What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

By Rachel Wilson

Part one of a two-part series in response to Stuart Robert’s comments last week. Tomorrow: Anna Sullivan on how the minister’s comments affects teacher retention.

Minister Robert’s comments last week at an Association of an Independent Schools event which claimed public schools are held back by “dud teachers” do more to expose his own bias and failings than it does to reflect on the teaching profession.

The minister has the wrong target. Teachers are not to blame for the sorry state of Australian education. The problem lies with system failings that Minister Robert has responsibility for.

I feel sorely tempted to analyse the bias, political motivations, and the unfounded and illogical reasoning demonstrated by the minister, and apparently his advisors and speechwriters. However, I will stick to my strengths and instead look at evidence and some killer facts

There is no data to support the assertion that government schools have weaker teachers. Repeated, and recent, research suggests that government schools performance is  similar to non-government schools in terms of lifting student learning outcomes. Furthermore, there is no data on teacher ability that supports the Ministers’ assertion. The national and embryonic and incomplete Australian Teacher Workforce Data does not include measures of literacy and numeracy, there are no published analyses of LANITE tests. There is just one recent report on adult literacy and numeracy levels among Australian teachers – it doesn’t compare sectors, but I shall explain its significant findings later in point 3.  Sectoral (gov/non-gov) comparisons on teacher workforce have not been done and would be an unhelpful, and potentially inflammatory, distraction from the central problem of inequality in Australian schooling.  There is, however, plenty of evidence, and some killer facts, that show the real system-level challenges in Australian education, and the solutions they require.  

These are the system problems to which Mr Robert needs to attend rather than sling mud at teachers and inflame sectoral infighting :

1. Australia has a problem with educational equity in funding, resourcing and curriculum which, alongside school choice policies, has led to increasing school segregation. Both the OECD and UNICEF have identified this as a key weakness in Australian schooling. School segregation has left many government schools carrying increasing concentrations of disadvantaged students. Within the current context of teacher shortages, iniquitous school funding, increasing workloads and difficult work conditions, many schools find it difficult to staff their classrooms. 

In a survey of 38 wealthy nations Australia ranked 30th on educational inequity and was in the bottom third of nations on each of the schooling stages – preschool, primary and secondary. 

Figure 1: Rankings of equality across three stages of education. From 2018 UNICEF report An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries

Solutions:  Lift early childhood participation and duration to ameliorate inequity.  Enact the Gonski school funding reforms, fund all schools to their required School Resource Standard. Address structural problems in schooling, e.g. develop sector blind school obligations, operations and accountabilities for all schools receiving government funding. Provide reforms for curriculum equity, including through online/remote provisions. Monitor and report all educational data for social equity groups. 

2. Australia’s national educational goals have been grossly neglected. There is little, or no, alignment between the goals education ministers put their signatures to in the Mparntwe statement and what is measured in schools and reported in our National Reporting on Schooling

This is a gaping hole in educational policy and accountability, matching goals with monitoring and strategy development is foundational to System Accountability 101.  While governments have been busy over the last decade developing frameworks for teacher and school accountability, much needed system and ministerial accountability have been ignored. It is a simple fact that there is currently no monitoring of national goals in students’ confidence, creativity, orientation to lifelong learning, or preparation to be ‘active and informed’ citizens (with the exception of a small amount of sample data available on citizenship education, showing  disappointing results).

What is even more surprising is that equity has not been adequately monitored. Although excellence and equity are generic aspirations, and can be assessed against any data indicator, there is very little analysis and reporting against the equity goal in national reporting documents.

The Measurement Framework for Australian Schooling (MFAS) identifies equity as a key goal and challenge, and suggests that all educational data will be disaggregated and examined in relation to a series of identified equity groups:  “…with a focus on: Indigenous status, sex, language background, geographic location, socioeconomic background, disability.”

However MFAS qualifies this, saying:

“With the exception of retention to Year 12 by Indigenous students, which relates to COAG targets for Closing the Gap, equity measures are not separately listed in the Schedule of Key Performance Measures but are derived, for reporting purposes, by disaggregating the measures for participation, achievement and attainment where it is possible and appropriate to do so. Measures are disaggregated as outlined in the SCSEEC Data Standards Manual.”

Which is to say, there is no follow through on accountability systems for these goals. 

If we examine the pursuit of the educational equity goals in the annual National Report on Schooling, produced by ACARA, we see glaring omissions. The report does acknowledge some equity groupings and, like the MFAS, suggests there will be analysis but, again, only  “where it is possible and appropriate to do so”: 

In the most recent 2019 annual report measures, analysis and reporting are not linked to national goals. Equity is mentioned just six times in the 138 page document, mostly just in preamble. There is no comprehensive analysis against excellence, equity or any other national goal. There is no reporting against disability, LBOTE, SES; and extremely limited reporting on Indigenous students and geolocation. There is more frequent reporting by gender. Further reference to equity for social equity groups directs interested readers to the ACARA data portal to conduct their own analyses of equity! Is that reasonable, diligent attention for our foremost national goal for education? 

Solutions: Include comprehensive analysis of social equity groups within the annual report on schooling. Strategise to address trends, through funding, resourcing and teacher workforce strategy. Develop measures/indicators for all Australian education goals. Commission research to explore key practices in progressing toward educational goals. 

3. Australian teacher workforce management makes us an International outlier

The 2018 OECD report  Effective Teacher Policies makes it clear that current teacher workforce management (methinks a lack of management) is directly impacting upon schooling outcomes – excellence and equity. This study used OECD, PIACC adult literacy and numeracy data to explore the strategic placement of teachers. Among wealthy nations, Australia sits apart as we send our most experienced, literate and numerate teachers to our most advantaged schools. Other country systems deliberately strategised to send their best and brightest teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This has been an imperative for educational equity, effectiveness and economic efficiency, understood and implemented for many decades, but sadly neglected in Australia.

Teacher reports from the same survey also make it clear that disadvantaged schools have worse resources compared to advantaged schools when it comes to:

  • Experience and seniority levels of teachers
  • Proportions of teachers who are trained or certified in all subjects they teach 
  • Proportion of science teachers with temporary teaching contracts

As the majority of disadvantaged schools are within the government sector, this data  suggests that suitable allocation of teachers to disadvantaged government schools is lacking. It does not provide any basis for comparison of government and non-government school teachers. What is more, this represents a structural policy issue, and a ministerial responsibility requiring urgent attention, not 

Solution: Australia needs a national teacher recruitment, retention and allocation policy to address this problem, not to mention teacher shortages and workload issues.  Without one, we are the international outlier here too. Unfortunately, the recent Commonwealth review, failed to present a cohesive strategic framework oriented around key values and principals. A national strategy needs to highlight these (e.g. due respect and recognition of teachers, pursuit of educational goals, equity etc) and lay out aims for how teachers are recruited, trained and distributed to schools. The strategy would also need more effective monitoring, data, research and reporting on  the teacher workforce (building on the ATWD). 

How to break the cycle of neglect?

With better data, reporting, transparency and system-level accountability frameworks, future education Ministers can be less ignorant and more informed, as they comment on issues relating to teachers and how we can all work together to strengthen school education.

The current failings in our education system are now clear, and reflect many years of neglect, particularly in relation to teachers and equity. We urgently need national, politically neutral and collective attention to address the system generated problems currently being faced by schools, teachers, students and parents. With ignorance and misinformation at the helm, I wonder if, as with aged care and disability services, we will need a Royal Commission into education in order to make that happen. It certainly looks like we are heading there. 

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

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6 thoughts on “What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

  1. This is an excellent analysis of the Minister’s message and the alternative solutions needed for Australia. However, a Minister is always going to craft the agenda to suit their political needs and the interests of their supporters. Waiting for a politically neutral climate is a waste of time. Instead, I suggest the education discipline provide the required leadership, write the required policy, and teacher educators train their students to implement it.

  2. I have long thought that one of the reasons for whatever failings there are in the education system are significantly due to the intervention of people like Robert who infest the political sphere and many others including unfortunately some business people.

    The evidence of teaching and teacher contribution over many decades is substantial and high quality in many countries, not least Australia. There is no excuse for the ignorance displayed by this fool. His predecessor was just as bad, and the Minister before that likewise. Remember that Pyne creature

  3. Liz Simon says:


    You have written a wonderful article. My worry is that the Minister or Acting Minister for Education will not read it.

    I have written a post called ‘Bullshit is what it is’. It is not as academic or as well researched as your post but leans towards the lack of knowledge that education ministers and others have about education.
    Literacy and Pedagogy
    Poor teachers!

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