AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND EDUCATION LAW ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE – DR ANN SHORTEN MEMORIAL ADDRESS

Speech

Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.

I’d also like to acknowledge all the Directors here today, and congratulate everyone involved on in organising the conference.

It is such an honour to have the opportunity to deliver the Dr Ann Shorten Address here today.

Looking around the room, not only at the volume of people here today but at the sheer diversity of groups you all represent, demonstrates what a vibrant organisation ANZELA is in Dr Shorten’s memory.

Vibrant – and relevant.

This conference falls at a particularly fortuitous time, when the role of legislation in education reform is front and centre yet again in our political debate.

Today I have been asked to address the topic of this conference:

Education Reform: Simply a Matter of Legislative Change - Or is there more to it than that?

In asking me to address this question, the organisers have drawn a playful comparison to that children’s literary classic – Alice in Wonderland.

They have asked whether education law can provide clear direction to those working in the sector.

Or, whether, in practical terms, education law is little more than ‘Jabberwocky’ – the title of the nonsensical poem from the world beyond Alice’s looking glass.

As someone whose job it is to make laws, you might not be surprised to find I am an optimist on this point.

Education law can play a powerful and positive role in improving education in Australia – and in driving reform.

It can define vision.

It can set goals, and deliver clarity.

It can alter complex systems.

And it can change lives.

It can provide stability, and drive co-operation across our federation.

The others elements are:

1 – Political commitment and leadership;

2 – Community understanding and support; and of course

3 – The efforts, commitment and support of educators and experts – those with the deepest understanding, firsthand experience and the responsibility for implementation.

Each of these ingredients is necessary for successful reform over the long term.

Today I will examine the role education law has played in two important federal reforms initiated by the previous Labor Government: the National Quality Framework for early education and care, and the Gonski school reforms.

I will reflect on the role education law has played in these reforms. And on the influence that law is having on the current political debate about early education and schools.

I will also examine the implementation of these reforms. And the incredibly important work the law has done to shape and maintain commitment and direction in the face of political attack.

Without law supporting these reforms, education in Australia would have taken a terrible backward leap over the last two years.

There would have been nothing to stop the Liberal/National Government quickly unraveling years of work, and precious consensus.

And without first having to make the arguments for why we needed these reforms and laws to the people and the parliament, there would have been less understanding of the consequences of dumping these changes.

There would also have been less debate about their importance – and the consequences of walking away from them.

In addition to the National Quality Framework and Gonski reforms, I will also discuss how education law has shaped and defined the public debate on higher education over the last 18 months. And Labor’s plans for the future of our universities.

Dr Ann Shorten

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wishes he could be here today, to honour the memory of his mother.

As many of you may know, Bill often cites his mother as one of the greatest influences in his life – not just in terms of the values that she instilled in him, but also his passion for politics, his strong views on universal education, and an equitable society.

Bill has described his mother as “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met”.

He once said of his mother, “Mum’s a giant influence on who I am and the value of education. She’s taught me that teaching shouldn’t be denigrated; that we ask a lot of teachers and they give a lot back.’’

In holding the education portfolio for Labor I feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure that this importance of education –and indeed this legacy that Ann  left her son- is translated into us having strong policies and an emphasis on maximising the transformative nature of education.

So it is a great privilege for me to speak on Bill’s behalf today, and Bill wishes you all the best at this week’s conference.

I would like to start by recognising the work and achievements of Dr Ann Shorten.

Many here today will of course be very familiar with Dr Ann Shorten’s work and achievements.

But this is an important opportunity to reflect on her accomplishments.

And on what can be achieved when focus, determination and strong values coincide.

Dr Ann Shorten was not just a fighter for social justice, but someone who knew what was needed on a practical and a policy level to get there.

As Bill said in his Budget reply speech two years ago - she never stopped being a teacher.

Her work and research after completing her law studies were very much anchored in building the best education system possible.

She had the brilliant combination of tangible classroom experience, with the drive to improving the learning experience through strengthening the legislative framework.

Ultimately, her work represents what we try to achieve each and every day in education reform.

Improving the legislative structure which guides the education of the next generation, without losing track of what really matters – the individual experience of each and every child.

It’s a fine, and important balancing act.

Dr Shorten would have been very proud of the achievements of her son  in getting this balance right – particularly in terms of the NDIS and the Gonski reforms.

The NDIS represents transformational reform at its finest - at the broadest level it represents a revolution in Australia’s disability system, but in the homes of thousands of Australians it represents a better, easier, fairer way of life.

The Gonski reforms – as I will discuss more at length later – follow the same principle. At a national level they are the most ambitious education reforms Australia has ever seen. The single biggest review of Australia’s education system representing an equitable framework for our education system to develop and grow.

But for that one child, in that one classroom? They represent the chance to succeed, no matter their background or circumstances.

So just as Dr Ann Shorten never stopped being a teacher, we can never lose sight of what really matters – the individual and their community, which needs to be at the heart of any legislative change.

I’m going to discuss some examples of where I think this was achieved, and perhaps some which are still works in progress.

National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care

The National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care is arguably Australia’s most significant child care reform.

It marked the coming of age for our child care sector. What started out decades ago as formal babysitting has become, over time, early education.

This change did not happen instantly or easily. And it is not yet complete.

The importance of this case study is the way evidence, academic advice, political leadership, community expectations and the sector have worked together – in creative tension – to create law, implement it, and drive real improvements in child care.

And to hold each other to account.

As with most good reform, the genesis of the National Quality Framework was in research - research into early childhood development.

In the decades before the National Quality Framework, a body of irrefutable evidence about the importance of the early years had been established.

We knew that 90 per cent of brain development occurs in the first five years.

We knew that children who start school behind tend to finish behind.

And we knew that improvements in the quality and accessibility of early education are some of the smartest long-term investments a government can make.

For years, this was discussed by academics. And then by parents, and politicians, and the community.

But this alone did not drive system-wide improvements to child care in Australia.

Before Labor came to Government in 2007, almost one in ten care centers was failing accreditation.

Something needed to be done.

An argument for change had been made, and many in the community supported it.

But no matter how much change was wanted, or how hard educators might have worked to implement best practice in their classrooms, there was no framework to guide, or mechanism to enable.

That is something that only a change in the law could provide.

The law bridged the gap between vision and reality.

Between research and implementation.

Between an outdated system and a better future for the education of our children.

In December 2009, COAG agreed that over ten years from July 2010 new standards in early education and care in Australia would be legislated.

And in 2012, each state and territory introduced laws to create a national system.

Staff-to-child ratios were lowered.

A transparent quality ratings system was established.

New qualifications standards for educators were mandated.

And a shared body was established to oversee and implement the reforms – bringing the states and territories together - unified in purpose.

All the key ingredients for successful reform were present.

Experts had mounted a compelling argument for change, and educators were keen to improve their skills and make changes in the classroom.

Politicians had shown commitment and leadership - enacting laws to guide reform and backing this up funding and programs to support the transition.

Parliaments had been convinced, and Treasurers too. There were no easy arguments.

And there was community support. After years of discussion by politicians, experts and educators, parents and the broader community understood why changes were needed.

But the success of this reform was still not guaranteed.

The law had provided a framework. But politicians, educators, the sector, experts and the community would need to hold each other to account if implementation was to work.

And Jabberwocky was to be avoided.

There have been challenges to the National Quality Framework, most recently from the federal Liberal Government.

The current government went to the last election wanting to water down the National Quality Framework. They even set Terms of Reference for a Productivity Commission review that were designed to favor lower cost child care over higher quality early education.

They saw quality only as a cost, and after the release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report, the then Minister, Sussan Ley refused to rule out watering down qualifications or increasing child to educator ratios.

This set off alarm bells. The essence of the National Quality Framework reforms were under threat.

Experts re-stated the evidence, educators and unions protested, and politicians – including the Government’s state Liberal colleagues - rushed to defend the reforms.

Because the reforms had been enshrined in law, the Government could not quietly make an administrative decision to water them down. They were forced to confront a public argument.

The process that would have been necessary to change the law, and the community understanding that had been developed through establishing the law in the first place acted as a policy anchor.

In the end, after a change in Minister, commitment to the National Quality Framework was reinstated.

When one of the policy elements was weak, the others remained strong, and the reform endured.

It is an example of how law can drive reform and provide stability.

It gives me every confidence that the National Quality Framework will be fully implemented. And that it will continue to improve early education in Australia.

The Gonski education reforms

This brings me to the second case study – the Gonski reforms.

There is possibly no better example of how law has influenced the education debate in Australia.

And how it has been used to define policy ambitions.

The Australian Education Act was introduced by Julia Gillard in 2013. And it was very different from the legislation it replaced.

Not only did it set out a formula for federal schools funding, for the first time, it clearly defined goals of equality and excellence.

Including for Australia to be ranked as a top five country in the world in reading, science and mathematics by 2025. And, by the same year, for Australia to be ranked as a top five country in the world for providing a high-quality and high-equity education system.

It linked school funding to evidence about the levels of support needed to ensure all students had the opportunity to achieve their best.

And it provided for a framework of accountability and transparency that ensured the Act would not only deliver funding to schools, but would also drive reform and improvement in student results.

In her speech to the Parliament, Julia Gillard drew attention to the scale of this achievement:

The bill before the House today gives this 43rd Parliament an opportunity none of our predecessors have fully shared.

We can enshrine in law our nation's expectations for our children's achievements at school.

We can enact in law a plan, not only to teach them well, but to fund them well.

Despite their pre-election promises, the Federal Liberals were never committed to the Gonski reforms.

Two budgets have confirmed they will be stopped from 2018.

Yet the reforms and their ambitions continue to shape our national schools debate.

They are being successfully implemented in several jurisdictions.

And at a state level, they are supported across the political divide.

The Gonski reforms are a culmination of decades of increasing federal involvement in schools policy.

This greater Commonwealth role is a recognition that over the long term, education is the biggest economic lever the government has.

It is also a recognition that equality of opportunity across Australia is essential for a fair, cohesive and prosperous future. And that school education is too important to be left only to the states.

Involvement of the Federal Government  in schools started in 1964, when the Menzies Government introduced a piece of legislation called the States Grants (Science Laboratories and Technical Training) Act, which provided capital grants for science laboratories and equipment in secondary schools.

In 1969 there was the States Grants (Secondary Schools Libraries) Act, which provided for the financing library facilities —again, a federal government supporting schools.

In 1970, legislation was enacted for the recurrent funding by the Commonwealth for non-government schools.

Then, in 1972-73, a Labor government ensured that there was recurrent spending for government schools; and in 1974, targeted programs to assist with special education needs, professional development and, indeed, support for disadvantaged schools.

Much like the Gonski report 40 years later – these significant changes by the Whitlam Government were in response to wide ranging review – the Karmel Report.

The report found that schools and students most in need of resources were missing out, and that Australia’s educational achievement and our national skills base was being compromised as a result.

The context of the Gonski reforms was in many ways parallel to those that give rise to education reforms of the Whitlam Government.

Put simply, resources were not reaching those students who needed them most.

 

Inequality was being entrenched and amplified.

 

And this was reflected in our student’s performance.

 

The gap between well off and disadvantaged students is wider than the OECD average, and it is growing.

 

The 2012 PISA (Program for International School Assessment) results show that overall, our results are declining, while relatively, other nations in our region have improved.

 

More of our students are performing poorly. And fewer are very high achievers.

 

The past decade has seen a 5 per cent increase in poor performing students - and a corresponding decrease in high performers.

 

The gap between students in the most socio economically disadvantaged quartile, and those in the most advantaged group, is equal to two and a half years of school.

 

In some areas, this gap is as wide as three years.

 

Regional students lag their city peers by almost a year, and remote students are almost two years behind.

 

Between our states and territories, there is a difference in literacy and scientific literacy of one and a half years, and almost two years in maths.

 

It’s not a small number of children that will continue to be left behind if we do not deal with this inequality – it’s hundreds of thousands.

 

The Gonski review provided a road map for ending these inequalities and improving student results. It put beyond doubt the importance of needs-based funding.

And because the funding model was sector blind, it united school sectors rather than divided.

For the first time, a national resourcing standard was defined – along with needs-based loadings – allowing the states and territories to work together on a funding system that would drive long-term improvements in the classrooms that needed it most.

And strategic, evidence based reforms were linked to funding. In the areas of:

  • quality teaching,
  • quality learning,
  • empowered school leadership,
  • transparency and accountability, and
  • meeting student need.

The Australian Education Act  provided the national framework. And political will from Labor and Liberal state governments saw all states except Qld, WA and the NT sign-up to the reforms before the last election. Since then, Queensland has started working towards implementing the reforms.

While the community, academics and experts, teachers, school systems, many politicians and have worked to bring the law to life – and change our classrooms for the better – the federal Liberal Government has not.

Instead, they have put these reforms at risk.

Failing to fund them from 2018.

Failing to implement accountability and transparency standards – by pushing back school improvement plans.

And failing to drive reform by taking an irresponsible, no-strings approach to billions of dollars in funding.

Despite the best destructive efforts of the federal Liberal government, there is still every chance for these reforms to succeed.

So much depends on the outcome of the next federal election.

But if the reforms are not implemented, we will see jabberwocky.

The tail will wag the dog.

The Government’s policy of CPI indexation for schools will define education in this country - instead of ambitions for excellence and equity.

By failing to complete the six year transition to the Gonski national student resource standard we could also see increased funding inequality between states.

And students who have the most to gain from additional support – disadvantaged students, Indigenous students, students with disability and schools in regional and rural Australia – will never receive the full needs based loadings. They will continue to be left behind.

While the law – or at least parts of it – might survive, it will have been neutered by a lack of political commitment.

But this is not inevitable.

As the example of the National Quality Frame work has demonstrated, community support, along with experts, teachers and political advocates still have the chance to see this law become meaningful long-term reform.

It means we can’t give up the fight.

Higher education reform

A final example of reform I want to explore is that of higher education.

The reason I want to touch on this area is because I think it’s a great example of how proposals to change the law can fail without community, educator and expert support.

Even if a government tries to ignore the concerns.

It’s a powerful example of what happens when community expectations and legislation collide.

And considering the Government’s Higher Education reforms may – or may not be, depending on who is speaking – about to be introduced into the Senate for again, it’s a timely topic for examination.

After the election the Government outlined there would be no major reforms in higher education.

Indeed, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed a Universities Australia conference in February 2013 and said that it was a period of relative policy stability in which was what universities most needed.

About three months later, the Government’s first Budget did exactly the opposite, and instead introduced the biggest shake-up to Australia’s higher education system in decades.

I’m not going to go into a digest of the broken promises in the Budget – I trust you know all about that by now.

But I want to come back to what I said earlier about the reform process needing the community, needing the experts, and the legislation-makers to work in constructive synergy.

I also want to come back to the idea that while we always strive to improve the policy framework at a broad level, we cannot lose sight of the individual at the heart of the reform.

I think the Government’s Higher Education reforms failed on both these tests.

Reform is not easy. Passage of legislation cannot be taken for granted.

The case must be made first, the community taken on the journey, and only then can the policy announcement and necessary legislation follow.

The community rejected the Government’s reforms because they did not align with its expectations. And because the reforms had not – and could not – be properly explained.

Cutting university funding by 20 per cent, deregulating undergraduate course fees, and changing the interest rate on all HECS debts up to double existing levels – clashed with community notions of fairness and equity.

This was not a case of creative differences – it was an example of fundamental misalignment of policy and social norms. This is failure number one.

Failure number two is evident when we move from the broader socio-political framework to the individual human level – the prospective university student, the young man or woman with their sights set on tertiary study and a meaningful career.

How would these reforms have affected them?

Young Australians would be forced to take on significantly more debt and pay more interest.

And this would disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to take time out of the workforce to start a family.

Unlike the National Quality Framework and the Gonski reforms – which promised a better quality education and more opportunities at the individual level, there is simply no benefit in the Government’s higher education reforms for students or parents.

Labor’s positive plans for Higher Education

In contrast, Labor in government will use law to strengthen university policy and funding.

Our changes will reflect the community values we have seen on display in the higher education debate.

Only last week Bill and Shadow Minister for Higher Education Kim Carr announced Labor’s positive plan for universities.

They have been working with experts and educators for over a year, and they have been clear about what Labor wants to see changed and improved, including:

-         Higher completion rates, particularly among disadvantaged groups.

-         Greater links between industry and universities, to ensure that graduates are job-ready, and graduating from courses that reflect growth employment industries

-         And a greater emphasis on preparing the STEM workforce that Australia will need in the 21st century – science, maths, engineering and technology jobs.

Bill’s vision, and Labor’s vision, is for an Australia competing and winning in the world on our terms: as a smart, innovative and creative country.

But practically, what do our reforms look like?

We will reverse the Liberals’ proposed 20 per cent cut to student funding and introduce a new ‘Student Funding Guarantee’.

From the first semester of 2018, Labor will boost university funding by more than 27 per cent.

On average this is an additional $2500 per student, per year, compared with the Liberals’ plan.

On average, over the next decade, a Shorten Labor Government will invest an additional $9,000 in each Australian student’s education for a typical 3-year degree.

And to ensure the value of this investment is protected over time, not eroded, Labor will ensure it is indexed and sustainable into the future.

We will also maintain the student income support system – and the essential income contingent loans scheme.

Our new Student Funding Guarantee underpins our commitment to students and to the future.

Importantly, this funding guarantee will be enshrined in legislation. Providing insurance for the future and forcing governments to make strong and compelling arguments for change.

All of us, government, parents, employers are entitled to expect the best for Australian students.

Sure, it might be easy for me to stand up here and contrast the Government’s flawed and failed reforms with Labor’s positive plans for the future.

But the reason I do so is to spark discussion about the process of policy and legislation development.

Earlier in this speech I said that law alone can never be enough – although it is crucial.

The other factors for meaningful and lasting reform are:

– Political commitment and leadership;

– Community understanding and support; and

– The efforts, commitment and support of educators and experts.

The old saying, “you are only as strong as your weakest link” is true of education reform.

Personally – and on behalf of Bill Shorten and Labor, I want to say clearly today – we know that simply making laws is not enough. We also have a responsibility to work with experts and gain the support of the community.

And I want to encourage all those here today to recognise the vital role educators, experts and the community have in shaping and implementing good education policy and law.

Alone, not one of us can prevent the Jabberwocky which the organisers here today have warned us about.

But if we work together, challenge each other and hold each other to account, we can ensure this is preventewd.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the legacy Dr Ann Shorten has left in her son Bill.

Bill has inherited her values – I see it working along-side him every day.

He is a great advocate for equity and fairness, and through him Ann’s influence on the education debate remains strong.

ENDS