SCHOOL principals and staff who have turned demoralised schools into thriving, confident places estimate it takes about 10 years of intense, hard work to achieve sustained improvement.
If it takes that long for one school community to confront its problems, change its practices, get extra help and pull together as a team, then the federal government has begun a herculean task with its 13-year timeline to catapult Australia's diverse school system and its 9500 schools into world-leader class.
Unveiling the government's response to the Gonski report into school funding reform last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she wanted Australia's school education system to be ranked among the world's top five performers by 2025.
To achieve that target, Ms Gillard said $6.5 billion will be required annually for a new school funding system. Every school will get the same base funding, with extra money for disadvantaged and disabled students.
She also announced a new condition attached to the funding overhaul. States, territories and school systems will have to sign up to a National Plan for School Improvement, which will be phased in over six years from 2014 with the new funding model.
Under the national plan higher standards will be set for teachers. Entrants to the teaching profession will have to be in the top 30 per cent of literacy and numeracy results.
Trainee teachers will have to have at least one term's classroom experience before graduating from their university education courses.
Every school must have an improvement plan, shaped by teachers and parents, to outline steps to be taken to lift student results. Each plan will appear on the My School website and be assessed annually.
Other measures in the national improvement plan include:
■New teachers will have mentors and lower workloads for their first two years.
■Extra training for teachers in managing disruptive student behaviour.
■Every school will have a Safe School Plan to prevent bullying.
■More autonomy for principals to control budgets and hiring of staff.
■Identification of struggling schools and extra help to lift their results.
■Children to spend longer at school in breakfast clubs, homework clubs and other after-hours activities.
Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has criticised the government for the lack of detail about the $6.5 billion scheme, what financial share the states and territories will be asked to contribute and the long transition to the new system.
Ms Gillard's speech to the National Press Club last week revealed she expected criticism of the reform timetable.
''How long that takes is never simply a question of will, or of resources,'' she said. ''Inherent to the task is time - not just to get it right, but just literally to get it done. Education is a patient investment.''
So far much of the commentary from education analysts has focused on the financial elements of the new funding policy. Education Age asked three education specialists to appraise the policy's national plan for school improvement.
Professor Stephen Dinham
Chair of teacher education, Melbourne graduate school of education, Melbourne University
THE PLAN'S STRENGTHS:
The mentoring of new teachers is a good thing. We've had 30 reviews of teaching and teacher education in the past 30 years and every one has recommended beginning teachers have a lower workload to enable them to adjust to teaching.
The focus on improving entrants to the profession, improving teacher education courses and easing the transition to full-time teaching is all good.
It's an ideal opportunity to increase the entry status and choose more carefully who goes into the profession. It's not just about the ATAR score.
The University of Melbourne is developing a tool, Teacher Select, for the federal education department, and trialling it over the next 12 months.
It will look at better ways to screen people for teaching and whether there are better ways to predict those who are more likely to succeed.
The lack of detail about who is going to do what, how is it going to occur and who is going to pay for it.
The most crucial thing not mentioned in this policy, is on-going professional development for teachers. You won't get change in schools unless you invest in professional learning of teachers.
It is not just a matter of using a performance management scheme. We've had annual performance and development processes in all school systems for ages but most of them end up being some sort of rubber-stamp exercise.
A national focus on teaching is welcome. We're a very small population in a big country.
National developments such as NAPLAN, the national curriculum, national teaching standards, national accreditation of teacher education courses, moving to two years minimum training for graduate entry courses - many of these things are happening already under agreements between the federal, state and territory governments.
So we've got the infrastructure almost there. To make school improvement work we have to invest in professional learning for teachers.
Otherwise these things won't have much traction in the classroom and by the time these policies filter down into schools nothing much will happen. The potential is there to do some very good things.
If teachers feel it is being done with them and for them, rather than being done without them and to them, they will come on board, especially if we can get a salary and career structure that meshes with these new national standards and provides a real means of driving improvement in the quality of teaching and rewarding people for their improvement.
But if it is just top-down rhetoric, such as bonuses to best teachers, paying schools by results, then it lacks detail and leverage. All it does is alienate teachers and stigmatise them.
President of the Australian Secondary Principals Association
THE PLAN'S STRENGTHS:
The announcement that the new funding model will be embedded within a school improvement plan, and that it will be phased in and focused on repositioning education for the nation's future, is a long overdue response to addressing the equity challenge.
It has the capacity to move the education debate from the politics of envy, to the politics of equity.
It is about Australia's productivity and prosperity and that means we must address those factors that limit student achievement.
Its greatest strength is that it is needs-based. All education systems agree that this must be our priority.
Educators are tired of short-term disconnected initiatives with a life expectancy that rarely extends beyond one political cycle.
This new model enables schools and communities to plan sustainable interventions as opposed to finite, cyclical funding models.
Under those models innovations or attempts to meet school targets were limited. Schools would just begin to make progress implementing changes and the funding would cease. The improvement plan can be the driver for change and it recognises change takes time.
The time frames are a strength and a weakness. The first major hurdle must be achieving agreement and co-operation between the levels of government in times of fiscal restraint. It is time for bipartisan agreement on addressing need.
The transition arrangements that are yet to be defined may be a problem unless they begin the process of tackling need in a targeted, sustained manner.
The issue of disadvantage must remain on the agenda if the dream of improving Australia's position by 2025 is to be realised. We cannot afford to take our focus off that goal.
School improvement plans are not new.
The challenge is ensuring they are focused on making the change, reflect current evidence while being constructed in a way that is sensitive to the needs of school communities and respects contextual differences.
This is the most significant reform in education for many generations.
It will start a national conversation about national school improvement.
If we get all elements of this school improvement plan right, then demography will not determine your life chances.
Professor Toni Downes
President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education
THE PLAN'S STRENGTHS:
It signals a multi-dimensional approach and reveals an awareness of the complexity involved in obtaining large improvements and sustainable funding of our schools.
The gap between high and low-performing Australian students is relatively wide and cannot be ignored any longer.
Quality teachers are the key to bridging that. The lessons of successful school systems are unambiguous: a comprehensive approach to school improvement needs commitment, time and financial investment - all in the plan outlined by the PM.
The focus on entry requirements for teacher education, for instance students in the top 30 per cent of literacy and numeracy skills, risks being short-sighted and overly simplistic. We all want well-prepared, high-quality graduate teachers. The council believes a focus on high exit standards rather than entry requirements will lift teacher quality at the same time as maintain diversity in our teaching workforce.
This focus on school leavers also ignores that about half of entrants to teacher education courses already have an undergraduate degree. There is a richness in the diversity that comes from strong alternative paths to teaching, such as graduates, mature students and ''career-changers''.
Encouraging multiple paths into the profession broadens the workforce, making it more representative of the local communities served. This is important in the areas of disadvantage identified in the Gonski review.
While improved access to valid school-based experiences is an important aspect of preparing teachers, the reality is arranging and sustaining these experiences is problematic and expensive.
Long-standing industrial issues, coupled with a paucity of suitable placements and properly funded resourcing arrangements, has restricted the opportunity to provide enough classroom opportunities for trainee teachers. This is not the profession whingeing; it is a real issue that was highlighted in the Higher Education Base Funding Review and one that requires strong leadership and genuine investment.
There are many models that can be pursued, including internship programs already found in some states and territories, but these require collaboration with local schools, major employers, and teacher unions.
Only with strong partnerships and fresh approaches can we find a solution that ensures pre-service teachers gain the work experience they need, regardless of their location or university they attend.
It provides a historic opportunity to improve student outcomes. It comes when other reforms, including the national curriculum and national teaching standards are being implemented. To achieve its goals, however, the challenges posed by social inclusion and the sustainable resourcing of teacher education must not be ignored.