ACU (Australian Catholic University)

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Issue 1, Spring 2011

Minister relishes shift from classroom to cabinet

Martin Dixon Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon

After a lifetime in Catholic education, Martin Dixon is right where he wants to be. Alisse Grafitti spoke to Victoria's new Education Minister about a busy first term in office.

As far as grassroots experience goes, Martin Dixon pretty much has it covered.

Before entering politics in 1996, he studied at two Catholic schools, attended Australian Catholic University, and worked in five Catholic primary schools - including three as principal.

He then spent 18 months at the Catholic Education Office, which oversees the Catholic school sector.

"Even in primary school I was looking at my teachers with awe, and thinking that was something I wanted to do," Martin said.

"However one of the greatest frustrations as a teacher, and the main reason for me entering politics, was that I felt there wasn't a high level of engagement or understanding of education in politics on either side.

"Most people who were commenting or making policy on education had little practical experience in teaching and education and running schools.

"Two particular issues that had frustrated me enormously for a long time was the ongoing debate about literacy and how to teach children to read, and the simplistic argument that class size was the measure of a good education.

"At that stage I was a member of the Liberal Party and I felt I had something to offer. I've got a level of experience that no one else had and I thought that’s something I’d like to change."

The father-of-two was first elected to as the Member of Dromana in 1996, and then Nepean in 2002. In December 2010 he was sworn in as one of two ministers covering education, with a portfolio that covers almost 900,000 students and 2,800 schools.

Martin also chairs the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs - made up of state and federal education ministers.

"The portfolio I have is a very good fit," he said. "I basically cover kids, classrooms and curriculum. There are three of us in total who cover education in Victoria and we work together very well and intersect smoothly."

The 55-year-old said his number one priority was to move Victoria from a good education system to world-class one.

"I believe the only way to do that is to allow that change and the innovation to come from the local school and community level. In Victoria we're well placed for that because we have an extremely high level of competence among our teachers and school leaders concerning teaching and learning, teacher practice and leadership.

"The next level of change has to be driven from the local school, and the department then becomes a support agency rather than a management agency.

"This isn't just a wild idea, I've talked to many principles over the years and I know that there are many schools who are ready, willing and able to take that step.

"My wife is also a teacher, and she keeps me grounded and always reminds me of the practical realities of my ideas and policies.

"This change to a greater level of autonomy for schools is going to mean a lot of exciting changes in terms of their networks, how they interact with the community, their governance, their curriculum offerings and curriculum specialisation."

The Minister said a greater level of independence among schools would also decrease the huge amount of paperwork and administrative duties currently swamping teachers and principals.

"One of the main problems that many government schools complain about to me about is the red tape. That's where the department currently has a management mentality. If the change driver is the local school then that by definition means that there should be less forms to fill out."

While autonomy would be encouraged, Martin said it would not lead to the Coalition adopting a self-governing model.

"The Department has to be there to support schools and intervene where necessary. Schools will come to us with various ideas about governance and where they fit in, and we'll work with all of those, and if its something that's going to enhance the education outcomes in their local area that’s fantastic."

Martin said that while it was a challenge pleasing the many competing interests in the education sector, he was determined to get the balance right.

"While I obviously have far more day-to-day management of government schools, there is already some work going on between the sectors, and we've got an incredible opportunity to actually build on that," he said. "Every system and individual school has a lot to learn from each other by sharing resources and ideas."

"We're also uniquely placed because we have a high level of students in non-government schools - second only to the ACT."

While the Baillieu government has only been in office for eight months, its education credentials have already been tested at several levels. However Martin is adamant that he's taking it in his stride.

"Look it's exciting, it's fulfilling and I'm not overwhelmed. I really feel I've settled in to the job and I understand the job and I'm very excited about taking the next step.

"We've gone through our first budget and we're well down the track in implementing our election commitments, so the next big step is just terribly exciting.

"This the work I want to do, and it's great."

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