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Five truths about Australia's education system

By Simon Birmingham - posted Friday, 17 June 2016

I have said since day one in my job as the federal Minister for Education and Training that I would work with all groups, together, to strengthen our education system for this and future generations.

Every day I talk to families and educators across the country and from those discussions there are a number of truths that I think worth highlighting so we can continue to have a constructive national conversation about how best to support Australian students.

The first truth is that the Australian schooling system is not in crisis and overall continues to perform above the OECD average in all categories.


However, there is room for improvement as our PISA and NAPLAN data shows. There are some serious areas of concern such as poor literacy levels and the decline of our high performing students, as well as the persistence of the "long tail" and the need for more students to be studying STEM subjects.

For some, the education debate has become almost solely about a perceived funding crisis, even though Australia is not a low school spending country. Listen to those people and there are claims of cuts even though spending by all governments, especially the Commonwealth Government, has long been increasing in real terms, is at record levels now and is forecast to keep growing into the future, whoever wins the election on July 2nd.

This brings me to the second and often the most unpalatable of truths when confronting the questions around funding: that resources are finite and that Australia's economic fortunes have changed.

The resources boom is over. This is not calamitous, but it requires caution, readjustment and a moderation of future government spending. It also requires us to focus more on job creation and policies to support business growth that will create jobs for Australians today and for the students in schools today.

All areas of public policy, including education, have to accommodate this new reality of spending constraint. This doesn't mean living with less, but it does mean sustainable growth, living within our means and becoming more innovative and efficient in using available funds.

The message is clear and was repeated by the heads of Treasury and Finance in the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook.


Our economic success in the past has not been luck, but has been a result of careful economic management, a willingness to address long term endemic problems, and targeted spending. To afford to maintain our lifestyle and our public services, especially education, we must maintain this prudence.

It means governments, education departments and schools must prioritise, invest better, and at every level tackle those reforms, much talked about but to date never quite delivered.

As Professor John Hattie recently said:

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This is an extract of a speech to the Christian Schools Policy Forum.

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About the Author

Simon Birmingham is Minister for Education and Training and Senator for South Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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