It was a bold move for a newly installed minister in a complex portfolio.
In a speech at an independent schools forum in March, Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert praised the teachers of that sector, while lamenting what he called “dud” teachers elsewhere in the system.
Or, as Mr Robert said, “the bottom 10 per cent of teachers dragging the chain”.
Public education advocates, including the Australian Education Union (AEU), called the comments “shameful” and “insulting”, while state Labor education ministers shared the outrage.
Today, it’s clear teacher quality is Mr Robert’s preferred electoral fighting ground, with the Coalition releasing a plan to block underperforming teachers from reaching the classroom, while the opposition pledges more for public schools and more money for high-achievers to study teaching.
However, for many in the system, the comments sum up a growing private-public divide, one that is seeing Australian parents sending their children to private schools in record numbers, and continued debate over what some have dubbed a “culture war”.
Experts say Australian education is now at a crossroads.
And, as Australia heads to the polls, this year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Gonski reforms, reforms that were supposed to fix equity and quality issues alike.
So, what are the Coalition and Labor offering?
More than a month after those controversial comments, Mr Robert sat down with the ABC to discuss the portfolio and the future of education.
He said the comments were a simple statement of fact and not directed solely at the public system, as initially interpreted.
“I made the point that 10 per cent of our teachers are failing the basic literacy and numeracy exam.”
Mr Robert said teacher quality was a key issue. He said the Coalition wanted to block teachers who couldn’t pass a proficiency test from entering the classroom.
“Since 2017, 10 per cent of our teaching graduates have been failing that,” he said.
“Not once, not twice, but three times. Year upon year upon year.”
Education election battle
Last year’s ABC News Australia Talks survey found parents of children at public schools were more likely to have concerns about teacher quality than those at independent or Catholic schools.
The education election battle comes at a time when, despite record investment in all school sectors, the most recent results show Australian students are continuing to slide down international rankings.
Labor’s Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek, told the ABC that she did not believe single out teachers was the answer.
Labor’s pitch to parents involves topping up funding to under-funded public schools in the 2023 school funding agreement, but it is an aspiration and not a promise.
The Coalition’s plan is to do this by 2029.
“It’s not fair that this government has put Catholic and schools independent on track to receive their fair funding while leaving public schools behind,” Ms Plibersek said.
Mr Robert, however, told the ABC it was “lovely” that more parents were choosing Catholic schools.
“It’s an education based on faith and values.”
Labor does not have a policy to cut funding to Catholic or independent schools.
The last Labor leader to take that to an election was Mark Latham in 2004. He was soundly beaten.
“Labor supports parental choice. We’re very happy for parents to choose the type of education that best suits their child,” Ms Plibersek said.
Curriculum culture wars
Before Stuart Robert took over, the Coalition’s previous education minister, Alan Tudge, ran a campaign against a proposed draft national curriculum.
Mr Tudge went as far as suggesting that children being educated in Australian schools would grow up with a “hatred” of the country and even be reluctant to serve in the armed forces.
Mr Robert, an army veteran, poured cold water on the comments.
“I’m not too sure that’s the case,” he said.
“What we want is high-performing schools, very high-performing teachers to get high-performing outcomes for our students, [so] we can get great students who love their country and are prepared to serve their country.”
The government is pointing to its revisions of the national curriculum as a reason for voters to continue to support its education policies.
“In the first draft of the curriculum, we [saw] year two students identifying a racist statue, but they weren’t required to learn their times tables, now clearly that’s unacceptable,” Mr Robert said.
In the US, conservatives have been energized by an effective campaign tapping into parental concerns about ideology in the classroom.
However, with elected school boards in the US — and a bi-partisan, technical process for developing curriculum through a state and federal system — experts point out there are major differences to the Australian system.
According to Ms Plibersek, the US comparison is a distraction designed to keep attention from the real challenges in schools.
More kids in non-government schools
The election comes as Australia’s school landscape continues to be transformed by parents moving to the private system.
And with 36 per cent of students now at Catholic or independent schools, it’s a question many parents battle with.
Professor Pasi Sahlberg is a leading international educator and deputy director of the Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales.
He said parents should never have to leave public schools because of quality.
Professor Sahlberg said Australia was an outlier on private schools.
“The OECD average is about 10 or 11 per cent of students going into non-governmental schools, so we have almost four times more kids in non-governmental schools compared to the OECD, on average,” he said.
“Unless we realize that these schools, the public schools, have to be fully funded, as was the intention of the Gonski review 10 years ago, it’s going to be very difficult to change the course.”
For the record, Mr Robert sends his three sons to a private school. Ms Plibersek sends her three children to a mix of Catholic and public schools.
And in regards to their political futures after the election?
Mr Robert was philosophical about whether he would be education minister if the Coalition was re-elected, telling the ABC: “The Prime Minister giveth, the Prime Minister taketh away”.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has indicated shadow ministers would enter cabinet in their portfolios if Labor won.