The Australian Education Union’s new federal president, Correna Haythorpe, speaks exclusively with Education Matters magazine.
What plans does the Australian Education Union (AEU) have to educate wider public on Gonski reforms and the benefit of their implementation in lead up to the 2016 election?
The issue of school funding is an issue that parents and the community understand, particularly with respect to making sure that their schools have the resources that they need in place. Because we’ve been campaigning now for some years to get Gonski school funding reform in place, we have developed a very broad network of people and have over 130,000 who are a part of our subscriber community and are supporters of our campaign. So in the lead up to the next federal election we plan to engage those people to engage their networks, friends, and family to make sure we can re-ignite the awareness around the importance of needs-based funding being in place to make sure that all children across Australia have the resource that they need to achieve a high educational outcome.
New South Wales and South Australia in particular have made a full implementation of Gonski. We have five states that signed up to the National Education Reform agreement and just after the previous federal election the Abbot Government made a deal with the other states which really was a deal that meant that those states did not have the same level of accountability and transparency around the funding. So it really is very different in terms of what happening around Australia with the Gonski implementation.
In states that have put the money into schools and state governments that have made that full commitment in terms of the funding, we’re seeing the very real benefit now of programs put in place in those schools. Support programs or support staff that have been employed, and children receiving that one-on-one help that they need to make sure they can achieve the best education outcomes possible. So parents in some schools communities are seeing the benefit and they can tell the story in the lead up to the election about what’s possible when we have needs-based funding in place in our schools – and it’s going to be a very positive story. Our big challenge of course is getting those states that have not yet implemented the full Gonski principles to actually commit to doing so and that the Abbott Government commits to making sure that they fund Years 5 and 6.
Looking at the Federal Government’s recent focus on improving graduate teachers, how important do you think this focus is? Is it the right direction for improving student outcomes?
We stand for quality in terms of initial teacher education and we believe it’s vitally important that students have access to high-quality teaching courses and that those courses provide them with the particular expertise they need to be classroom ready at the end of that study. Reforms of the sector are vitally important, however, the recent Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report didn’t go far enough.
The report identified that there were many teaching courses that were not meeting the national standard and that for us is a huge concern because if students are participating in those courses how can they be reassured that they are going to be classroom ready at the end of that process? The report made a recommendation that there should be a national regulator in place to ensure that these courses meet national standards but that was rejected by [Federal Education] Minister Pyne and we think that’s very disappointing because we do believe there is cause for a national regulator to lift the quality of those courses. It’s also very, very important for people to have ongoing support whilst they’re studying and I know there was a headline issue around literacy and numeracy tests for student teachers at the end of their course. We think it’s very important not to focus on a single test but that students actually have access to ongoing support during their course and ongoing assessment. They need to have access to that so they can work out what changes they need to put in place and what skills and expertise they need to develop to become classroom ready.
How do you feel about one of the main recommendations being a specialisation for primary school teachers with a focus on STEM and languages?
The reality is in many primary schools across the country there are already specialist teaching programs in place. We think it’s important for teachers to have access to broad curriculum expertise, that’s very important for a child’s development as a whole, but you can’t implement provisions around having specialist teachers in place without looking at the resources that will need to be in place to support that.
One of the things that we would like to see is a two-year post-graduate degree and we think that that will provide additional time for student teachers to take up a specialist teaching course, but also it would provide time to make sure that student teachers spend a greater amount of time in classrooms.
It’s not about an education degree being purely post-graduate but we think there needs to be a compensation right across the nation with the education sector about post-graduate study. If you have a look in South Australia the government there has announced that new teachers there will do a Master’s degree by 2020. Now that’s one way forward and there may be other avenues for universities to consider and be very open to be a part of the conversation about what post-graduate study can look like.
The Federal Government has also put support for school principals back to the agenda recently. What way do you think is best to add greater support to principals in schools conducting their daily work?
We have many principals that are members of our union and we work very closely with them particularly around issues of workload and education leadership. Principals want to be educational leaders in their schools, they want to be driving curriculum change and supporting their teachers, their support staff and their school communities to achieve the best outcomes possible. There is no doubt, and there are many studies that have been run recently, which have demonstrated that the workload of principals is escalating. We support high-standards for leadership but we think there needs to be some recognition of the additional resources that principals need, the ongoing professional development that they need and also the mentoring and support that they need to be fantastic educational leaders.
Going back to late last year and looking at the Federal Government’ Review of the Australian Curriculum and its key recommendations – how confident are you of its implementation?
Let’s not forget that the Review of the Australian Curriculum was implemented at a time when full curriculum rollout had not been completed. In the first instance we had significant concerns about reviewing a curriculum that had yet to be fully implemented, and around the country in many states and territories there was a timeline in terms of curriculum implementation, and in particular the secondary sector had some curriculum areas that were being implemented this year and in 2016. So that in itself was an issue, reviewing something that’s not been fully-established.
There were a number of recommendations of the review. I think the one that is interesting refers to the over-crowding of the curriculum. Whilst particularly in the primary sector many educators would say that there is an issue with respect to over-crowding of the curriculum, we would be concerned about some of the discussion around removing things such as sustainability and climate change and environmental issues from the curriculum. We believe very strongly in educating the whole child. Numeracy and literacy skills are vitally important but we also want school students to be active participants in society and have a broad understand of issues such as climate change and other things that could affect their life after school.
The states are already well on their way in terms of implementing the Australian Curriculum, so that is happening. There has already been an intense process between the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and education professionals working in the field to road test the curriculum and to get things in place. Our concern is that reviewing something that had not been fully implemented has not actually allowed people to have the capacity to participate in a review in a reflective way because really you’ve got to see how the curriculum is implemented, what sort of issues might arise at a classroom level, and if it’s not implemented then I would question how you can do that.
How do you feel about the recommended restructure of ACARA so it is “at arm’s length” from education ministers and the education department?
I think ACARA has had a key role to play in terms of not only the curriculum development but the implementation of that and it is an organisations that is respected in the field and we think there is still a strong future for ACARA to lead the work around curriculum development.
Latest figures from the Productivity Commission confirm that at least 100,000 students with disability are not getting support in schools. Are we likely to see an increase in this support from the Federal Government?
The issue around students with a disability is absolutely critical. We’ve been through a national disability data collection process to work out how many additional students actually require funding. That was a commitment that was made by the Federal Government through the implementation of Gonski school funding reform. What the Abbott Government has done has put that funding on hold and said the disability loading will not be implemented until 2016. So we know that we’ve got an additional 100,000 children in the sector who are currently not receiving the resources that they need in our schools. We are very concerned about this and we believe it’s a vital issue that must be addressed in the May budget by the Abbott Government because we want to see the commitment to the disability loading in place so that those children and their families can be reassured that the resources are in place for them in school.