Speech to the Australian Council of Educational Leaders

02 June 2017

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their continuing culture and the ongoing contribution they make to the life of this city and region. I also acknowledge other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us this morning.


Fundamental beliefs and evidence

My ACT Government colleagues and I share a fundamental belief – that every child deserves a great education and the chance of a good life that flows from it.


I am sure you believe this too and that’s why you’re here today as educators.


We share a vision that celebrates diversity of background, culture, gender, class, religion, sexuality, wealth and ability, and we recognise the value in children learning together with others different to themselves.


This diversity should not, however, define the opportunity each child has for a decent life, because we are all different and that is beautiful.


Unfortunately, though, these differences do sometimes limit opportunity.


At first look, our students do well in academic measures of success. But as I’m sure you know, and as the Performance Audit Report released yesterday confirms, you all know that some students in your schools who are, for whatever reason, not succeeding as hoped.


We see it happening across the city, students in our schools not achieving the same outcomes as like students in like schools in other parts of Australia.


So despite our apparent success, there are things happening below the surface:

  • The first is the number of children who don’t access quality early childhood education and care and what that means for them as they move through school towards adulthood.
  • The second is improving outcomes for all students – by having high expectations, building engaging school cultures, connecting with community, and encouraging student voice and agency.
  • The third equity of outcomes and making increasing equity a focus so we aren’t leaving any students behind.


We have stewardship of a proud education system, and with that comes a duty to make sure it’s healthy and meeting the needs of our community now and into the future.


It is our responsibility to take stock of our successes, ask about how we can improve and start making a plan to get there.


So, as the new Education Minister in a proudly progressive and reforming government, I have been mulling over some questions:


Can we confidently say we have succeeded for all children and young people as we would have liked?


Have we delivered the care and chances to succeed, the dignity and optimism, the courage and determination to thrive, to all students entrusted to our schools?


This is an essential check for our community goals and social resolve.


Part of this involves asking what success looks like for our schools.


Should it be seen in social and emotional learning? School completion? Strong performance in tests? Creativity? Courage?


It’s a combination of these things, isn’t it? I like to think of success here as young people ready for all the world has to offer them.


To achieve this, our students do best when supported by families and the community, their teachers and school leaders.


And it is the community of teachers and school leaders who play such an important role in each child’s education in school, how they see the world and embrace the opportunities they encounter.


International research is clear about the impact of high quality teachers and school leaders on student learning outcomes outweighing the effect of every other factor outside of a student’s family background.


But as education leaders, you don’t need me to tell you schools can and do make the difference


What I can tell you is we need to renew our focus on lifting outcomes for all our students.


Always getting better

We shouldn’t lose sight of what Hedley Beare sought to achieve as the ACT broke away from the Commonwealth and became an independent school system 40 years ago.


But, like all good systems we must continue to improve. We need to benchmark ourselves against other high performing systems in Australia and the world.


I have just returned from Singapore and Finland, two countries widely recognised as having high performing education systems.


I can confidentially say, having visited schools in both of these highly rated education systems, we have great schools in the ACT – schools that we can and should be proud of.



In Singapore, what struck me was that after such a long focus on academic skills they have more recently begun to identify the need to consider broader goals of school education.


The children would also stay at school late into the early evening, not in structured classes, just hanging out together, playing sport and doing some study. Structured sport has been an important part of improving social cohesiveness.


They do lots of things well. For example, they have an undeniable strength in professional learning for educators – both in pre-service and in-service – and there is a great opportunity for the ACT to connect with what is happening in this area.



In Finland, the cultural differences were clear. While historically a relatively homogenous society, their schools have always been bilingual with English taught alongside Finnish. They are on a journey of inclusiveness as diversity grows through immigration and refugees. Many children are now multilingual.


They have recently re-cast their national curriculum to emphasise more general life skills and attributes, over traditional content – and are embarking on a program of professional learning to support this significant change.


Finland’s attention on children from birth to school may have a lot to offer our thinking about bringing government services closer together and better integrating child and family services with school.


Equitable education

When children start life from unequal places and with different challenges and barriers to overcome, of course they will each experience a different journey to adulthood.


Our job is to make sure that none of this comes between a child and their best possible future.


For many in our community I’m confident that we’re doing well, great even.


But it is also becoming clear that some need a little extra help.


We all know about equality: the idea that everybody gets the same.


By contrast, equity is about fairness and justice.


It is about recognising that, no matter what we do, everyone will not always get the same and does not need the same.


We know not all children come to their school education with the same skills to learn and take it all in: they are all ready to learn, but sometimes require different kinds of support.


High performing education systems focus on ensuring that all schools deliver high quality education to all students regardless of their background, which school they attend or which postcode they live in.


They are explicit about focusing on equity.




The Future of Education – a community conversation

You may recall in February this year I outlined the government’s commitment to develop a strategy for the future of education in the ACT based on a grass roots community conversation.


A focus for this work is looking at ways to make equity central in our system.


Through this conversation, we can build upon our successes and strengthen our education system to ensure it meets the needs of all of our children.


I am committed to extending the conversation to as many people as possible and I encourage you to share the opportunity within your networks so all ideas can form part of this rich and diverse conversation.


Who is involved?

This conversation needs many voices to share experiences, hopes, frustrations, and bold ideas to keep making our schools better – and we need to do that by working together.


We will include public, independent and Catholic schools, early childhood providers; principals, teachers and support staff; our young people, parents and carers, and the members of the community who support them.


It is also very important to me that the conversation goes beyond those who usually actively participate in an education consultation.


We will use traditional consultation channels like written submissions and face-to-face meetings, but will also be looking at ways to hear from people for whom these options are not accessible.


I am particularly eager to hear from our children, those most affected by the education we provide, about their experience.


I met a number of students, from primary, secondary and senior secondary schools, just a few weeks ago to start the conversations with them.


We also had some students from Early Childhood Schools in attendance, who provided the perspective of the littlest children in our system.


Some were nervous, and others excited, but all of them wanted to be a part of this conversation. It’s about their future, and that of their children.


We will be talking with students all year.


To keep our focus on equity, I have also asked a small group of community leaders to bring their diverse perspectives and experiences to the table as we consider the future of education.


I have established a core group of community partners:

  • Susan Helyar, the Director of the ACT Council of Social Service,
  • Dr John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne,
  • Dr Chris Sarra, founder and Chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute and Professor of Education at the University of Canberra
  • Cathy Hudson, ACECQA Board Member; and
  • Dr John Falzon, national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society and one of Australia’s most respected voices on social justice and equity.


I was happy to convene the first meeting on the future of education with these community partners a few weeks ago.


In order for this consultation to be effective, we need everyone to take an active role, and I encourage you to lead this conversation in your communities.


This conversation cannot succeed without you and I want to hear what your communities have to say.


Concluding thoughts

We have a strong education system, but it can be stronger.


Through the future of education conversations, we have an opportunity to make the best of this and lift people up through a deliberate approach that brings services and support around school communities so that teachers can get on with providing learning.


The interests of our community lie in relentlessly pursuing equity by providing excellent early childhood education and care and a diverse and inclusive school system.


It is an easy thing to say but much harder to achieve and I hope you are willing to take on this challenge too.


Thank you for your dedication to education in this city and for the huge effort you put into giving our children the best chance in life.