Plibersek Backs Gonski

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31 March 2017

Teachers give “a gift that lasts forever” when they inspire students, says federal deputy opposition leader and shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek but it takes proper funding to support teachers to do their jobs. She spoke to AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe on what schools need and her own experiences.

Correna Haythorpe: Was there a teacher who particularly influenced you?

Tanya Plibersek: I loved school. I had great teachers throughout. The real difficulty for me is to choose one teacher who had a great influence because so many did.

There was my Year 6 teacher, Rosemary Beard. I don’t think I’d have a sense of humour if she hadn’t taught me. I learned so much from her; her subject teaching was very good, and she was probably the first clearly identifiable feminist I met.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with Bronwyn Haddock, an English teacher of mine, Cheryl Rutherford, my history teacher, and Anna Lewis, an art teacher. And, if I could have found my maths teacher, Gail Gibson, I would have invited her too.

The teachers that inspired me loved their subject matter and they inspired in me a love of what they were teaching.

The other thing I really loved about my teachers was that they inspired in me a belief in myself that I don’t know I would have had otherwise.

I went to an ordinary public school that wasn’t very well resourced but I had teachers who said you could do anything you set your mind to. That’s an extraordinary gift to give a child.

You’ve held the education portfolio since last year, what really motivates you about education?

I’ve always been interested in this portfolio. Even before it was mine I followed it very closely in our cabinet discussions.

Education is the biggest chance we have to help people attack poverty and to let them fully realise their gifts and aspirations.

As legislators, we know that this investment has massive returns for our economy. We know that it’s the key to good quality, high paying jobs; to innovation, to discovery, to a return on that investment by providing a high-wage, high-productivity nation.

Public schools have a high number of children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. How do we cater for the needs of those children?

We fully fund our schools.

It’s really the reason we commit to the whole Gonski model, to make sure that every child in every school gets every opportunity.

The debate we’re having now — that says education funding doesn’t matter – parents know that’s nonsense. They don’t stay up late at night baking for the cake stall or running the sausage sizzle on the weekend because funding doesn’t matter.

Other things matter, too, but we can’t do those other things unless we properly fund our schools.

The disadvantaged kids are the ones who’ll benefit most from proper needs-based funding, because those kids will get the individual attention they need to catch up if they’re falling behind their peers.

Malcolm Turnbull wants a new funding agreement for the final years of Gonski funding, beyond 2017, in place in the first half of this year. How do you see this playing out and how will you work to ensure that our schools have the full funding they need?

I don’t know how we’re still talking about this – it’s leaving it a bit late.

We will continue to argue that the needs-based funding model should be rolled out to states and territories. We will never accept the $30 billion that the Coalition has cut from future years of schools' funding.

They made a promise to fully fund a needs-based funding system and they should be kept to
that promise.

You’ve been visiting schools. Have you seen examples of how needs-based funding is making a difference?

I’ve met so many kids for whom it’s making a difference. I’ve met so many teachers who tell me that this is the first time they’ve had the time to reinvest in their own teaching practice; to think about how they can mentor other teachers; to seek out mentoring themselves. It’s giving them the space to continue to hone their craft.

Minimbah Primary school in Armidale is a great example. It’s almost entirely Aboriginal kids and they’ve hired Aboriginal teachers because they think it’s important for their kids to have Aboriginal role models. What a great way to make a difference to those kids.

Heatley Secondary College in Townsville is another one. They started hiring extra, highly skilled teachers to help their younger, less experienced teachers. They’ve had a 15 per cent improvement in their results.

The principal said to me that while it shows up in the academic results, the biggest change they’ve noticed day-to-day is they have fewer behavioural problems because they’re teaching every kid in the way that child can learn best.

There are so many great examples from lots of different schools. Every school I’ve visited has benefited from the extra funding. Teachers will tell you it has changed their experience.

One of the areas of concern for us is that the promise to introduce a disability loading that has been broken over and over again.

I think it’s one of the most shameful failures of this government. It is a complex policy area, we acknowledge that. But you can’t keep putting it off forever.

They’ve promised it since 2013.

It’s one of the areas Labor will fix as soon as possible. We’ll keep putting pressure on the government to fix it because it’s unconscionable. A variety of experts say that probably one child in every two needing extra support isn’t getting it.

We feel it’s very important that student teachers have the support they need to enter the classroom. What’s your view on what we need to provide for them?

There’s a technical aspect of being a teacher but we don’t just want to graduate technically proficient teachers – we want to graduate people who can inspire a love of learning as well.

Of course, you have to know the subject matter and be good at it but you also have to have a calling, a passion for teaching. That’s a little harder to teach but universities need to think carefully about attracting people who want to be teachers because they want to inspire in children a love of learning.

I think the feedback loop between schools and universities needs to be much better and stronger than it is.

I’ve heard a lot of teachers who supervise students saying they often feel the feedback to the university about the students doesn’t really make much difference to how the university goes on to build on their strengths and correct weaknesses.

We need to give more respect to people who are giving up their time and energy to supervise.