By Tanya Plibersek

12 November 2021



In Thursday's Daily Telegraph, James Morrow argued that Scott Morrison needed to focus on schools. I couldn't agree more.

The three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic - are the foundation of a good education. Kids need to learn to read, so they can read to learn.

Under Scott Morrison, this just isn't happening. Australian schoolkids aren't getting the basics under their belts. In fact, the Liberals have stood by as school test scores have plummeted.

In the most recent tests, Australian students recorded their worst results in reading, maths and science since international testing began. The average 15year-old is now 12 months behind in reading compared to a 15-yearold in the year 2000. That's a year lost and other countries are leaving us in their dust.

There are also significant gaps between schools and between schoolkids. Advanced students are typically five to six years in front of students the same age who are struggling. And what's worse, we know that children who don't master the basics by age eight find it hard to catch up. When our school system fails them, many kids never recover.

If someone can't read, they'll struggle to get lasting work. They'll struggle to understand and sign complex contracts, like a mortgage. And they'll be a lifelong target for scammers and fraudsters who want to rip them off. Having schools teach the basics well is critical for economic growth. Our steep decline in school performance is a national economic risk.

According to researchers, a one per cent drop in literacy translates to a 2.5 per cent drop in economic productivity. As the countries on our doorstep improve their literacy and numeracy, we can't afford to go backwards.

In recent months, it seems like the Morrison Government wants to talk about everything but the basics of school performance.

Perhaps they are looking for a distraction from their failures, including the billions of dollars they've ripped from public schools. Our kids don't need the Government's empty talk, they need results. Other than parents, the greatest influence on a student's performance is their teacher. We've all seen the marvellous job teachers have done during lockdowns and remote learning.

But the number of students being accepted into teaching courses with ATARs lower than 50 has increased fivefold over 10 years.

Teacher shortages are emerging across Australia, particularly in country areas, and in critical subjects such as maths and science.

We need to urgently boost the number of people studying teaching and make sure we're encouraging our highest achievers to choose a career in the classroom.

And we need to keep our best teachers - not lose them to higher paid jobs elsewhere.
This opinion piece was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Friday, 12 November 2021.