Senator Sarah Henderson – raising concerns about school standards and criticising some teachers for bringing Palestinian activists into the classroom

November 29, 2023

And we’re seeing a really regrettable upsurge in activism in the classroom. The conduct of the teacher unions in relation to some of the activism over the last week, bringing Palestinian activists into the classroom, breaches of their code of conduct and their obligations to teach students impartially and without bias. Frankly, this should be condemned, and I do condemn this.

Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (12:59): I rise to raise ongoing deep concerns about school standards in this country. We all believe in the transformational power of education and how critical it is to young Australians and to the future of our nation. But there is a growing crisis and, again, today, I call on the Albanese Labor government to take the urgent action required to address Australia’s declining school standards, which have become a national embarrassment and which are putting at serious risk our reputation as a nation that delivers first-class education across the globe. In shocking NAPLAN results released a number of months ago, one in three students is failing numeracy and literacy tests, with only 15 per cent of students achieving above the expected standard. On almost every score, Australian students are going backwards. That one in three students is not meeting expected standards in literacy and numeracy is absolutely shocking.

The NAPLAN results released mean students are twice as likely to fail than to excel in the classroom. Fixing this is not as simple as saying we need more funding. I’m not saying funding isn’t an important issue, but the evidence makes it very clear that in the past two decades, despite a 60 per cent increase in school funding, our standards have continued to decline. The Albanese government needs to focus on the foundations of a good education—reading, writing and arithmetic—by mandating evidence based teaching methods in every Australian classroom.

Those school systems and those schools which have adopted proven teaching methods are flying. At Marsden Road Public School in Liverpool, Sydney, 90 per cent of students are from a non-English speaking background in a low-SES area of Sydney yet, by adopting the best evidence-based teaching and learning approach, by ensuring that students are taught explicitly, including, of course, the teaching of phonics, civics and citizenship, where children are taught what is expected of them—how to behave—this school has transformed the young lives of these children. Their NAPLAN results have gone through the roof in the last five years under the incredible leadership of the principal, Manisha Gazula.

Many schools are now adopting evidence based teaching and learning methods and they are seeing what a massive difference this makes, including the Canberra-Goulburn Catholic education system, which is also doing extraordinary work. I am deeply concerned that we haven’t seen the momentum to focus on what works in the classroom under this government.

I have to say, this is not about the quality of Australian teachers, who are hardworking, so dedicated and so committed. They are being let down by not having the tools and resources and are being profoundly let down by university teacher training courses. The universities have been exposed as being completely deficient in providing adequate teacher training as a general rule. There are some exceptions. The IPA released a report last week that showed that one-third of all units of study in teacher training courses were about social justice causes and that only a much smaller number of units of study were devoted to literacy and numeracy. The IPA has done exceptional work in that regard. Teachers can only excel in the classroom if they are supported by the best evidence based teaching and learning methods. I note that the education minister, Jason Clare, has proposed some catch-up tutorials but, frankly, he is tinkering at the edges.

The government needs to urgently address the fundamental cause of these declining standards in our schools. I understand, appreciate and acknowledge the work of the expert panel into the next national school reform agreement. Its report was handed to government on 31 October but, unfortunately, it has been kept secret. I called through the Senate for that report to be made public and I will keep prosecuting the case. We need to see what this report by this panel, led by Dr Lisa O’Brien, is saying about what needs to happen in our schools. I’m very disappointed that the government, as we face the start to another academic year, is keeping this report a secret. We don’t need more smooth talk from the minister; we need tough, tough action.

I just want to reflect on some of the dire statistics that the Australian Education Research Organisation has made clear. One in five year 7 students has the reading ability of a child in grade 4 and only 26 per cent of year 9 students are using correct pronunciation, with the majority writing at a year 3 level. AERO has also found that students who perform below expectations in their year 3 NAPLAN results are at risk of continuing to fall below par throughout their schooling. In other words, they never catch up. And our international PISA results—the Programme for International Student Assessment—are very grim. Twenty years ago, Australia ranked fourth internationally in reading, eighth in science and 11th in maths. Now we have fallen to 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths. Australia has lost the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning over the past two decades. We were once on par with top-performing nations such as Singapore. Now the average 15-year-old Singaporean is three years ahead of their Australian counterpart. Next week, the next PISA results will be released by the OECD, by Mathias Cormann. We’re holding our breath that Australia will perform better, but I’m not feeling overly confident—particularly after what our students endured through two years of the pandemic, when so many students were locked down and trying to learn under the most difficult of circumstances.

The battle to restore the high standards in our schools is compounded by declining attendance rates; an overcrowded curriculum; and a growing teacher shortage crisis, which the government is not taking seriously enough. Of course, providing teacher scholarships only to government schools, as if non-government schools don’t matter, is really appalling. And we have the crisis with disruption in classrooms, where Australia is the 70th worst. I have to acknowledge Senator O’Sullivan, who is chairing a committee inquiry into classroom disruption. It’s a major issue which is leading to so many teachers finding that they just cannot cope in the classroom anymore and are leaving the profession in droves. And we’re seeing a really regrettable upsurge in activism in the classroom. The conduct of the teacher unions in relation to some of the activism over the last week, bringing Palestinian activists into the classroom, breaches of their code of conduct and their obligations to teach students impartially and without bias. Frankly, this should be condemned, and I do condemn this. I raised it in question time yesterday. Very regrettably, the minister who represents the Minister for Education in this place, Senator Watt, did not condemn the teacher unions for their frankly unacceptable conduct.

Then, of course, we have the Australian curriculum. I don’t know what the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ACARA, is doing. Learning First has just handed down a very good report. In an article called ‘Curriculum crisis: a tale of politics over performance’ by Paul Kelly today, the chief executive of Learning First, Ben Jensen said:

We were shocked there were only five topics dealt with in depth compared with 22 topics covered in depth in the science systems of other countries. The thing that just hits you in the face is when you look at the documentation side by side and you hear teacher after teacher saying that (the alternative) would be so much easier to teach.

ACARA is fundamentally failing our students, and the government needs to take notice of the fact that our curriculum, in so many respects, is not fit for purpose and urgent action is required on that front as well.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard