Over the last 20 years the independent school sector has more than doubled in size. Today, in New South Wales alone, independent schools enrol about 165,000 students in more than 400 schools, and employ more than 12,000 teachers and 5,000 non teaching staff. Independent education is a large operation.
There are, of course, numerous factors that contribute to the growth in independent schooling. No need to repeat them here. Suffice to say that most parents, irrespective of whether their child is in a public or private school, respect the concept of choice. And so it is also for governments, notwithstanding their political colour.
Unfortunately though, in all the debates and exchanges that take place over education, we may be ignoring the most important of challenges.
That is, what must we do as educators, administrators, governments, policy makers and parents to improve the standard and quality of schooling for our children? How do we lift the quality of instruction in the classroom? How do we ensure that good teaching practice is the standard, and that better practice is encouraged and rewarded?
Thankfully, the issue of teaching standards and quality in the classroom is beginning to come to the fore. Schools, parents, administrators and teachers all want to see a focus on quality teaching and want an independent body to accredit these efforts. The time has passed where merely accumulating years in the job is sufficient to see us through professionally. Teachers are, in this way, no different to any other professionals. In fact, it can be argued that theirs is a bigger responsibility, given their importance to future generations.
Governments are also beginning to see teaching in this way. Improving standards was the rationale for establishing the NSW Institute of Teachers to accredit and set standards to improve teacher quality.
For thousands of Australians, teaching is a calling and they should be encouraged, fostered and rewarded when they want to improve their skills and knowledge base.
At the Commonwealth level we now have Teaching Australia, the federal government institute tasked with advancing teaching standards. The independent schools sector is a supporter of these initiatives for we know that educational and school success is inextricably linked to the quality of our teachers. While the media might singly focus on buildings and facilities our attention has never been diverted from what goes on within them. It is the intellectual capital in our teachers who pass on their knowledge to our future leaders that is important.
For this reason, the independent school sector now has the option of offering a new agreement to its teachers. At the core of our approach is the principle that teachers’ salary and conditions will be linked to standards compatible with those of the NSW Institute of Teachers. Put simply, we want our teachers to be rewarded for quality teaching.
Although it was constituted without much fanfare, the NSW Institute of Teachers represents a huge step forward in education policy and delivery. We now have in NSW a body charged with the responsibility to objectively set professional standards and raise the quality of classroom instruction.
It is therefore a logical progression that we should now link these standards to pay and remuneration. After all, why should teaching be any different to other professions where individuals are paid according to the skills and qualifications they accumulate? Higher standards equal better schools and better pay for teachers. Surely, this is what we all want to achieve for our education system.
And, for the first time, this proposal acknowledges that some teachers prefer the classroom and excel in it. An unfortunate feature of the current system is that good teachers leave the classroom and move into managerial and administrative roles just to earn more. It shouldn’t have to be this way. Every year good teachers move from classrooms to boardrooms, not because they want to, but because they get paid more.
We want good teachers to stay in the classroom and apply their skills to where they are most needed.
Of course, this proposal will draw its critics. We can expect that sectional interests will oppose any move to merit based pay in teaching. And we can expect that that these same vested interests will oppose the use of WorkChoices as the instrument to deliver these changes.
But this change is clearly for the better. Linking teachers pay to standards and quality is better for teachers, parents and importantly, students. We all know what we want - good teachers and for good teachers to be paid more. What is wrong with that?