AMID all the talk of VCE scores and primary students' troubling levels of literacy and numeracy, teaching is the common, neglected factor in the contrasting outcomes. Our best schools could be in another country, such is the gap between their results and the rest. The city-country gap is also vast, and truly appalling in the case of indigenous students. The neglect of the also-rans shows up in our slide down global literacy and numeracy rankings and in the lack of progress in NAPLAN tests since 2008.
Frankly, the goal of a top-five world ranking by 2025 looks like a pipedream. Some sectors, however, are already at that standard. ACT schools' reading and maths scores match world leaders such as Finland. Independent schools have outdone Finland in science. The common factor is socioeconomic advantage. Inequality of schooling is our core problem: the gulf between our best and worst is much wider than the OECD average. VCE high achievers are concentrated in a minority of schools with good resources, gifted and well-qualified teachers, and supportive communities. Their success is no mystery.
Other schools lack teachers who, as students, mastered the subjects they teach. Half of Victoria's schools also resort to using unqualified subject teachers, most often in maths and science. We can improve teacher training and development, but bigger gains will be made by attracting and retaining more gifted recruits. ATAR cut-offs for other professions are much higher than for the primary teachers who lay the foundations of all learning - literacy, numeracy and science skills. In Victoria last year, the ''clearly in'' ATAR was as low as 47.20 (two-thirds of year 12 does better, as rankings relate to their year 7 cohort) and most enrolled in teaching courses with cut-offs in the low 60s.
Australia can only match the top nations, in which teaching is a profession of first choice, by improving the pay, status and support for teachers across all schools. We cannot afford to keep ignoring the obvious lessons of excellence in schooling, here and overseas.