The Sir George Reid Lecture: “Practical reforms in teacher education: Sir George Reid’s lessons for today”

21 May 2015 Speech

Speech to Australian Catholic University’s the Sir George Reid Lecture

“Practical reforms in teacher education: Sir George Reid’s lessons for today”

21 May 2015


I am pleased to be here tonight to give the Australian Catholic University Sir George Reid Lecture.

It is symbolic that we are meeting tonight in the federal seat named in honour of Sir George.

At first it may seem puzzling to some why the Australian Catholic University has a lecture series in honour of Sir George Reid.

Although he was our fourth prime minister it was for just eleven months from August 1904 to July 1905, he was not our most known.

Indeed, Sir George seems to have a bad press sometimes known as “Yes-No” George because of his apparent ambivalence about federation.

And Sir George certainly had a different religious affiliation than that associated with ACU.

Although I understand Sir George briefly occupied a home located on the site of the ACU’s Mount St Mary Campus, I know your interest goes beyond that simplistic connection.

Rather, ACU’s and my interest in Sir George Reid reflects the need to acknowledge a politician who achieved much not only in this state, but also for the fledging Australian nation to which he was, if sometimes underrated, a major architect.

George Reid entered New South Wales parliament in 1880 at the age of 35 after a successful career in the public service and within two years was Minister for Public Instruction, what we would now call education.

He went on to be Premier and Treasurer from 1894-1899 and actively participated in the constitutional conventions of the 1890s. He played a major role in getting agreement from other players and promoting a referendum across all states – even trying to get Queensland to join!

In 1901 Reid was elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament and then served with great distinction as Australia’s first High Commissioner to Great Britain from 1910 to 1916.

He then went on be elected to the House of Commons. The only Australian to have served in state, federal and Westminster parliaments before his death in 1918.

One of the many things I am attracted to about Sir George Reid and which is relevant to ACU with its strong emphasis of teacher training, was his achievements as Minister for Instruction.

As minister, he avoided the sectarian issue and instead got on with establishing what his predecessor had not – a vibrant education system for New South Wales.

In his 14 months as minister he authorised the construction of over 400 schools throughout the state.

He improved attendance levels, appointed an expert group to advise on teaching standards, improved the curriculum, pioneered Australia’s technical education system and promoted greater access to university studies by funding evening classes at Sydney University.

Great achievements in so short a time.

Reid’s other great attribute is that throughout his long career he sought practical on-the-ground solutions.

He was neither ideological nor doctrinaire. As one biographer commented, he “appreciated the real problems faced by ordinary citizens.”

Although he was against excessive government intervention, he saw the need for government support, such as for education when needed.

He also understood the need for compromise to get reforms implemented whether passing legislation through a resistant state upper house or forging our new Constitution.

As premier and treasurer he ensured his government balanced its budget.

Although born in Scotland, Reid was, like many migrants to our shores since, proud to be an Australian.

As High Commissioner in Britain he was not backward in coming forward in arguing for the new nation’s interests and highlighting Australia’s achievements.

He corrected reports in the British press after HMAS Sydney sunk the German battleship Emben that it had a Royal Navy crew.

And he was the only Australian politician to visit the ANZACS as they trained in Egypt prior to Gallipoli.

He was unceasing in reminding all of the great Australian sacrifice and successes in World War One.

Yet, while a patriot, he avoided the then hysterical anti-German rhetoric and hate.

Reid was what I call a “practical reformer” rather than an ideological dreamer.

He did not just get things done – he got the right things done.

And it is on this note of practical reforms that I now want to outline my reform goals for teacher education.

This is of great relevance to ACU given it is Australia’s largest teacher education institution and that your Vice Chancellor has had a major role in forging those reforms.

Teacher education reform

When the Government was elected we knew there was an urgent need to drive long-term practical policies to improve the quality of our education system, rather than indulge in grand visions that could not be afforded or implemented.

We believe that education policy should not be measured by how much money has been allocated, the number of teachers, or classroom sizes, but rather by whether policies actually improve student outcomes.

Like Sir George Reid I am most interested in evidence based policies with which we can make the most difference to improving student outcomes.

That is why the four pillars of our Students’ First policy prioritise those areas we know affect student outcomes:

  • increasing school autonomy
  • ensuring our curriculum is robust and relevant
  • promoting parent engagement in learning
  • improving the quality of teachers

Of these – improving teacher quality is the most important.

The reasons are clear.

As Professor Hattie from Melbourne University and our new chair of AITSL has stated:

Research shows that the quality of the teacher is the single greatest in-school influence on student achievement.”

We know from the many previous reviews, surveys of students and school principals that there is dissatisfaction about the classroom readiness of teacher graduates and problems about teacher education quality in Australia.

We know from international and Australian tests that despite record spending on schools in Australia, more teachers and smaller classrooms, our student performance has been declining in absolute and relative terms and there are pockets of real underperformance.

Despite this, the quality of teacher education has not been seriously addressed.


That is why I established the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group in 2014 to examine how we can better prepare beginning teachers with the right mix of academic and practical skills needed for the classroom and to provide me with practical advice on how to improve teacher education in Australia.

Its report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, was released earlier this year along with the Government’s response to its very practical and achievable recommendations.

The strength of the Report’s recommendations, based on its extensive consultations and research, and my acceptance of almost all its recommendations highlight that it is not just another teacher inquiry whose report will be ignored.

Report overview – what TEMAG says

Overall, the Report found and I quote:

“… a high degree of variability in the quality of practice across initial teacher education in Australia. There are examples of excellent practice, where providers deliver evidence-backed programs that are constantly reviewed and improved. Disturbingly, there are also significant pockets of objectively poor practice, and these must be addressed decisively.”

Our schools, students, aspiring teachers and the teacher profession in general deserve much better.

As I mentioned before, the Advisory Group’s recommendations are practical and achievable. I have asked AITSL to commence work immediately to support the Government’s response to the Report that has five themes across 38 recommendations:

  1. Stronger quality assurance of teacher courses
  2. Rigorous selection for entry to teacher education
  3. Improved and structured practical experience for teaching students
  4. Robust assessment of graduates to ensure classroom readiness
  5. Improved national research and workforce planning

Let me briefly discuss each of these.

Theme 1 - Stronger quality assurance of teacher courses

I was concerned that Advisory Group found that, while there are examples of excellent practice in teacher education, there are courses that lag a long way behind in quality.

This means there are significant differences in the level of preparation of beginning teachers entering our schools.

The current accreditation of teacher education courses needs to be more rigorous.

We need to expect more of universities. We need universities to show that their courses are grounded in evidence-based teaching practices that equip graduates with the practical skills that make them ready for the classroom and have been shown to improve student learning outcomes.

To gain full course accreditation, universities must show that their graduates are classroom ready, demonstrate how their graduates are having a positive impact on student learning, and that employers are satisfied with the graduates they produce.

The Report recommended a new national regulator for initial teacher education, but I do not believe establishing a new body will necessarily deliver better quality assurance nationally.

Instead, the Government will utilise the expertise of existing bodies, such as AITSL and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to achieve this outcome.

Theme 2 - Rigorous selection for entry to courses

The Report recommends that more sophisticated approaches are needed to select entrants to teacher education who will make the best teachers.

I acknowledge that effective teachers possess a range of qualities that include both academic ability and the personal characteristics needed to engage students.

The Government does not support a single approach to selection such as Australian Tertiary Admission Rank cutoffs.

However, we do support more sophisticated and transparent approaches to selecting the right candidates for entry to teaching.

We have some top quality courses selecting students with demonstrated high academic achievement, with rigorous screening of applicants to demonstrate that they have the qualities needed to engage students in their learning.

I want this to be the rule, rather than the exception.

It boosts public confidence to know that beginning teachers possess the skills and characteristics needed to become a highly effective teacher.

I have instructed AITSL to develop specific criteria to assist universities to select the right people for teaching that will include examples of tools that can be used to assess the personal attributes of teaching candidates against those important for teaching.

Teachers must also possess strong literacy and numeracy skills to foster the development of these skills in their students.

It is my expectation that teacher education students will be broadly in the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy.

To achieve this goal all teacher education students from 2016 will be required to pass a literacy and numeracy test before they graduate.

This year the Government is running a pilot of the test to establish the right benchmarks for when the test becomes fully operational next year.

Theme 3 - Improved and structured practical experience

The Report makes clear that teacher education courses must give students opportunities to connect what is learnt at university with real world practice.

That that this does not always occur is a great concern.

I am aware of excellent examples of practical experience, delivered through strong partnerships between universities and schools.

Practical experience needs to prepare beginning teachers for the realities of teaching. This includes the skills and confidence to raise the learning outcomes of diverse student groups, and to work with parents to achieve this.

Better connecting what teacher education students are learning at university with their practical experience in schools is essential.

Many graduates tell us that their practical experience was the most beneficial part of their training.

AITSL will develop the essential requirements of effective practical experience in partnership with universities, schools and education authorities to assist universities and schools to work together to manage practical placements and to ensure these experiences are the best they can be.

Universities will be required to guarantee practicums for every student – presently, some universities virtually abandon their students in finding practicums, and there are some scandalous stories.

Theme 4 - Robust assessment of classroom readiness

The Report noted that there is currently no guarantee, even upon graduation, that beginning teachers are really ready for the classroom.

The Advisory Group recommends that effective assessment of teacher education students is central to remedying this. And that while there are a number of universities undertaking comprehensive and student-focused assessment, the rigour of this assessment varies.

It is important that the community has confidence that all teaching graduates have been rigorously assessed throughout their course and that beginning teachers are ready for the practical realities of the classroom.

Universities must work more closely with schools to undertake ongoing, rigorous and iterative assessment of teacher education students.

I have instructed AITSL to develop clear guidelines for universities about what robust and ongoing assessment practices for teacher education students involve and how these can be consistently applied in partnership with schools.

I am also proposing that, to further increase the classroom readiness of teachers, all primary teachers should graduate with at least one subject specialisation, prioritising science, mathematics or a language.

We know that students who are not taught effectively in these key areas during the early years of their education disengage with these important subjects.

Consequently, new accreditation processes will include a requirement for such subject specialisation for primary teachers.

Theme 5 - National research and workforce planning

The Report also notes that reliable research into teacher education effectiveness in Australia and solid teaching workforce data is currently lacking.

AITSL will establish a research focus on the effectiveness of teacher education and teaching practices to address this.

I will also work with state and territory education ministers and their teacher regulatory authorities to build on existing data sources, such as the Staff in Australia’s Schools Survey and the National Teaching Workforce Dataset.

This will assist us in better connecting the supply of teaching graduates with workforce demand.

Next steps

Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers is a landmark development in the quest to improve teaching quality in Australia.

I agree with the Advisory Group that we need significant cultural and structural change to give aspiring teachers the best chance of success.

We know we can raise the quality of teaching in our schools and the status of the profession which many of you here tonight may be seeking to enter, by starting with the training of graduates entering our classrooms.

The need for stronger preparation of teachers is a national issue needing a coordinated response across all stakeholders.

It is my intention that the majority of the recommendations will be delivered within the next two years.

To ensure implementation of the Report’s recommendations we announced in the federal budget last week $16.9 million for AITSL over the next four years to oversee this process.

I will also be making some further announcements about changes to the AITSL Board and its constitution to improve its capacity and focus on the teacher education reform agenda

The Report might not be the last review into teacher education – but I believe it will be the one that makes the breakthrough to achieve long overdue practical changes.

And may I take this opportunity to again thank Professor Craven who chaired the Advisory Group. He delivered.


Sir George wrote in his memoirs that of all his achievements he looked “back with unalloyed satisfaction to my work as Minister for Public Instruction.”

He laid the foundations of modern education system for New South Wales, and therefore for Australia, from primary school, through to universities.

He ensured funding went on those factors that drive a quality education system – good teachers, a sound curriculum and support for students of promise who needed assistance.

I hope I will be able to say on my retirement that one of my achievements as federal Education Minister was to make a positive difference to that most important driver of education performance – teacher education.

May I congratulate ACU once again for establishing the Sir George Reid Lecture series.

We have much to learn from this practical reformer.