Quality key to education reform agenda

By Jane Garcia in Sydney

A focus on choice, quality and diversity in schools, vocational and higher education will enhance Australia’s education and skills system, Prime Minister John Howard told the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policymaker’s Forum held in Sydney last night (May 14).

He said he was an ‘avowed educational traditionalist’, believing in high academic standards, competitive examinations, teacher-directed lessons based on traditional disciplines, clear and readable curriculum material and strong but fair policies on school discipline.

”What is the education challenge in Australia in 2007? It turns on one word – quality,” Mr Howard said.
“The way of the future is to trust the people whose decisions matter most: the students and parents, employers and employees – the people whose decisions will determine Australia’s future productivity.”
“[Education] is about giving people the capacity to control their own lives and to make informed choices over the course of their lives.”

Incentives were needed to ensure Australia’s schools performed at their best with “high academic standards, good teachers and principals with real power and proper accountability”, according to Mr Howard. He said, from 2009, Australian Government funding will be tied directly to quality reforms.

The Prime Minister outlined three key components to his national reform agenda for schools.

He believed there needed to be greater transparency to assist parents in assessing the performance of individual schools, both in the public and private sectors.

“International evidence suggests that schools with higher levels of public reporting and accountability deliver greater improvements in student results,” Mr Howard said.
“In most Australian states, school-based test scoring is very limited in contrast to countries such as Britain and the United States.
“Parents should have information about school performance and be able to exercise choice about which school is right for their child. This particularly so in the government sector.
“The Australian Government is not willing to accept the patronising view that too much choice and information is dangerous.”

The Prime Minister emphasised the need to create better incentives to recognise teaching performance, citing OECD evidence suggesting a lack of financial recognition of teaching performance contributed to teachers leaving the profession.

He recognised the Federal Government limitated scope to influence teacher renumeration, but said
in 2008 the Australian Government would establish Summer schools to allow school teachers to undertake professional development, and upgrade and extend skills in a range of areas.

Mr Howard’s final area of proposed school reform was a move to increasingly empower school principals to make decisions.

“In the case of principal autonomy, for example, the Commonwealth has proposed that all jurisdictions agree that principals should be provided with a statutory right to:
1) veto the transfer to their school of a new staff member;
2) appoint any registered teacher to the staff of their school; and
3) terminate a staff member from their school on prescribed grounds, including for a lack of performance," he said.

The recent Federal budget announced various education initiatives, including a $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund to finance capital works and research at universities, and a voucher system offering financial assistance for extra help for students who are not meeting literacy and numeracy benchmarks.

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