Interview on FIVEaa mornings with Leon Byner
Topics: Year 1 literacy and numeracy checks; TAFE qualifications

Leon Byner: So Minister Birmingham, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Leon.

Leon Byner: So you want to introduce this, don’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, indeed. Look, we think this is something worth the states, territories and school systems around the country picking up. That it is a light touch check after about 18 months or so of schooling to make sure that children, our littlest learners, are grasping the basics, the building blocks upon which the rest of their educational success will depend.

Leon Byner: What do you say to the Education Union’s comment that we had in the 11am News that said our members already know what the weaknesses are and which children have them; we don’t need this?

Simon Birmingham: And in many, many cases that is correct, Leon. But we should be making sure that in every classroom, across every school, right across Australia, children are getting the support they need. We know that by the time you get to Year 3 NAPLAN, around one in 20 children are not meeting the minimum standards in terms of their literacy skills, many, many more are not meeting the proficient standards, and it’s more challenging to address those issues once they’ve gotten to that age. It’s better to identify the problems earlier and to make sure that particularly in terms of learning some of their techniques and skills they need, like phonics, they’re getting that education, they’re getting that teaching, and if they’re not and there’s a problem, that schools are equipped to intervene.

Leon Byner: Alright, can you impose this or can you only suggest it, being the federal Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s very true. As the federal Minister, I don’t run any schools, so it does come down to cooperation from the states and territories. I am pleased – and I give an acknowledgement here – that the State Labor Government in South Australia has been trialling elements of this this year, and that when we met as state and territory and Commonwealth education ministers last week, they received this report, we agreed that later this year we would get the authors of the report, including Jennifer, to come and brief us on its contents, and indeed Minister Susan Close from South Australia said that she would give some briefing and update in terms of how the trial has gone in South Australia. So I hope we can put party politics aside, I hope that the union can put their desire for party politics aside, and that we can actually put school children first.

Leon Byner: I want to ask you about TAFE. We had some very controversial revelations only a few weeks ago that some of their high end mechanical courses were wanting, that people were getting passed nearly for turning up. There is clearly – and there’s a lot of evidence which suggests that some of the certificates given out by TAFE are not worth the paper they’re written on. Can you do anything about that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Leon, we can do some things. So at a federal level, there is a national level of regulation that applies to the vocational education and training system through a body called ASQA, and they have some degree of oversight of TAFE SA and they have been conducting a thorough audit of TAFE SA particularly as a result of these revelations, but it shouldn’t take federal intervention. Having said something nice about Susan Close before, I will now say that frankly the State Labor Government and Minister Close need to come clean around this TAFE debacle.

Leon Byner: What do you want from them? When you say come clean, what are you looking for?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we know that it was kept secret for a long period of time until the aviation regulators exposed it. Is this the full extent of it? Are there any other areas where the qualifications given to students have been called into question by their employers or by other industry regulators? What are they going to do to guarantee that those students who were affected get their qualifications so they can get back to work and get on with their jobs and make sure that they’re not out of pocket?

Leon Byner: Well, there’s a compensation issue here, because if you’ve been given a certificate on the basis of you turning up when you haven’t done the work, it’s not- what you’re given is not fit for purpose.

Simon Birmingham: Correct.

Leon Byner: There’s a problem isn’t there.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So some of those students are currently out of pocket and unable to work and that is of course a terrible situation from the beginning.

Leon Byner: So what have you done? You’re the federal Minister. I know again- see, this is the murkiness of federal-state relations, where you give a little bit and they give a little bit, so what authority have you got, if any? What leverage have you got?

Simon Birmingham: So our leverage sits at a slightly higher order level, which is why we’ve made sure that the national regulator has gone in to have a look at TAFE SA’s overall procedures and compliance. Now, you’d hope that with an entity like TAFE we really shouldn’t need to apply that level of pressure, that yes, in terms of in the private sector vocational market that’s why you’ve got a national regulator there to try to guarantee their performance. It shouldn’t be necessary with TAFE SA; we should be able to expect that the state government upholds the standards, but we’ve sent the regulator in to make sure they are.

Leon Byner: I’ll just mention the one irony of this. One of the justifications of the state government originally taking money out of private trainers’ hands was the dinkiness of their courses, but it seems in some areas TAFE have done the same thing. That’s got to be fixed.

Simon Birmingham: And that’s a real concern. I think that’s often one of the benefits of some of, particularly, the smaller private training providers where they have clear demonstrated links to employers is they’re giving the training the employers actually want and the employers value. And so really, in the vocational education training sector, what’s critical there is strong engagement between employers and the trainers to make sure that the qualifications are fit for purpose. Now, in a sector like aviation which was exposed in TAFE, there’s another party involved there and they of course are the safety regulators and that’s of paramount importance. It’s mindboggling to think that of all the qualifications for TAFE SA to stuff up at the state level, it happens to be one that is as highly regulated and highly safety conscious as aviation.

Leon Byner: Thanks for coming in today.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Leon.

Leon Byner: When are you seeing the PM next?

Simon Birmingham: I’ll see the PM at Cabinet next week.

Leon Byner: Just- and I know you can’t talk about what happens in Cabinet, neither parties can, but just in a general sense is there a – this is a global question – electricity and its cost and so on and its practicality for reliability is very much a big issue out there in the entire Australian electorate. Is the government acutely sensitive to this?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Look, without revealing what goes on in Cabinet, I think I could say with confidence that electricity affordability and reliability have probably dominated more conversations than almost any other topic because we recognise the paramount importance there to households in terms of their cost of living, to businesses in terms of their viability. You know, Australia cannot be a successful exporting, high wage, high social safety net, high standard of living country if we don’t also have reliable and affordable energy.

Leon Byner: Alright. Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, on 5AA.