do not come through the traditional, if you like, high school ATAR score approach into university.

I want to talk about regional South Australia and especially some of the more remote locations in terms of our teachers. I sat in on a class just the other day up in the APY lands where two languages were being spoken. They were great kids, great teachers and there was great input from the parents who live on the APY lands. We know that those kids, as well as kids in other remote schools, are significantly disadvantaged when it comes to educational attainment. When we look at educational attainment generally in regional South Australia compared with the metropolitan area, there is a gap. That gap can be as much as two years and, certainly, in places like the APY lands, the gap is significantly greater.

I think all kids deserve a fair go. If our kids are to get a fair go, we need to be serious about our teachers and we need to be serious about the incentives in place when people go out to work in remote locations especially. One of the issues in regional South Australia is that there is an incentive for teachers that lasts for five years—and what you generally get in regional South Australia is teachers who have come straight out of university, whose first job might well be in the country—and often they get their experience and then, when their incentive comes to an end, they leave.

There is a very significant turnover of staff. In some remote and regional schools, the turnover in one year can often be up to 30 per cent. That has an incredibly detrimental effect on the students in those particular schools. So we need to look at incentive structures to diminish that degree of turnover and that loss of experience that has been developed out in country South Australia. I think we need to have an open mind about how we approach that.

Another issue is professional development for teachers. Once again, teachers in country South Australia are disadvantaged, especially in the more remote locations. I was at the Roxby Downs school a few weeks ago and we had a discussion about this. In order for a teacher to go to Adelaide to get what might be a day course of professional development, it can sometimes mean three days out of the classroom in that school, so that has an impact. That has an impact on the other teachers because there are not the fill-in teachers readily available, as you might get in the metropolitan area. So what happens is that teachers have to back each other up, which just diffuses that teaching effort across the school.

It even happens in the more remote locations when one of the teachers goes off sick. They feel as though they have to come in because if they do not come in it puts a burden on the other teachers. If we are serious about professional development, we need to look at country South Australia and apply a different perspective from the one applied in the metropolitan area. That might well mean a fundamentally different framework when it comes to doing the right thing by teachers in regional South Australia. If we do the right thing by teachers in regional South Australia, that is going to have a beneficial impact on students in regional South Australia.

The disadvantage is not all about remoteness and access and those issues. There are issues that run through our education system. The level of educational attainment should not be dependent on a postcode or on the thickness of a person's wallet and the capacity to pay. When it comes to public education, I have always put my money where my mouth is. I have three children who all went through public education in regional South Australia. When speaking to some people who have sent their kids to some of the really elite private boarding schools in Adelaide, I realised that I got a far better result in a whole range of ways when it came to my kids.

Public schools have the capacity to deliver fantastic outcomes and they teach all who come. Private schools, especially the elite private schools, by default are selective, but public schools are not, so we should be doing far more to back our public schools. In this country, over the years, we have ended up with a mantra of choice. We have ended up with something of a Balkanised school system that has some inherent flaws in comparison with other systems overseas.

I did not hear all of the member for Mount Gambier's speech. I am sure he might have talked about some of the overseas jurisdictions that get incredibly good results when it comes to teachers and the professionalism of teachers. The one that is mentioned in the Western world often—and he might well have mentioned it—is Finland. There is a whole raft of things that go into the Finnish system, but one of the stand-outs is respect for teachers and the requirement that they have, as a minimum, a master's degree. Kids start school later and there is also a far greater emphasis on kids being active and outside. There is a whole range of things going on within their school system that I think we should have a look at.

There are always cultural elements in different countries and they cannot all be replicated here, but I think there are a lot of things in the Finnish system that are commendable. One of the really commendable things is that educational attainment is not tied to postcodes and wealth in the way that it has become in Australia. With those few words, I will take my seat.

Ms WORTLEY (Torrens) (12:31): I would like to add just a few words, as I understand that there is an agreement that we are going to move to the next motion. I want to say thank you for moving this motion and discussing the importance of teachers and the valuable role they play. I am very supportive of the amendment that is being moved as I think it will provide some of our most capable students, who are not able to enter university through the ATAR system, access either through the STAT test or through foundation courses to university or even by entry to another course and then, by excelling at a very high level, being able to cross over to the course of their choice. I think that universities need to be able to provide these options. At some stage, although we do not have the time today, I would like to provide more information in relation to this.

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:32): I want to thank all members who have made a contribution to this, in particular the member for Giles, who brought back a lot of memories because my first teaching appointment was in Port Augusta. I remember graduating and driving to Port Augusta. I got out of an air-conditioned car and it was 41°. The town of Mount Gambier shuts down when it is 35°.

We had 10-year guarantees, so if you stayed in Port Augusta for 10 years you got a year off fully paid. If you stayed for eight years, you got half a year off. If you stayed for six years, you got a term off fully paid. A lot of friends of mine used that and stayed in Port Augusta. Of course, I was too clever for that. I stayed five years and went back home. There were lots of incentives around to encourage people to get into regional areas.

I want to finish on the point that the standard of teachers is the most important determinant of the success of a young person. I know teachers who could teach under a tree and their students would thrive and excel, so whilst I appreciate and welcome state money going into infrastructure, as it is badly needed in our public system, I would love to see an equal amount going into the quality of teaching, teachers and continual upskilling. If we were spending $100 million plus on existing teachers and upskilling them, as we are in infrastructure, we would see a far greater result in terms of quality of teaching. Thank you to all those who made a contribution and I commend the amended motion to the house.

Amendment carried; motion as amended carried.