Education Hinges on Top Teachers and Money
Tuesday, 04 September 2012
National Times, Australia (Online)
Is Gillard's schools plan set up to fail on funding?
PRIME Minister Julia Gillard wants Australia to rank among the top five countries in the world for excellence in education by 2025. To aim high is an admirable goal, and when it comes to education one could not honestly undermine it. We all want the best education for our children, and for their children, because what flows from an excellent education is opportunity in all aspects of life. Job prospects improve dramatically with education, and that leads to safer, healthier and more satisfying lives generally. On a national level, a better educated community is the pathway to economic prosperity. And once Australia's mineral wealth is expended, as it eventually will be, this economy will need a new engine for growth.
But if Australia is to rank among the top five countries for education, it needs to pay close attention to the standards imposed by the elite countries. Look, for example, at three of the top five - Finland, Singapore and South Korea - and what sets them apart is a much more rigorous threshold for accepting trainees into the teaching system. In some of these countries, the government pays for teachers' training courses and provides competitive compensation for those who go on to teach.
In Finland, applicants for teaching courses are drawn from the top 20 per cent of school-leaving students only, and are then vetted for qualitative aspects such as passion and commitment to the teaching profession. No one enters the teaching system in Finland without a master's degree. In Singapore, the National Institute of Education draws from the top 30 per cent of school-leavers. Consider now what happens in Australia: this year, of students accepted into teacher training courses at universities, only one in five had an ATAR score above 80; 30 per cent had an ATAR score of just 60 to 70; and about one in five scored below 60.
Yes, Australia's schools system needs much more money, and yes it should be focused on children's needs. But fundamental to students' needs are the teachers, the masters, the mentors. If Australia is to rank among the top five, there must be a seismic change in how we value teaching and how teachers are trained and rewarded.
Excellent teachers do not just happen by chance. They are a product of top-level and rigorous training. To that end, we are dismayed by the recent comments of federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett, who said: ''It is not necessarily a fact that someone who is academically smart makes a better teacher than someone who isn't.'' Have a look through the best private schools, Mr Garrett, and there you will see rows of teachers with master's degrees (some with multiple master's degrees) and PhDs. These teachers excel in specialist subjects, and they have learnt how to impart that knowledge to others. Because they are the best they will gravitate to the schools that offer better money and career opportunities, the schools that appreciate their skills. Good teachers in the public system are not adequately rewarded; students, in turn, see their teachers' modest financial rewards and similarly lowly career status as a disincentive.
Apparently blind to the inequities in the system, and the continued deterioration in the relative quality of education in this country, the Coalition is resisting any change to the schools funding model - a dispiriting view that denies future generations any genuine chance of competing in this world. In Victoria, public school teachers will strike tomorrow as they fight for higher pay. It has come to this because Premier Ted Baillieu has broken his 2010 election promise that this state's teachers would be the best paid in Australia. The Gillard government's response to the Gonski report is predicated on states being prepared to fork out more. They are not - and they are especially not going to do so when the Commonwealth has not even started to explain how the billions of dollars needed to implement the Gonski reforms would be raised.
Deals on buses go round and round
MELBURNIANS know better now than to see privatisation as the cure for public transport. The past two decades offer a lesson in the difficulties of getting assorted operators to run a co-ordinated system that is accessible, affordable and efficient. The Baillieu government acted on the problem by establishing Public Transport Victoria. The public transport overseer is conducting a tender for a contract to replace five bus lines with one operator to run about 30 per cent of the network. That should improve co-ordination, but that gain could be lost if a low-cost bid seduces a cash-strapped government.
The danger of the winning bid being unrealistically low is real. In 1998, when the Kennett government privatised public transport, National Express' bid included many bus routes, but the British company underestimated costs and suffered crippling losses. It walked away in 2003 at significant cost to taxpayers. Only one local operator is among five shortlisted bidders for the latest bus contract, which raises the risk of underquoting. The man who oversaw the 1998 tenders as public transport head, Ian Dobbs, is back as Public Transport Victoria chief executive. He expects ''value for money'' as well as ''improved bus services for passengers'', but the first goal can compromise the second. This seems to have happened in Adelaide since a new contract for 40 per cent of bus routes began last October.
The authority promises ''a rigorous assessment of financial sustainability''. It must be just as rigorous about services for the majority of Melburnians for whom buses are the only public transport near to home. The network has expanded since 2009, when as few as one in 100 people in some outer suburbs relied solely on public transport to get to work. The contract includes three orbital routes, linking middle and outer suburbs, and the Doncaster rapid-bus routes.
These connections are vital for Melburnians who do not live close to train or tram lines, but bus services are more costly to run. Last financial year, state subsidies totalled $525 million, which amounts to $4.95 per bus journey, compared with $3.65 in subsidies for each train ride and $1.94 per tram trip. This year's subsidy is estimated to be $571 million.
The government will be tempted by bids that promise savings, but must ensure this is not achieved at the expense of Melburnians who have no other public transport options. The last thing Melbourne needs is poorer bus services that force people back into cars on congested roads. If that is the effect of a ''value-for-money'' contract, it will be a false saving.
Copyright © 2012 Fairfax Media
Source: National Times, Australia (Online)