What next now IS is crumbling

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017

What next now IS is crumbling

With Islamic State on the verge of losing all its territory in Iraq and Syria the thinking has turned to what might happen next, and what the implications are for the region and the West.

“At the moment, IS has lost everything it controlled in Iraq except for some outlying pockets,” says Dr Rodger Shanahan, a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute. “The situation in Syria is more complicated but it is really only a question of time until IS loses its territory there as well. There have been reports of the death of the IS leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi although we probably should believe that only when there is clear proof. But even if he is still alive, he no longer has much to lead.”


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: no longer much to lead

The loss of territory also means the loss of the financial resources that had allowed IS to support affiliates around the world. It also robs IS of the ‘victory narrative’ that had been central to its propaganda message. Without financial and technological resources, its social media presence has diminished, and IS is likely to find itself competing for attention with other radical voices on the Net.


Some observers have suggested that IS might move to one of its ‘provinces’ and re-establish its operations there. Shanahan is doubtful.

“Basically, its leaders and key figures were Iraqi, and they have no desire to go to the backblocks of Nigeria or Pakistan,” he says. “For Arab jihadists the Arabs are the people to whom God’s last revelation was given and who spread the world of Islam. To them, the Arab world is the centre of the struggle. The remaining leaders of IS are likely to try and stay in Iraq, going underground and seeking shelter from sympathetic tribes in remote areas. They are likely to believe they can rebuild and regenerate.”

Shanahan believes that regeneration of IS or a similar jihadist group in Iraq is possible if the conditions that gave rise to the success of IS remain. He nominates education and employment opportunities as areas that the Iraqi government should focus on after the territorial defeat of IS.

“There is at least an awareness in sections of the Iraqi government that development and modernisation is needed, and not just in the big cities,” Shanahan says. “The Americans, who are likely to maintain a presence in the area after IS is gone, are also saying this to the Iraqis. Hopefully we will eventually see a truly national institution emerge in the form of the Iraqi military, rather than something which operates more like a blunt instrument for whatever group happens to be in office. As a result of the struggle to defeat IS we are seeing some green shoots of a national Iraqi identity emerge.”

Another hopeful sign is that Saudi Arabia has begun to re-engage with Iraq. This might be partly to build a coalition against Iran but also because the Iraqi government, having defeated an entrenched and dangerous enemy, has gained some prestige in the region.

The situation in Syria is more difficult than that of Iraq, with more players and conflicting agendas. Nevertheless, it appears that IS in that country will soon lose its last strongholds.

“Bashir Assad will end up feeling satisfied with the outcome,” says Shanahan. “We can only hope that when the dust settles he will decide that there has been enough killing, rather than deciding to conduct a purge. Yes, he owes a lot to the Russians, but there are long connections between Russia and Syria. The Russians made the right choice, in a strategic sense. There was a point where Assad was seriously wobbling, and the Russians had to decide between cutting him loose or doubling down. They chose the latter, and it paid off. In fact, Russia and Syria recently signed an extension of their lease on their naval facility at Tartus and a lease agreement for their Hmeymim airbase in Latakia. So the Russians can also see themselves as winners.

“The downside for Assad is that Iran has increased its influence in Syria but it was the price he had to pay in order to maintain his grip on power.”

Outside the Middle East, there is likely to be a reduction in terrorist attacks, as Islamic State’s profile reduces and its social media presence shrinks. However, there is the problem that radicals who had gone to Islamic State from Western countries are now returning, with enough training to make them dangerous. And there are jihadists in the West who, although never having been to Islamic State territory, are still enthralled by the ideology.

“I doubt that they would have changed their anti-Western thinking at all,” Shanahan says. “They define themselves as standing up for the oppressed against their oppressors. If anything, the loss of IS territory would have strengthened rather than weakened that narrative. The issue will be whether they will have the capability to mount anything more than lone-wolf or non-complex small group attacks. Certainly, the security services cannot afford to relax, but without IS resources and organisation it is hard to see jihadists conducting large, complex operations.”



Lessons from ancient Athens

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017

 Lessons from ancient Athens

 A disastrous war between the US and China in the decades ahead is more likely than many commentators believe if the lessons of history are a guide, according to one of the key experts in the field. Professor Graham Allison, a senior Harvard academic who has advised a series of administrations, argues in his new book Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? that the root cause of war is often when a rising power determined to assert itself confronts an established power determined to maintain its position.

Destined for WarThucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that engulfed his home city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC. Athens was a rising power, and the military state of Sparta sought to keep the status quo. Neither state wanted war but their leaders nevertheless drifted into it, pushed by their own rhetoric and fear of the other. Sparta eventually won but the impact of the war was devastating for both sides.

Professor Allison sees this pattern occurring again and again, from the war between France and the Hapsburg Empire in the sixteenth century to both world wars in the twentieth century. In his book he looks at sixteen cases, of which twelve resulted in large-scale warfare.

“We now see an unstoppable China approaching an immovable America, with similar structural stresses,” says Professor Allison. “And both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries ‘great again’.”

China’s aim, according to Professor Allison, is to have its cultural superiority recognised in Asia, as a part of its dominance of the region, and to become the critical player in global politics and the global economy.

He puts forward a range of scenarios which could lead to the two countries into conflict. He notes that the Peloponnesian War began over Megara, a small state that was an ally of Sparta. Sparta did not much like Megara but after Athens imposed economic sanctions Sparta felt obliged to support it, as its collapse would give Athens an important advantage. Athens escalated, Sparta escalated, and war became inevitable.

The parallel with North Korea is hard to avoid but Allison sees plenty of other paths to disaster. The South China Sea could easily become a flashpoint if the ships or planes of one side came too close to the other, provoking an exchange of fire. Another possibility is a declaration of independence by Taiwan, leading to threats from China which the US would feel obliged to counter. Another scenario, one which was the subject of a wargame exercise conducted by the RAND Corporation, begins with a group of Japanese ultranationalists seeking to occupy the disputed island of Kuba Jima. China sends naval vessels to stop them, and Japan supports its citizens, and China then increases its forces, and Japan requests American help.

Wars have started with less obvious triggers, such as the assassination that sparked World War One. But Professor Allison suggests that a war between China and the US might not escalate into the all-out use of nuclear weapons. It could be more like a series of skirmishes with conventional weapons, although cyber-warfare might also play a role. However, severing the trade linkages would raise huge problems for both countries (but more for China, Professor Allison believes) as well as for the global economy.

The competition between the two countries is exacerbated by a deep lack of understanding. In particular, the US sees relations between states as based on rules and rights, backed up and interpreted by multi-national judicial bodies. China, says Professor Allison, says that it did not have a role in creating the rules-based system, and that the system appears designed to entrench the existing order.

War between China and the US is certainly possible, notes Professor Allison, but that does not mean it is inevitable. He finds common threads in the cases of competition that did not result in war, such as between rising America and established Britain in the early twentieth century or the rise of Germany, after unification, as the dominant power in Europe. He believes that the key issues are for each player to clearly distinguish between its wants and its needs, to strategically think of the long term, and to understand the connections between domestic pressures and international moves.

He believes that both China and the US are taking these steps, if somewhat haltingly. They are also making an effort to understand each other.

“Some 300,000 of China’s best and brightest are studying in the US,” says Professor Allison. “The current President of China sent his only child not to Tsinghua University but to Harvard, where she graduated in 2014. Finding ways in which the emerging generation of these ‘internationalists’ understanding of the world can be translated into new forms of cooperation remains among the most intriguing opportunities.”



Action behind the scenes on North Korea

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017

Action behind the scenes on North Korea

The North Korean situation has recently been relatively quiet but it might be the calm before a storm, according to Dr Alan Dupont, CEO of the Cognoscenti Group, a political and strategic risk consultancy, and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

“There has actually been a lot of movement behind the scenes, on all sides,” he says. “The Chinese recently sent a Special Envoy to North Korea, which is a significant move given that China does not currently have a close relationship with North Korea. There has been no word on the Special Envoy’s brief, but I would think it would be, first, to say some nice things about the enduring friendship between the two countries, and, second, to point out quietly and firmly that the current situation cannot be allowed to go on.”

Dupont notes that the North Koreans have been developing a nuclear second-strike capacity, with the recent launch of one advanced submarine which is capable of launching nuclear missiles, and another one being built. North Korea already has a number of submarines but they are old and easy to track, so the new boats represent a major improvement in launch capacity.Image result for north korean submarines

On the US side, the White House recently requested a major funding package from Congress. It is for the deployment of an additional fifty Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors capable of shooting down North Korean ballistic missiles. Some of the THAAD systems would go to South Korea and Japan, and others would be positioned to protect US territory.

“Trump’s strategy is multi-faceted,” says Dupont. “Many people look only at the tweets and the heated hyperbole but when you look at it his approach is straight out of the crisis management playbook. He is not telegraphing his moves, he is keeping his options open, he is mobilising allies, and he is decoupling North Korea from its key supporter, China. In fact, his confrontational rhetoric might be part of his strategy. His threat to destroy the whole country is, really, the sort of language that Pyongyang understands, because it is what it uses itself.”

A critical point is that no other strategy has worked in dealing with North Korea. It is sometimes forgotten that there has already been an attempt at diplomatic engagement with North Korea: the Agreed Framework deal set up when Bill Clinton was President. It quickly became clear that North Korea had no intention of abiding by its commitments to freeze weapons development, no matter what benefits it was given.

The Obama policy known as Strategic Patience was also unsuccessful.

“Looking back, it seems pretty clear that the Obama administration did not know what to do, so they did nothing and called it a policy,” says Dupont. “Connected to this was the persistent under-estimation by security agencies in the West of the abilities of the North Koreans to develop nuclear devices and deployment systems. There has long been a feeling that there was always more time to come up with a policy. Well, now we are out of time, and the crunch point is very close. Trump, at least, is giving this situation the priority it deserves.”

Dupont believes that the Trump policy of raising the cost to Kim Jong-un of his nuclear weapons program is reaching the end of its usefulness. Even at a reduced rate of development, it is likely that North Korea will be able to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs in 18 months, if not sooner. “It means that there is a window of opportunity to push North Korea to the negotiating table,” Dupont says. “The critical player is China. It might be willing to turn off the heavy oil pipeline that is crucial to North Korea’s economy, in addition to existing sanctions. But some careful calibration would be needed. China does not want to see the regime collapse. It would just want to get them realise they have to make a deal.”

A deal would probably involve a freeze in the development of more nuclear weapons and deployment systems, in return for the lifting of sanctions and some direct economic benefits.

Negotiations would involve not only North Korea and the US but would probably include Japan, South Korea, and China. China would be the player to verify that North Korea was complying.

“It’s a good idea but I would rate the chance of successful negotiations at around twenty per cent, no higher than twenty five,” says Dupont. “There are plenty of much darker options, such as North Korea exploding a H-bomb in the Pacific. That would be very hard for the US, and indeed everyone, to ignore. It might be a trigger for a military strike. It is theoretically possible for the US to take out the bulk of North Korea’s nuclear capacity, and for anti-missile systems to shoot down any that get off. But there is a big gap between theory and practice, and then you have to think about destroying much of North Korea’s conventional forces as well.  Possible, but that is as much as you can say. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t come up.”




Small players can think big

Appearing in Financial Review Defence feature, 13 September 2017


Defence sector an untapped market for SMEs


Many small and medium-sized businesses not yet engaged in the defence sector are missing opportunities, according to key players in the field.

“There is no doubt that the defence procurement system is complex and difficult,” says Alan Rankins, President of the Australian Industry & Defence Network, an organisation aimed at providing advice about defence work. “But the AIDN has a long history of providing guidance through the maze and a good record of success.”

There is also the Centre for Defence Industry Capability, funded by the Defence Department but operating in partnership with AusIndustry. The Centre has not been operating for long but the early signs of its capacity to help companies enter the defence sector are positive. It also offers support grants, news on relevant industry events, and advice on supply chains.

Rankins notes that there are about 850 known SMEs with specific capability for the defence sector, ranging from sole traders to the large primes. Some are specifically targeted at defence supply but there are more which have a range of clients, the ADF amongst them.

Surprisingly, until the mid-2000s there was a bias against Australian suppliers in defence procurement. Overseas-based companies were seen as more reliable and more likely to provide equipment which was compatible with that of Australia’s allies. The initial turning point was the Collins submarine project, which opened the door to Australian companies. Since then, the preference has slowly switched to Australian suppliers, particularly after the release of the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement. In fact, a number of home-grown companies have broken into important overseas markets for defence equipment. The Bushmaster all-terrain vehicle, for example, is in service all over the world.Alan Rankins of AIDN

“Certainly, there are barriers to entry,” said Rankins. “Just finding the right person in the Defence Department can be a problem. Depending on what is being provided, there are security clearances needed, and if you go into exports there is complex legislation involved. The procedures for bidding for a contract are complex, and then the description of the goods or services wanted can be extraordinarily lengthy and complicated.

“There is also the point that defence projects can take a very long time – years, sometimes decades. That is one reason we recommend that defence suppliers have other customers as well, so they are not dependent on a single revenue stream.

“The upside is that the Defence Department pays fairly, and pays on time. And many of its contracts involve very significant amounts of money. Then, of course, there is the point that it is satisfying work. You are contributing to Australia’s security, and you get to be involved with very interesting stuff.”

In the past decade, the profile of defence procurement has changed. Previously, it was mainly ‘hard’ equipment that was purchased. Now, there is a demand for sophisticated technology products, such as cyber-security software and simulators for training, as well as for intellectual expertise.

One company that has done well due to its expertise is Eggler Technology Training, the only company in the world offering professional development courses in the engineering science and technology used in the design of combat and logistic military vehicles.

“We have only about six people here but it adds up to a lot of brainpower,” says Mark Eggler, founder and Managing Director. “We started as a consultant firm specialising in military vehicle technology but in 2011 moved into engineering education and training, starting at the Australian Defence Force Academy. I have a background in the army so when we started I knew the right people to approach but as we moved into other ADF branches it became much harder. That’s where organisations like the AIDN can help. They know the right doors and how to open them.”

A major part of the company’s revenue now comes from exports of professional engineering training services to countries like Singapore, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates. He notes that trade shows and conventions can be a good starting point to break into export markets.

“Australian companies working in the defence sector have a good reputation overseas,” says Eggler. “That extends to companies offering training and education services. Unfortunately, when the Defence Department sets up a stand at an international trade show it tends to focus on the equipment and manufacturing side. That’s all very well, but the future lies as much in services as in products.  Intellectual expertise is really where Australian professional services companies have a competitive advantage.”

Alan Rankins agrees. “I have no doubt that there are many SMEs in Australia who have products or services that would be very suitable for the defence sector,” he says. “They haven’t thought of the sector or they have taken a glance and decided it is too hard. But help is available, and even for small companies there are big possibilities.”


ASEAN links growing

Appearing in Financial Review, Defence feature, 13 September 2017


Australia should focus on ASEAN ties


Australia needs to return its regional focus to the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to a new paper from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific. The paper Smaller, but enmeshed by Professor Tony Milner and Adjunct Associate Professor Ron Huisken calls for Australia to make ASEAN and southeast Asia its priority for economic, political and security cooperation.

“We have had a long association with ASEAN but in the past decade we have let it drift as we focused more on the China-US dynamic,” said Professor Huisken. “There have been some positive steps in the past few years, such as the agreement to hold biennial ASEAN-Australia Leaders’ Summits and the ‘special summit’ planned for 2018. But there is still much to do.”

Prof Ron HuiskenASEAN is growing in economic and political weight. As a trading partner, southeast Asia is more important to Australia than Japan or the US. In 2015 over a million people from ASEAN countries visited Australia, and almost three million Australians travelled in the other direction. For a number of countries in the region, Australia is the leading provider of Western tertiary education.

“These are good indicators but they do not connect to the Australian national imagination or the ASEAN regional imagination. It has not been made clear to the public that Australia must recognise how important the ASEAN region will be to the country’s future – so important, in fact, that Australia should strive to make consultation and cooperation instinctive for both sides,” say the authors.

“Leader-to-leader optics will always be helpful. Images of the Australian Prime Minister strolling through a market place with the Indonesian President, or standing next to the Malaysian leader, cooperating in the search for a lost airliner, do more than words to build solid, deep relations at the cultural level.”

Professor Huisken points to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Singapore and Australia as a crucial step. It was signed on 29 June 2015, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. It effectively put Australia’s relations with Singapore on the same basis as its relations with New Zealand.

The need to improve relations is underlined by the relative deterioration of Australia’s position. ASEAN’s GDP is now more than US$2.5 trillion, approaching double that of Australia. South Korea has moved ahead of Australia as an investor in the region, and its trade with ASEAN is over double the size of Australia’s.

There is a similar story on the defence side. In 1988, Australia’s military spending was greater than that of all the ASEAN countries. It also held capability, technology and intelligence advantages. Now, ASEAN defence spending is about fifty per cent higher than Australia’s and the lead in capability is shrinking fast.

The good news is that there is increasing defence co-operation between Australia and ASEAN, ranging from joint naval exercises to pilot training. Professor Huisken believes this can be an important part of improved engagement. A solid security relationship is developing with Singapore, which has contracted to use bases in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area and Townsville Field Training Area. It will eventually be a large commitment, with up to 14,000 Singapore personnel training for up to 18 weeks a year by 2021.

In another significant move, the Australian Government recently announced that the Philippines Government has accepted an Australian offer of two AP-3C Orion aircraft to provide surveillance support to the armed forces of the Philippines in the fight against groups linked to Islamic State in Mindanao province. The arrangement comes under the Defence Cooperation Program with the Philippines, which includes counter-terrorism activities.

“In an important respect, the growth and development of the ASEAN region constitute an opportunity for Australia,” says Professor Huisken. “Forty years ago Australia was a relatively bigger player. Now there is more of a balance, and that is reflected in the easier sense of partnership in defence issues.

“But to keep and build that emerging sense of partnership there has to be change of language, amongst other things. We need to stop talking about southeast Asia as ‘our backyard’. And it is also counterproductive to use terms like ‘Asia Pacific’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’. These constructions may have appeal for Australians but they have little value in the region. The reality is that Australia gets some bad press in southeast Asia, and the use of terms that are construed as patronising is one of the reasons.”

Professor Huisken sees a window of opportunity, with ASEAN wary of Chinese ambitions in the region and the uncertainties about the US presence. Deeper Australian engagement with ASEAN and support for its initiatives could add an important element of certainty for both sides.

“Australia’s support for ASEAN needs to be unambiguous and public,” he says. “We have important blocks in place, and now we have to take it forward.”


Language teaching takes a step up

Appearing in Financial Review, Special Report: Your child’s education, 4 September 2017

Languages open doors to new cultures

The future for teaching of non-English languages in Australia is looking hopeful, with an increasing number of options for students and a move towards teaching models favouring cultural engagement and meaning.

“The days where there were only a few choices in schools, usually French or German and maybe Latin, and teaching focused on the technical translation of texts, are gone,” says Dr Anne-Marie Morgan, head of the School of Education at the University of New England and President of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations. “There is increasing recognition of the need and demand for learning languages, with strong support from a network of professional associations around the country.”

Increasingly, language education is being provided in early primary school, which has the benefit of complementing learning in English literacy. There is a solid body of research showing that learning additional languages promotes cognitive skills and sensitivity, and improves broad skills in listening, reading and writing.

“The evidence shows that it is never too early to start,” says Dr Morgan. “Even for students who are quite young, learning another language helps them realise that they are living in a global world, and that there can be different ways of understanding that world.”Dr Anne-Marie Morgan

The number of students completing Year 12 language classes has been dropping but Dr Morgan believes that this is not the most relevant measure. The more significant metric is the number of students, in both primary schools and the early years of secondary schools, who have undertaken language studies – and this is a growth area. But Australia still lags behind other OECD nations in the overall numbers of bilingual speakers, and the policy aim is still to increase uptake of languages learning.

Over the last decade the languages most commonly taught have been Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian and Indonesian. However, classes in Spanish, Hindi and Arabic are starting to appear in significant numbers, and the signing language Auslan is also being taught. There is significant variation between states, with Chinese, Italian and Arabic popular in New South Wales, for example, while Italian, Indonesian and Japanese are more common in Western Australia. Much depends on the demographics of an area, which feed into a school through community demand.

Generally, independent schools offer more languages programs and across more years, although many state schools provide a range of choices.

Dr Morgan emphasises that language programs are only valuable if a school takes them seriously, and commits resources and time to them. A token program, perhaps only a half-hour a week, can actually be counter-productive, if students end the program feeling that they have not really learned anything.

“One teaching method that shows great promise is to conduct non-language classes, such as maths, in another language. This model is based on experience in Canada and Europe and the early results in Australia are encouraging,” says Dr Morgan.

This approach is part of a shift away from the old emphasis on vocabulary and grammar. The focus now is on the capacity for communication and meaning, and on how people actually engage with one another.

“Young people today are more connected to and aware of other languages and cultures than ever before,” Dr Morgan says. “English is no longer the only language of the Internet, and most young people will travel. What they want is to be able to communicate with and understand other societies.”

Even with the range of languages on offer increasing there does not appear to be a shortage of teachers; it is more a problem of distribution and concentration of programs. There is a mix of native speakers and Australian-trained teachers. Programs that have enabled teachers to develop their skills so they can learn a language and know how to teach it have also been successful in meeting demand, especially in languages new to Australian schools.

One problem, however, is that some students can have much greater experience with a language than others, especially if they speak it in the family home. Students without the background experience find it difficult to compete, and those with existing knowledge find it frustrating if the class deals with what they already know.

Dr Morgan admits that this can cause ructions.

“The Australian Curriculum begins to address this issue with curricula for students of different backgrounds and experience, and school systems provide differentiated programs in the senior years,” she says. “This approach has worked in some situations but there are always grey areas. It is an issue that will continue to need attention.

“I think that the language area will continue to grow, and languages will establish themselves more firmly in the school curriculum. There is good support from all sides of politics. That bodes well for the future – both of students, and the country.”

Teacher learning looks for new course

Appearing in Financial Review, Special Report: Your child’s education, 4 September 2017


Structural impediments holding back professional learning


Teacher development is a key element in improving education outcomes but there are structural impediments holding the profession back, according to experts in the field.

Lawrence Ingvarson“There is no shortage of evidence showing the link between ongoing training and student results,” says Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, Principal Research Fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research. “There are plenty of courses and classes for teachers but the problem in Australia is that there is no real system or organisation to it, and, currently, no valid and reliable means for recognition of outstanding teachers.”

At present, primary and secondary school teachers are required, when seeking re-registration, to show that they have undertaken a minimum of 100 hours of professional learning over five years. This is overseen by a statutory body in each state, and the course a teacher does must be approved by the body.

“The theory of the requirement, which relates to professional standards, is to keep teachers aware of new advances in their field and in teaching methods,” says Dr Ingvarson. “In practice, it’s all pretty vague, with the criteria for approval of courses unclear. Most of all, there is a lack of clarity as to where a teacher needs to improve, how they can improve, and how they know if they have improved. Feedback is vital for professional learning, but rarely available.”

At the school level, professional learning is taken very seriously in some schools, especially upper-tier independent schools. In some cases, they even have administrative staff dedicated to professional learning, and the school has the resources to give teachers the time to undertake training.

“That’s fine, but those schools with fewer resources can have a real problem,” Dr Ingvarson says. “Their budgets are already under pressure, and if they have to engage a relief teacher to fill in for a few days when the regular teacher is away, it can quickly soak up available funds. So you can see how professional learning can slip down the priorities list.”

Even when a teacher improves their capability they can find it very difficult to implement what they have learned. A change in methods can be disruptive, and can take some time to show benefits. Teachers are often locked into a set curriculum and an established assessment system, which discourages new techniques.

Professional learning can take many forms, from full-time advanced degrees to short courses to online classes.

“There is an obvious interdependence between knowing more about subject content and improving your methods of communication and teaching,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Listening to lectures has its place but there also has to be practical work. Collaboration with other teachers is very valuable as a means of understanding students’ needs and engaging with them.”

While the diversity of learning opportunities has its advantages the downside is a lack of coherence. Many providers are privately-run training organisations, and the quality varies widely.

“At the moment, there is simply no feeling among teachers that they own the professional learning system,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Many providers see it as a way of making profits rather than tying what they offer to educational outcomes. When you compare that to the professional development system of, say, the accounting profession, where the industry associations play a key role, it should be no surprise that teachers feel that it is not there to serve them.”

One way to deal with the issue is a system of professional certification, to recognise teachers who have reached high levels of achievement through professional learning. There are moves under way to establish such a system through the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, although it is fragmented across states and employing authorities .

ACER recently examined the need for a rigourous national certification system in a major paper for the Business Council, and the response has been positive.

“Certification would be a critical way to promote widespread use of evidence-based practices,” Dr Ingvarson says. “At the same time, it would provide a means to improve pay rates for accomplished teachers. At the moment, the incentive for teachers to improve their capacity to do their job is weak.”

He believes that a certification system would offer a better career path for teachers and do much to improve the status of the profession. It would help to attract talented people into the profession and retain those who are there.

“Who really believes that a top salary for classroom teachers of about $90,000 means we place sufficient value on teachers’ work to attract the best university graduates?” he says. “Who really believes that the typical office spaces in which teachers are expected to prepare and assess student work are indicators of an attractive and esteemed profession?

“At present, the principles and values of professional learning are understood and recognised. The task now is to create a system to take it forward.”