As Australia looks to overhaul its education system, here’s what’s on the table

As Australia looks to overhaul its education system, here’s what’s on the table

On Friday, Australia’s Federal, State and Territory education ministers convened with an important mission – to forge a path of reform towards achieving the world’s best education system.

Following the Education Ministers Meeting (EMM), the Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, released a communique of what was discussed, and what how he and his fellow State and Territory counterparts intend to fix the most pressing challenges facing Australia’s education system moving forward.

Teacher Education Expert Panel

Ministers agreed to progress recommendations from the Teacher Education Expert Panel to strengthen initial teacher education and support for new teachers, with immediate actions including developing practical teaching guidelines and amending accreditation standards.

“A lot of teachers tell me they did not feel like they were prepared for the classroom when they finished university. That their university course didn’t prepare them well enough to teach things like literacy and numeracy and manage classroom behaviour, and that prac wasn’t up to scratch,” Minister Clare said.

“This report is about fixing that. If we get this right, more student teachers will complete their degrees and more teachers will stay in the profession.”

Mobile Phones

A national commitment was also made to regulate mobile phone use in government schools, with policy design and implementation being jurisdiction-dependent; several states already have bans or restrictions in place.

On Friday, Queensland became the latest state to sign up to the initiative, announcing that mobile phones will be banned at all state schools during school hours – including break times - from Term 1, 2024.

“Under our existing policy, almost all our state schools have implemented some kind of ban on the use of mobile phones, and they have been fully supported to do so,” Queensland’s Education Minister, Grace Grace said.

“This statewide ban will provide uniformity, extend bans to break times, and include certain wearable devices like smartwatches.”

Artificial Intelligence in Schools

Ministers discussed the National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Taskforce's development of a framework for AI use in schools and agreed to consult on a draft AI Framework for Schools for further consideration.

With the rapid uptake of this technology in schools and businesses worldwide, some leading principals say schools must embrace the monumental changes that are emerging in tandem with the rise of AI or face redundancy.

“If we can develop our students’ values and beliefs, they will be better placed to make effective ethical decisions as we try to keep up with the accelerating changes that AI brings,” St Paul’s School headmaster, Dr Paul Browning said.

“If we don’t change the fundamental focus and purpose of education then not only will teachers become redundant, our children won’t be able to thrive in a world of accelerating change.”

Others advocate for a markedly cautious approach.

Professor Sellar, who is Dean of Research in Education Futures and Professor of Education Policy at the University of South Australia, warns the way we currently use data “erodes the social trust we place in teachers as professionals.”

“Teachers often feel conflicted, because their educational values and professional knowledge would see them teaching in different ways but, if the results are not easily translated into data, their views may be discounted,” he said.

Minister Clare said the draft AI Framework for Schools will commence shortly and be brought back for final consideration by Ministers at the next EMM.

Vaping in schools

Ministers agreed to work with Health Ministers on a national education campaign that focuses on educating young people on the harms posed by the marketing and use of e-cigarettes, and to involve students in the design of the campaign.

In May, the Federal Government flagged a sweeping crackdown on vaping, calling it a “massive issue” for Australian schools.

“Barely any children were using vapes a decade ago, but now one in six young people are reported to have tried them,” Minister Clare said.

Following Friday’s EMM, Ministers noted the current work underway at the Federal, state and territory level to combat vaping in schools, and agreed to continue to share experiences and best practice combatting vaping in schools.

National Teacher Workforce Action Plan

Another key item at Friday’s EMM was the implementation of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, which has seen the rollout of the first $4m from the $30m ‘Workload Reduction Fund’.

The Plan, approved by Ministers in December 2022, also includes $159m for 4,000 additional university places for teachers, $56m for bursaries and $68m to triple the number of mid-career professionals shifting into teaching.

At the meeting, Ministers agreed to a proposal from the Australian Teacher Workforce Data Oversight Board to improve teacher workforce data. Minister Clare noted that Ministers will receive further updates on implementation of the Action Plan at their next meeting. 

Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System

Dr Lisa O’Brien AM, Chair of the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System, provided a comprehensive update to Ministers on the progress of the Expert Panel’s activities to date.

In depth meetings have been held with jurisdictions and stakeholders across the country, including visits to a number of schools. The Panel has also received the views of over 24,000 educators, parents/guardians and students who responded to a survey in May and June 2023.

On 5 July 2023, the Panel released a Consultation Paper, inviting interested parties to provide submissions to inform the development of its report. Submissions will be accepted until 2 August 2023. The final report is due to Education Ministers by 31 October 2023.

On 7 July 2023, Ministers and Panel members will meet with the Ministerial Reference Group, providing a further opportunity for stakeholders, including teachers and students, to have their say on what changes are required to drive real improvements in learning and wellbeing outcomes for students.

Community Expectations and Staff Safety

Ministers discussed the challenges facing teachers and school leaders to respond to increasing community expectations on them to address emerging social problems, while delivering their core role of providing a student-centred education.

“Societal expectations about what teachers do everyday have never been higher but their pay compared to other professions has never been lower,” NSW Teachers Federation president, Angelo Gavrielatos, told The Educator.

At the EMM, Ministers agreed to jurisdictions working with the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) to deliver a literature review, and map out and share local best practice initiatives that seek to deliver multi-disciplinary support without adding to educator workloads, by the end of 2023.

Supporting Wellbeing of Principals and School Leaders

Another critical issue discussed at the EMM was the important role of principals and school leaders. Following their talks, Ministers asked the Australian Education Senior Officials Committee to come back to the EMM with advice on ways to increase support for their wellbeing.

In recent times there have been growing concerns that Australia may be facing a shortage of principals as well as teachers, as burgeoning workloads and worsening rates of stress and burnout plague the profession.

Dr Paul Kidson, Senior Lecturer of Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University, said the cumulative impact the ACU’s data on Occupational Principal Health and Wellbeing suggests the rate of school leaders walking away from the job might be speeding up.

“Each year, we typically see two or three of the 19 stressors average rate a seven out of 10 or higher; this year we reported that seven stressors are now averaging over seven,” Dr Kidson told The Educator in April.

“In other words, much more is being demanded of principals, and nothing is being taken away from their work. The combination of the top five stressors has never occurred in the previous eleven surveys.”

Early Childhood and Youth

In line with concerted efforts to support children’s education and development outcomes and parents’ workforce participation, Ministers agreed to draft a national ‘Early Childhood Education and Care Vision’ that will be presented to National Cabinet in August, with the intention of a final Vision being presented at the end of 2023.

“The safety and wellbeing of children remains a priority for all governments and a key objective of the National Quality Framework [NQF],” the Ministers said.

At the request of the Federal Government, the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority is currently undertaking a review of child safety arrangements under the NQF.

Preschool Reform Agreement

Ministers agreed to provide in-principle support to critical details relating to the development and trial of the new preschool outcomes measure.

This will include the purpose of the measure, the design elements of the new national learning progressions and national tool, governance and data arrangements, and in what manner jurisdictions will participate in a national trial in 2025.

Announcing the Federal Government’s intention to reform the nation’s preschools in February, Minister Clare pointed out that children from disadvantaged families are less likely to go to preschool, meaning they’re also more likely to fall behind, drop out of high school and not finish university.

“This is an opportunity to change that,” he said.