THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING
SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN
ACTING SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
SUNDAY, 6 JANUARY 2019
SUBJECTS: Labor’s plan to get the best and brightest Australians to study teaching; St Kilda rally and Fraser Anning’s attendance; Women’s representation in the parliament.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well thank you very much for coming out today. I wanted to say a few words about ensuring that we choose our teaching students from amongst the top 30 per cent of our high achieving high school performers. When we look around the world, we see that the school systems that are performing best are the ones that attract teachers that come from the top 30 per cent of academic achievers. In Australia in recent years, we've seen marks to get into teaching courses lower and lower every year - and this trend is a problem.
Now of course, ATAR isn't the be all and end all. There will always be people who for some reason or another have a particularly bad year in high school, they don't achieve the mark that they're capable of - there have to be alternative pathways into teaching degrees for people who have the capacity to be a great teacher but don't achieve a great mark.
What I am talking about today is a very worrying trend where courses - teaching courses generally - are accepting students with lower and lower marks every year. And more students are choosing teaching as a degree because they don't know what else to study.
We have parents and teachers themselves saying to high achieving High School students whatever you do, don't waste your mark on a teaching degree - and I think that is heartbreaking. Teaching can be one of the most rewarding and important professions in our community. We all know the teachers that made a huge difference in our lives. We see the capacity that teachers have to shape the next generation, to give them the basic skills of course but also, to help them find their path and their passion. We need to ensure that people who will become passionate, quality teachers choose teaching degrees because they desperately want to shape the next generation - not because they don't know what else to do with their own lives.
What I'm saying to universities today is work together to ensure that you are increasing the cut-off marks to get into teaching degrees. Make sure that you are choosing students to go into teaching degrees who will be passionate, competent teachers. Ensure that teaching is a first choice, not a fallback for students. Make sure that we are, again, taking our teachers from amongst the highest achieving students in High School and from high achievers who might choose teaching later in life.
We cannot afford to continually dumb down teaching degrees, to enrol people who will never be competent teachers. It's a waste of time and a waste of money for those students. It's a waste of public funding as well. We are doing a disservice to the profession as a whole if we continue on this path.
JOURNALIST: Is this an ultimatum to universities?
PLIBERSEK: Look, I wouldn't put it in those terms. What I'd say is that it's a clear signal to universities. We want our teachers to be drawn from the top 30 per cent of academic achievers. We want teaching's professional standing restored in our community. We want teaching to be as attractive as a profession as medicine. We want our High School students competing to get into teaching courses the way they compete to get into medical degrees. We want people who have achieved in other areas of professional life, who are high achievers in those areas, to go into teaching with that added life experience.
What we don't want are people who just don't know what else to do with their lives, thinking that teaching may be a good fallback for them.
JOURNALIST: What about students who might be from indigenous background or non-English speaking background. They may not be in that top 30 elite so what about those students? Do we still need a mix of people being teachers, don't we?
PLIBERSEK: We absolutely need a good cross section of people choosing teaching as a profession but we need to know that those people have the capacity to be good teachers. So, if they've bombed out in High School for some reason - it could be any reason - it could be that they've had a traumatic time at home, parents divorcing, became homeless - it could be because the school that they're at hasn't been able to support them in their academic endeavours as well as you might like - there's a variety of reasons that people might have had a bad year or two in High School or have come to the academic maturity that you need later in life.
So, yes, there needs to be alternative pathways into university for those people who have the capacity to be great teachers but we need to make sure that they have the capacity and that they get the support to catch up on any areas where they're falling behind. For example, they might have great English literacy but really poor maths skills. Well, you don't want those people going into primary school teaching, even if they're great at English literacy but they can't teach maths to kids. We can't afford for kids to miss out on basic numeracy skills in primary school.
We need to make sure that for whatever reason, if there are people who have the capacity, who have bombed out for some reason, there's an alternative pathway,
but with an assurance that their work is up to scratch before we put them in classrooms with children.
JOURNALIST: How would you describe the behaviour of some of the universities that perhaps are treating their process more as a business would, getting the numbers in you know, and getting through as quickly as possible?
PLIBERSEK: Universities have seen billions of dollars cut by this Federal Government. Their budgets are under pressure and I understand that their budgets are under pressure.
But nevertheless, it is not fair of universities to over-enrol people in degrees where those students don't have the hope or the opportunity of getting a decent job at the end of their course. So universities have a responsibility to target students who are capable of getting work.
And we need to make sure that our school systems are also working in partnership with our universities to bring in those high achieving students into teaching degrees and then showing that there is a pathway for them into the classroom.
JOURNALIST: How realistic is it to say that you want teaching to be as attractive as medicine when it doesn't have the status or the earning capacity of that profession? How do you address that - make it more attractive as an occupation?
PLIBERSEK: Well I think teaching can be every bit as attractive as medicine as a profession because while the pay might not be quite as high, the status of the profession in past times absolutely has been. And if you talk to parents today, every parent can point to the brilliant teachers at their school. And can I tell you as a parent myself, those stand-out teachers get a lot of love from the kids and from the parent community and the broader community and they get a lot of intellectual, psychological and emotional reward for their work.
So I don't think it's a long shot to say that teaching should be as well respected as medicine as a profession. I think that depends on us, as a community, valuing our teachers and showing that we value our teachers. Yes, it does depend on pay and conditions as well. Starting salaries for teachers are not bad, but salaries top-out pretty quickly in the teaching profession. So we need to do more to keep our highly skilled, very competent teachers in the classroom.
When Labor was last in government, we were working with the states on highly accomplished and lead teachers. Actually paying teachers more to stay in the classroom, to mentor the next generation of starting teachers, to work with their colleagues to upgrade their skills. There has to be a way of keeping those experienced teachers in the classroom and not saying to them, "if you want a pay increase, you have to go into head office or you have to choose another career."
So it is about status - we can do more when it comes to pay and conditions. It is about the way our community values the profession and recognises the profession. One thing you will never see me doing is teacher bashing. If we periodically see Australia's results in international league tables of school education go backwards, I see some people are very quick to blame the teaching profession for that. Well, we have got a Federal Government that's cut $14 billion from our public schools. That is going to have an impact on how our schools perform. It's no good blaming teachers for the under-resourcing of our public school system or, indeed, our school system overall.
JOURNALIST: If universities don't respond as you'd like, how serious are you about this idea of a cap?
PLIBERSEK: They should try me. I'm very serious about making sure that we raise the status of the teaching profession, that we attract the best and brightest to teaching because our kids deserve nothing less.
JOURNALIST: The Federal Government are probably going to say today that the universities are not going to like that very much -
PLIBERSEK: The universities have already told me that they don't like the fact that I'm calling them out on this, but too bad.
JOURNALIST: Universities are saying that it depends on each - the ATER [sic] depends on each university. Do you think there should be an ATR [sic] across the board?
PLIBERSEK: I think that's a more complex issue. You do see a lot of slightly irrational problems thrown up by the way we determine end of High School marks to get into university. I think that's a longer conversation for another day. I don't want to fixate on ATAR as the only measure, either. Like I said earlier, this is one measure of someone's capacity to be a great teacher. There are other measures as well. You might get a 99 ATAR but not really like kids. Well, we don't want you to choose a teaching profession either. But we need to find ways of ensuring we are targeting high achievers and we need to stop the slide in marks, in entry-level marks because this sends a terrible signal about the value of this work. Teaching is complex work. It is difficult work. You need highly skilled professionals to take it on. And the signal that is sent as marks continue to slide is the exact opposite, that anyone can do this. That's what we don't want.
JOURNALIST: The top 30 per cent is about 80 - is that the cut off point in your mind?
JOURNALIST: What is the cut off you want?
PLIBERSEK: Like I say, ATAR is a simplistic measure but if we are targeting the top 30 per cent, it is an ATAR cut-off of around 80. If there are people who have extraordinary abilities but for some reason bombed out, didn't do well in High School, as I've said, there must be other alternative path ways.
But as a general rule, what is troubling me is that a few years ago, a third of people who went into teaching had an ATAR of 80 or above. Now it's only a fifth. We're going backwards - we're going the wrong way. We're lowering entry levels all the time. There may well be extraordinary people who get a lower ATAR who would make a great teacher but as a rule, we need to be lifting the standard, lifting the cut off, not lowering it.
JOURNALIST: And we’d also need to, wouldn’t you say, lift the pay, because it’s all very well like you pointed out it’s a complex, challenging job and that people look to the long term and wages don’t really go up - so, the status is also to do with the pay isn’t it also? To make it attractive.
PLIBERSEK: Yes. Look, like I say, starting salaries for teachers are not bad but they do top off and the only way that very experienced, excellent, competent teachers can continue to see their pay increase is to go into either school management, become principals, go into departmental positions or go into another field altogether. And that loss from the system, that is a terrible loss from the system. So we do need to look at ways of better rewarding very experienced teachers. We haven't seen the take-up of those highly experienced or lead teacher roles in the way that we would have hoped when we were last in government - being able to pay people to stay in the classroom but also to have a formal role in training and mentoring their colleagues for example, is a very good way of recognising that very high degree of competence, rewarding it, acknowledging work that is often done for free right now - that mentoring role - and keeping highly experienced teachers in the classroom.
JOURNALIST: What is your response to Fraser Anning's attendance at the far-right rally in St Kilda over the weekend?
PLIBERSEK: Well, it's an ugly rally. It's motivation is an ugly effort to divide Australians rather than bring us together. I think the attendance at the rally - Fraser Anning's attendance at the rally is I think, it's disgusting.
What really concerns me is that this is a fellow that the Government has to continue to rely on to get measures through the Senate and he has voted with the Government about 90 per cent of the time. So, Scott Morrison has criticised the rally - I'm very pleased he's criticised the rally. He also has to criticise Fraser Anning for going to such a thing, to criticise Fraser Anning for attending a rally that's been organised by people with a known record of seeking to divide Australians, not bring them closer together.
JOURNALIST: Is he fit for Parliament?
PLIBERSEK: Well, Australian citizens determine who is fit for Parliament. I would never vote for him. I hope others will reconsider their support for him in the future.
JOURNALIST: Should the Government be negotiating with him or seeking his vote Ms Plibersek?
PLIBERSEK: Well I certainly think - we know what happens when numbers are tight; people make demands in return for their support. I would hate to think that this Government owed Fraser Anning anything for the votes that he is providing them in the Senate. And I would note that he has voted with the Government about 90 per cent of the time.
Sorry, you had a question and I didn't hear.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, I just said Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has said that his vote should be refused. What do you make of that?
PLIBERSEK: Well, she can say what she likes - I think it's problematic if the Government have to agree to any of the sorts of demands that he is likely to make.
JOURNALIST: The New Daily is reporting that taxpayers footed his bill to Melbourne. Do you have any comment on that?
PLIBERSEK: Well I really think he should reconsider that. That is a very poor use of taxpayers money and I think the vast majority of Australians would be disgusted to think that their taxes are paying for an Australian Senator to attend an event that seeks to divide not to unite our country.
JOURNALIST: Emma Husar has said that the ALP has the same women problem as the Liberal Party. How do you respond - I know you spoke at length on this on Friday?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I very much disagree with that. We are at almost 50 per cent female representation. We've got twice the number of women on our front bench than the Liberals. I've been working on improving female representation in the Labor Party for close to 30 years I guess. And I know it hasn't happened overnight but it's a very different party to the party I first joined. It's a very different parliament- a very different parliamentary caucus to the caucus that I first went into.
I think about my friend, Jeannette McHugh, who was the first woman elected to the Federal Parliament from the state of New South Wales. Not the first Labor woman - the first woman elected from New South Wales about 35 years ago. There weren't even female toilets in the Old Parliament House in the members area, she used to have to go out and use the ladies bathroom in the public area.
I have seen enormous change in my time and a big part of that change in the Labor Party is because we've got to a critical mass of women where, I think, there's just a very different, better culture than the culture I first entered.
JOURNALIST: But Husar says, in fact that is not the case - that there aren't the structures in place - the mentoring - and you know, that you might have the numbers but what sits beneath that is no different from the Liberal Party.
PLIBERSEK: Well, I guess you have to talk to her about her ideas. It's not my experience and I would say it's certainly not the experience of the other Labor women that I speak to.