Dr Andrew Leigh MP. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Canberra parents are barely concerned with the size of their children's classes, much more interested in how talented their children's teachers are and far from fascinated by the MySchool website, according to a new survey on attitudes to education.
As 5200 kindergarten students begin their schooling on Monday, and 68,000 students head back for the start of the 2013 academic year, Labor Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh has issued the results of a survey of people across his electorate on how they rank education issues in order of importance.
Dr Leigh, a former Australian National University economist, said the sample of 974 responses was statistically valid and provided an important snapshot of attitudes to education in Canberra which he said he would promote to better inform federal government policy.
Forty-three per cent of parents ranked ''attracting and retaining great teachers'' as their number one priority in education, followed by 18 per cent ranking ''boosting literacy and numeracy'' as number one, and 15 per cent ranking ''maintaining a well-rounded curriculum'' first.
Just 7 per cent ranked ''smaller class sizes'' as their top education priority. Eight per cent chose ''reducing bullying and cyber-bullying'' while 5 per cent chose ''helping students with disabilities'' and just 4 per cent chose ''assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.''
''I find the ratings of priorities interesting, with quality teaching clearly at the top of the list. That certainly backs my previous research on the economics of education and is also a government priority,'' Dr Leigh said.
The Gillard government has been keen to implement a performance pay scheme for the nation's best teachers although the Australian Education Union has resisted the moves because of concerns over how performance would be judged.
Dr Leigh said the research confirmed the need to ''further explore performance pay options''.
But the Australian Education Union ACT secretary Glenn Fowler said the research justified a greater investment in all teachers and the union would continue to resist attempts to ''pick winners and losers'' by blunt measurement such as through NAPLAN results.
''Research tells us that the most important in-school factor to improve student outcomes is the quality of the teacher, and ACT residents clearly appreciate the difference a teacher can make,'' Mr Fowler said.
He said far more could be done to allow teachers to ''enhance their practice collaboratively and meaningfully. They should be given the time to learn from each other, because they can't do it while they are running between classes with a sandwich in their hands.''
Dr Leigh said Canberrans had showed relative satisfaction with education resourcing with half of government school parents agreeing or strongly agreeing their school was well resourced, while 30 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that their school was well resourced.
These figures were different among parents who sent their children to
non-government schools, with 63 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing that their school was well resourced and 20 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that their school was well resourced.
While the Gillard government had fought a huge political battle with stakeholders, including the AEU, to implement the MySchool website in 2010, the survey showed few people bothered to use it. The site provides detailed information on every school across Australia and allows schools to be directly ranked against each other.
Forty-one per cent of respondents said they had never used it and 23 per cent used it less than once a year. Seventeen per cent used it once a year, 17 per cent used it a few times a year and 3 per cent used it once a month or more.
Dr Leigh said the website would only be relevant to parents with schoolchildren in the overall sample and some would use it only when they were making decisions about schools. ''It was always meant to be a time-to-time diagnostic tool. I don't think anyone ever expected it to become everyone's home page,'' Dr Leigh said.
On the low importance given to class sizes, Dr Leigh said the results were interesting in that it appeared Canberrans would give greater spending priority to teacher quality.
But Mr Fowler said it might be that class sizes had been improving over time and the ACT had the lowest kindergarten to year 3 class sizes in the nation, not making it a pressing issue for parents.
While preschool classes had shown the biggest improvement - moving from 25 students per class to 22, the union was working towards 21. ACT Government school kindergarten to year 3 classes were limited to 21 students, but by years 7-9 they rose to 32 or above.