When a high-profile business leader like Michael Chaney chooses to devote a major address to Perth's business leadership to the topic of schoolteachers, it's worth sitting up and taking notice. While the finer points of teacher salaries, merit-based reward systems and educational benchmarking might have been lost on many of his Australian Institute of Company Directors audience (see edited extract, pp12-13), Mr Chaney was clearly taking the opportunity to wake up the state's business elders and their successors to what he believes is a major issue. The former Wesfarmers Ltd CEO - who now chairs National Australian Bank Ltd and Woodside Petroleum Ltd as well as being a former chairman of Business Council Australia and an ex-board member of BHP Billiton Ltd - certainly has the pedigree to offer his thoughts on strategic issues. Briefly discussing infrastructure issues, he moved quickly from the regular topics a business leader might address to the issue of Australia's human resources. From there he focused roundly on Australia's education system, which he suggests is letting down its students, a problem that will hurt the nation in the longer term. Of course, Mr Chaney is not just a business leader. He is also chancellor of the University of Western Australia, which gives him access to people who have intimate knowledge of this issue, as they see the declining standards of students in general, and teacher applications specifically. Naturally, we are all aware of this issue. Many readers are old enough to have witnessed the decline in status of the teaching profession. Who knows whether it's the chicken or the egg when it comes to salaries, workloads and rival career paths versus the quality of teachers in the profession. Whatever started the decline, Mr Chaney was warning loud and clear that we have to work very hard and very quickly to arrest this situation or we will have a huge problem in the future. In fact, it was the kind of strategic issues focus that led me to thinking what a great prime minister Mr Chaney would make if he ever leapt the great divide and entered politics. But that's a topic for another column. His view was that we simply aren't attracting the calibre of people required for the teaching profession, and that until we do that everything else is just fiddling about at the margins. Once you have the right people, simply help them acquire instructing skills and you largely have the problem licked - at least, he says, that is the evidence from jurisdictions with the best education outcomes. Many of Mr Chaney's thoughts were borrowed from the Twomey Report, chaired by former Curtin University vice-chancellor Lance Twomey. You know the one; it took months for the state government to release it because among its recommendations was one that suggested teachers needed to be paid more. In the typical fashion of a business leader who can dissect an issue and develop a solution, without needing to consider political consequences, Mr Chaney believes teachers need to be paid more. He then went on to suggest those levels of pay as well as the national cost - $4 billion a year. He also backs the view of various reports, such as last year's one by Gerard Daniels that addressed recruitment issues in WA, which have pointed to lack of prestige for the teaching profession. That would also be assisted by a pay rise. If he stopped there he'd have been applauded by the teaching lobby, which has been pushing for better pay. The teachers union reckons that what the state has offered, though it looks good on paper, is really nothing special, and the top limit goes nowhere near the $125,000 that Mr Chaney suggests. But the teachers' cheer squad would go pretty quiet if they listened further. The business chief says to get that kind of pay it would have to be a merit-based system with school heads being the ultimate arbiter of that. This is not a policy welcomed by the teachers' union. Mr Chaney did not go the next step and flag the idea of vouchers, so that parents could take the education funding applied to their children and spend it at a school of their choice. Many who believe in the free-market system think this is another way to solve the problem, especially if disadvantaged children get more to spend, allowing the schools they attend more buying power when it comes to attracting the right teachers. I know this whole subject is fraught with difficulty but if there is one lesson I've learned in business reporting it's that organisations that think they can stick with the same old ways of doing things usually come unstuck when they confront a big problem. Because teaching in WA is so much in the hands of one organisation - the state's Education Department - it's very difficult to make changes, as we've seen, rightly or wrongly, with whole OBE debacle. It's a problem compounded by having a large body of employees represented by a single union. There are plenty of smart people available to address this issue, but I applaud Mr Chaney for highlighting the issue and putting before his business colleagues as a problem that the nation needs to solve.
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