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Simon Birmingham

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I would like to acknowledge: 

• Elder Songwoman Maroochy for the Welcome to Country and pay my respects to all of Australia’s Indigenous people and in particular the Turrbal nation, the traditional owners of the land on which the Conference is being held.
• Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive Officer, ACER
• Distinguished international researchers
• Australian academics and all delegates attending the Conference.
• Thank you for having me here this morning at the ACER 2016 Conference to give the Welcome Address. I am pleased and honoured to be here in place of the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcom Turnbull.
• It’s fantastic to see such strong interest and engagement from education researchers, policy makers and practitioners on improving STEM learning.
• I am also pleased and honoured to have been re-appointed as the Minister for Education and Training. I know you will agree that this is an extremely important portfolio for the on-going prosperity of Australia.

Twenty years from now, when today’s pre-schoolers are moving out of their tertiary education, many will be looking at jobs that are very different from the jobs that people may think about or conceive of today.

While many traditional jobs will obviously remain, albeit requiring ever changing technical skills, we also must expect that there will be increased jobs in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology, to name just a few.

But also that many of those skills in related STEM disciplines will be increasingly relevant in jobs across a whole range of industries that are important to Australia today and will still be important to Australia in twenty years’ time. Farming, tourism and hospitality, in mining and advanced manufacturing and all of those different areas that our economy is based upon and the jobs of today exist will still be significant employers of the future but the types of jobs that will exist there and the skills that are required in those jobs will require more advanced STEM skills in individuals.

We live in the technology age and we must ensure that the skills that we are teaching our young people are keeping pace with rapidly changing technology. We know that in the not-to-distant future there is the potential for smart systems to be linking and running homes, factories, farms, grids and cities. One-passenger drones or driver-less cars will be hooked into smart systems that could be taking people to work.

That is what we will be looking at by 2036. We must prepare for it. We must develop systems and ideas and solutions that we can use in the future. We must ensure that our entire education and training system from the earliest years in child care, through our schools and into our higher education and training systems provide all students with the skills they need to be productive workers and active citizens in a globalised world not only for tomorrow but with adaptable skills that will serve people for the decades of continued change to come – and STEM is an incredibly important part of that preparation.

As Geoff said, the nature of work is changing. Three quarters of the fastest growing occupations in Australia require skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The OECD has reported that 40 per cent of jobs are estimated to be highly affected by automation in the next 10 to 15 years.

As the landscape changes and our economy transitions it is vital that the next generation are able to drive the computer and not have the computer drive them.

These statistics clearly illustrate that STEM learning is essential. We must respond and modernise and modify these statistics and modify and modernise the way we prepare young Australians for their future in a highly technological workforce.

After all, our number one responsibility is to ensure that when young people finish school, TAFE, university, an apprenticeship or any form of training that they are able to get a job and have the skills to contribute in that place of work and subsequent ones.

Governments, researchers, educators, industry and parents must work together, having a shared responsibility of ensuring that following generations have the necessary skills for success.

When speaking about this shared responsibility it is worth noting the Grattan Institute’s Mapping Australian Higher Education 2016 report released today that shows only half of bachelor degree science graduates seeking full-time work had found it four months after completing their degrees, which is 17 percentage points below the average for all graduates. And may of course seem in stark contrast to the importance that Geoff and I have just given in terms of the role that STEM plays in the future

This report is another important reminder for graduates to consider their job prospects carefully when selecting a course, including the potential to have to supplement a generalist degree, like a science degree with post graduate specialisation or other more specifically vocational qualifications.

As I’m sure many of you in the room know, science at the undergraduate level provides more generalist skills and while very useful it often provides more of a base to go on to other postgraduate study – particularly in research.

We should not allow statistics like this to sway people from the importance of science. We should be clear when discussing the growing number of jobs that will require STEM skills that not all will require tertiary qualifications in a STEM related discipline. STEM skills can and will increasingly be employed across a range of industries requiring more analytical ability and cross-disciplinary thinking. Just as sound literacy and numeracy are absolute prerequisites for success, increasingly STEM skills will become another "must have".

Nonetheless, in science as in all fields of study, it must be the responsibility of universities to be mindful of the numbers of students they enrol relative to the employment opportunities for such graduates. I trust that future higher education reforms, including to enrolment practices, will help to enure such factors are considered.

STEM is already built into so many parts of the education system and achieving results in so many ways, but – as your conference title challenges us – what will it take to improve STEM learning?

What are the problems? While many of the challenges to improve STEM learning are not unknown, to address them requires long term continued commitment and long-term planning.

One of the challenges is how we develop coherent policy across all sectors, from early childhood, through to primary and secondary school, vocational education and university education.

This is why all education ministers endorsed the National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) School Education Strategy 2016-2026.

The strategy supports a long-term change agenda which is aimed at ensuring students have a stronger foundation in STEM and are inspired to take on more challenging STEM subjects.

The national strategy identified a number of problem areas requiring national action, including:

Increasing student STEM ability, engagement, participation and aspiration.

As Geoff identified, student participation in STEM subjects is declining and the relative performance of our students internationally is falling.

Senior student enrolments in biology, physics and chemistry have all dropped significantly since the early 1990’s and, whilst overall enrolment levels for mathematics have been relatively stable, the worrying trend we are seeing is a major shift from more advanced maths to more elementary ones.

There are also significant challenges around the participation of females in STEM studies and careers. A 2015 University of Sydney study of New South Wales students found that the number of girls enrolled in maths and science subjects after year 10 has been decreasing since 2001. The proportion of girls who study no mathematics after year 10 nearly tripled from 7.5 per cent in 2001 to 21.5 per cent in 2011.

To address this, one of the key reforms that the Turnbull Government announced in May is to see students needing to complete both an English or humanities subject and a maths or science subject prior to attaining their ATAR.

This aims to ensure that students study across different fields of study throughout their schooling lives, giving them improved skills and keeping more options open for longer. We appreciate that it will require schools to structure both preparatory subjects and final subject choices appropriately, while necessitating school systems to carefully consider future workforce requirements. These are reasons why this is a change that cannot occur overnight and we will carefully work through with the states and territories but, equally, the decision by some universities to start to mandate maths or other STEM disciplines as a prerequisite for more entry into an increasing number of courses means there is good reason to implement it as soon as practicable.

Aligning with this reform, we also aim to require a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy competency from all students as part of their completion of Year 12. Pleasingly, some states have already started to move towards minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers, addressing concerns expressed by universities, TAFEs and employers alike.

For example, the Western Australian Certificate of Education now contains a literacy and numeracy minimum standard which students can meet either through participating in the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (OLNA) or by achieving Band 8 or above in reading, writing or numeracy in the Year 9 National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

It is noted that those minimum benchmarks are not sought to be at the Year 12 subject level of competency but are of course sought to apply to Year 12 school leavers to give at least a benchmark assurance that they have met the Year 9 level of competencies.

As those in this room would well be aware, the evidence is clear that the most important in-school determinant of student progress is a teacher – which is why we are very concerned that there is a shortage of appropriately qualified STEM Teachers in Australia. According to the ‘Staff in Australia’s Schools’ survey, undertaken by ACER in 2013, there were 460 unfilled secondary maths and science teacher positions at the beginning of that school year. That’s almost 9 per cent of maths and 6 per cent of science teaching jobs unfilled.

More worrying is the number of teachers who are teaching currently in STEM disciplines who it would appear are not adequately trained to do so. The same survey also found that an estimated 20 per cent of Year 7 to 10 General Science teachers have less than 1 year of tertiary study in that area. The numbers are similar for Year 7 to 10 Mathematics teachers, around 18 per cent, while for IT teachers in these year levels the number for less than one year of study in the field is a whopping 40 per cent.

We also know that the confidence primary teachers have in their own Science, Math and Technology knowledge can have a significant impact on the likelihood that a student will go on to study these subjects in their later years of schooling.

To address this and as part of our range of evidence-based reforms announced in May the Turnbull Government will also negotiate with the states and territories to set minimum proportions of trainee teachers specialising in literacy and numeracy and to set recruitment targets for teachers qualified in science, technology, engineering or mathematics subjects.

This will require cooperation from universities, using our leverage over their funding where necessary, as well as for the states, territories and non-government systems to make clear their workforce needs and priorities as the ultimate employers of teachers.

Already, following the release of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report we are requiring universities to make sure that new primary school teachers graduate with a subject specialisation, which will include Science, Mathematics and Technology. Alongside this, the Government has also focused on ensuring all graduate teachers have the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills to support the learning of all students by requiring that all those pre-service teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the Australian population in literacy and numeracy skills prior to graduation.

Already more than 7500 teaching students have sat or registered to sit the test and encouragingly just last week I released results that showed in the first sitting window 94.5 per cent of teaching students had met the literacy standards and 93 per cent had met the numeracy standard. This should provide enhanced confidence parents principals and school administrators about competencies of our university graduates.

I have written within the last week to all of my state and territory counterparts, as well as relevant university vice chancellors, urging them to ensure that every future teaching graduate sits these tests and is given support to ensure they pass. Ultimately, no student who is not up to these high standards should graduate, let alone be registered to teach.

Meanwhile, within the existing profession, federal government funding is assisting the development of innovative STEM resources for primary and secondary teachers and students including the $7.4 million which has been invested in the Mathematics by Inquiry initiative, $3.5 million for the teaching of computer coding across different year levels in Australian schools – Coding Across the Curriculum and $5 million for the Australian Academy of Science’s popular Primary Connections and Science by Doing programmes.

As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, released by the Turnbull Government we’re funding a package that includes over $112 million in initiatives to inspire all Australians in STEM and to boost digital literacy. These initiatives start in the early years for pre-schoolers and go right through schooling and into higher education and are aimed at securing the pipeline of STEM skills.

We know that young children should be inspired to explore their natural curiosity in maths and science by making activities fun and as rewarding as possible.

In building and supporting STEM education in a child’s early years, we have the potential to grow a generation of new learners enhanced by new technologies that will assist us to be a truly innovative nation.

At the outset of these remarks I spoke about 2036 ... twenty years hence … by then it will be these three, four and five year olds of today who will be taking their first steps into the workforce in 20 years.

Through programs such as Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) pilot, Let’s Count and Little Scientists, the Government is investing in the foundation of STEM skills to promote positive science and mathematics experiences for our youngest learners.

Funding for The Smith Family’s Let’s Count and Froebel Australia Limited’s Little Scientists will mean that these excellent programmes will reach more early learning education and childcare services across Australia and will expand the community of STEM practice in early learning settings.

My two young girls are aged three and five and having spent a fair bit of time seeing their exploration of science and maths and interest in how it is that things work as well as a lot of time on the road over the last few months on the campaign trail it has been fantastic seeing how these programs engage with young children ... the smiles on their face as they’re having such fun while also learning these important disciplines is very encouraging.

What we of course need to do is make sure that the research underpinning these types of programmes is thorough and findings widely shared so that adaptations of those that are most effective can occur across our early learning system.

These programmes help early years educators support parents to develop the maths skills of children by noticing, exploring and talking about numbers, counting, measurement and patterns in their daily lives. It helps their children develop the skills needed for a successful transition to school. As with literacy, data shows that children who start school behind their peers in terms of numeracy skills struggle to catch-up, which is why our proposed year one early assessment of all children seeks to cover basic numeracy as well as phonics and reading.

After the early years, we must continue the momentum through primary and secondary schooling. To this end, in addition to holistic measures such as our steps to reduce clutter in the national curriculum, the Turnbull Government is supporting a number of initiatives aimed at specifically boosting student engagement with STEM subjects.

For example, we have committed funding to the expansion of the existing Pathways in Technology (P-TECH) pilot, which is already operating at two sites in Ballarat and Geelong, as part of the broader strategy to improve Australia’s STEM capability. The expanded pilot will see an additional 12 P-TECH pilot sites established across Australia.

As many of you may know, the P-TECH model is based on a partnership between industry and education that offers students from the middle years of high school pathways to supported education to a STEM related diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree.

Interaction with industry representatives throughout their senior secondary years will help students build both the technical and interpersonal skills needed in the workforce. It also offers those students with clear examples of the diversity of employment opportunities that exist underpinning the five studies in STEM disciplines and practical steps that direct them towards where local employment opportunies will exist in the future and an understanding of the types of qualifications and skills they will need to get there.

As the complimentary benefit of course supporting teachers and principals and those managing schools have a better understanding again of what local industry and employment …are and the practical STEM skills that are required

Perhaps most importantly for teachers and students alike programmes like P-TECH can bring schools together and can give practical understanding of the benefits of what STEM teaching is all about. We take the theoretical of maths or science and give it an understanding of where and how it is applied in local job settings in a practical way that students and teachers can relate to. P-TECH is designed to ensure that students are skilled for the jobs that will be on offer once they graduate.

More broadly, through the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), we will continue to support the establishment of flexible partnerships between STEM industry professionals and schools, helping students and teachers understand how STEM is applied in the real world and assisting them in identifying clear pathways to STEM careers.

Your attendance here at this important conference, tells me that I am already speaking in many ways to the converted. As researchers, educators and teachers you are keenly aware and committed to the importance of STEM and understand why more needs to be done to raise our STEM outcomes in the Australian education system.

The workplaces and world of the future will need people to be not just comfortable with STEM, but to be excelling in those disciplines. I am confident that with commitment from researchers and educators, like those of you assembled here, we will continue to implement successful reform and initiatives across our education system to secure prosperity for future generations of Australians.

We’ve already benefited enormously from technological change, but we need to work together to incorporate even more of those potential changes and the benefits from them into our classrooms.

We need to address in an honest and practical way the challenges that Geoff outlined at the start and to ensure that students and parents see the benefits of STEM disciplines and seize the opportunities to learn them through our education systems.

That our schools are well equipped with qualified and experienced teachers that deliver on those disciplines and that the curriculum support is there with the right best programmes demonstrated by research to provide the best educational and learning opportunities for the students of the future and to ensure the knowledge is passed on to those students

We are committed as a government to work cooperatively and practically with our state and territory counterparts and those in the non-government sector as well as researchers who support so much of our education development right across all sectors in the education and training system form the highchair to the higher education to make sure that we take the best of technology, the best of the changing environment and provide the best of policy to help shape the future for a new generation of young Australians.

Thank you for your work, help and dedication and passion in relation to pursue STEM disciplines. I look forward to getting a briefing on the discussions that you have here at this conference and am confident that we will be able to work cooperatively to implement some of your findings to ensure that we give the best and most positive start to the future generations

Thanks for the opportunity to join you today and I wish you every success during the conference.

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