Address to Speech Pathology Australia Conference, Adelaide   


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you very much for that welcome and for the opportunity to join you all here with Speech Pathology Australia for your national conference. It’s always a delight, as a senator from South Australia, I often manage to find the chance to come and speak in my home city when I’m not in Canberra or elsewhere, and it’s always a particular thrill to follow Jack Buckskin when he does his fabulous welcome to country. Jack or Vincent [speaks Indigenous Australian]. Maybe.


Maybe, maybe not. He’s not here now to call me over, but I’ll test him out later. Can I, though, acknowledge, indeed, the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains, all of Australia’s traditional owners and Indigenous peoples? And as federal Education Minister, acknowledge that we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture and knowledge from Indigenous culture and knowledge, and indeed, as peoples together to build on that culture and knowledge.


Why, some may ask, is the federal Minister for Education and Training speaking at the national conference of Speech Pathology Australia? Probably fewer people in this room, but certainly many outside would think there’s a disconnect between what is often seen as an expert field in the health sector and the education portfolio. After all, as your website explains, speech pathologists are university-trained allied health professionals, with expertise in the assessment and treatment of communication and or swallowing difficulties, which does not at first glance seem to fit with the usual education issues.


Indeed, on the flipside, if you just go by some media reports, some would seem to suggest, as the federal minister, my role and focus seems only at times to have to explain complex Commonwealth school funding formulas and negotiate intricate federal-state education agreements, rather than getting the opportunity and time to focus on what is happening in classrooms with children to improve education quality.


Both views, of course, are wrong. Speech pathologists have long had a key role in that most important foundation of anyone’s education: effective communication skills. The ability to use oral and written language effectively impacts on a person’s ability to learn in the classroom, to interact with their teachers or their peers, and to ultimately develop the foundational literacy and numeracy skills upon which their life of learning and knowledge will be based. Effective communication is essential for effective learning, social interaction, work participation and community connectedness. And with some 20 per cent of children starting school in Australia with a speech, language or communication impairment, the role of speech pathologists in schools are crucial in helping these children, through your professional support in developing and adapting curriculum, in group or direct individual student interventions, your efforts have a very real, a very direct impact on the education of many Australians.


So too, from my side of the perspective of perceptions that exist sometimes, the Commonwealth’s role is not just in doling out dollars or assuaging one state or sectoral interest group or another over funding levels. Commonwealth funding for education and schools is now a huge $243.5 billion over the next 10 years, including more than $22 billion specifically targeted for students with disability. We have an even greater responsibility with such scale of investment to now, more than ever, ensure this funding makes a difference in the classroom.


For instance, our funding for students with disability will, from this year, for the first time ever, be based on the nationally-consistent collection on data on students with disability. The NCCD, as it’s known, ensures that there is a national, consistent and fairer approach to collecting data and directing Commonwealth funding more precisely towards the actual needs of students in the classroom. The NCCD relies on the knowledge of teachers, in consultation with school leaders, parents and health professionals such as speech pathologists like you, to identify best the requirements that a student has for a full adjustment and participation in the classroom. In addition, as part of the Australian Early Development Census, when a child first enrols fulltime at school, teachers will be able to assess the child over five development areas, including their language and communication skills.


All of these assessments are helping us to make sure that we can better target resources where they are needed most, but we need to do more to ensure the policies that are applied with those resources are anchored in evidence and that there is a clear plan for the future. The recent Gonski report, the one not talking about dollars, but talking about use of those dollars in education reform, was, I know, of particular importance to speech pathologists and the future of education reforms. Last year, we established this review – the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools – chaired by David Gonski, because we wanted better evidence on how to invest our record in increasing funding.


Just as the speech pathology profession has a commitment to research, to develop and refine the evidence base, and for the rapid translation of evidence into practice, so too does the Commonwealth want to ensure that our policies, our education policies, are based on the best available evidence, and similarly translated into practice in schools.


I welcome the fact that Speech Pathology Australia is an active participant in public policy debates; that you’ve made submissions to a number of different educational reviews over the years, including to this latest one. And while not all of your suggestions are always included in the findings of every review, many of this review’s initiatives will have a very clear impact on speech and language in schools, and where your profession will be able to be involved and will need to be involved to get the best outcome from those recommendations.


One of the most critical recommendations of the latest review is to develop a formative assessment tool as part of moving the current Australian schooling focus to one of intense prioritisation of student growth that maximises the achievement of each and every child. We’ve long had benchmarks of achievement and assessed against actual achievement, and that’s important, but we must also make sure that in the classroom, in the school environment, student growth becomes the focus to ensure that every year at school is about maximising the growth for every child in the classroom, rather than allowing some to coast or cruise along. Indeed, the very title of the report – Through Growth to Achievement – highlights this new focus.


Imagine, for example, teachers having a series of common tools to help them diagnose the speech and language needs of their students; to have resources that suggest when to consider using your professional services; to identify the types of optimal interventions to address speech or language learning needs; and then to have further evidence-based assessments that they can continually use in the school environment throughout a child’s education to identify whether interventions have been successful and what the next steps ought to be. Your involvement in the development of such a tool and resource is essential to ensure the fidelity, reliability and validity of these measures in making sure that your recommendations of best practice are a part of the regular life of learning for those students who need extra help.


Take, for example, the introduction of the phonics check – a necessary check-up on the reading skills of a child, but like any assessment, test or check-up, it’s insufficient by itself to improve language and learning. A phonics check, or more likely, checks, is, though, a logical inclusion in a national assessment tool. As the recent evaluation of the trial phonics check here in South Australia showed, we must also attend to the consequences. What happens next? What should happen when the results of the test are provided to teachers? What training do they to ensure literacy is taught effectively?


Already we have a number of changes underway in relation to initial teacher education across our universities, but I’m also certain that my colleagues here in South Australia who are applying the phonics check across all schools this year will ensure that the broader feedback loop and assistance for schools and teachers is fully addressed in its implementation.


The new national Formative Assessment Tool will need to link to your services, to appropriate resources tailored to the specific diagnosis and advice to ensure that where teachers are getting more detailed assessments of student performance, they also understand the best interventions. Here is where we need speech language pathologists working along with teachers, as much to inform and work with them as well as with students.


And yes, there is much more than phonics where we will need your involvement, but phonics is a pretty good place to start. Without these skills, many students will fail to thrive in learning, get left behind, and many will struggle to catch up – some never will. We cannot let this happen to any of our children.


Too often I hear that we can identify the students less likely to succeed soon after they walk through the school gate, and certainly, by year three. These children each have faces, they each have names, and they each deserve the support to succeed. They’re real Australian children who we have been leaving behind for these early years because of a failure to help them to develop the foundational skills in reading, and this is simply unacceptable.


We need to provide educators with the resources for early detection, and the optimal methods of intervention, to make the difference as early as we can for these students – indeed, for all students. The essence of the success of the Formative Tool is not to provide schools with hundreds of more tests or to ask teachers to create more tests, but it is to provide teachers and students and parents with optimal reporting from the highest quality assessments that occur in the classroom. Ultimately, teachers and schools roll out a range of tests, assessments, spot checks already. We want to make sure, though, that they are done at high quality, with a degree of consistency, in a way which results can then be guided and feedback loops created to ensure that each student gets the help they need to take that next step in their learning growth.


The tests are the first step, but the interpretations – as Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne tells me – the interpretations are [indistinct], and we need to create reports that are understandable, that lead to consequences in how a teacher thinks about their impact, the impact of their teaching practice, and that provides optimal suggestions as to the next best learning and teaching step for each of those children. This Formative Tool is to be a major resource so teachers can realise the title of the Gonski report: to know more about growth to achievement.


In the past, we have sometimes measured achievements, but struggled with growth. So the major initiative of Gonski is to bring the two notions together.


We can help educators assist students’ growth in speech and language towards appropriate challenging levels of achievement. Making meaning about these notions in speech and language is an exciting opportunity, and we welcome you to be part of the development of this recommendation from the Gonski Review.


There are, of course, other areas where your submission to the review had an impact – the importance, critical importance of parental engagement, the primacy of the principal, the need for improved data collection and dissemination, the need for a national Unique Student Identifier, and improved public reporting and accountability, to highlight just a few.


One other area, though, where I also look forward to further advice from you, is in the form and structure of the proposed new independent education Evidence Institute. It seems to me that in education we need to be even more like in health whereby practices and remedies are not decided by ideology, or by politicians, but by sound, agreed evidence-based policies and trialled measures. The phonics check, again, is a good example of an area where ideology needs to be left behind in favour of simply following the evidence on how it is that children best learn to read.


So, we need to get this new institution right as, just as the NHMRC, various colleges of medical practice and the like have a profound impact on ensuring that practice across health and allied health professions is informed by evidence and is translated into outcomes in terms of what practitioners do, we want the same approach to education and to teaching, to ensure that evidence informs practice and that it all flows through into the classroom setting. This new institute can have a big impact on future education policy, on the performance of our education system, and on ensuring that funding is used as effectively as possible to get the best outcome and the maximum growth for each and every student.


Finally, let me assure you that this report is being acted upon. In immediate terms it is informing a new national agreement to be signed soon by the Prime Minister and first ministers, as well as separate bilateral agreements with each of the states and territories in terms of the commitments they make to implement aspects of these reforms. We want to make sure that this report creates a framework for ongoing improvement in development of our education system.


The long-term of this review is, for the first time, we will have a national framework for both future government policy that is shared across partisan lines and across federal-state relations to ensure that there is a model for ongoing engagement and partnership with educational professionals and professions like yours. It is to the future we must now attend, by focussing on those policies and processes that we have the opportunity to make an impact [indistinct].


I appreciate that your association also has a clear vision for the future. As outlined in Speech Pathology 2030 – making futures happen, you want that by 2030 effective communication will be understood as an essential foundation skill for learning, social interactions, work participation and community connectedness. Our government shares that view and acknowledges that speech pathology professionals are an important and critical partner to improve the quality of education for all Australians.


I look forward to hearing the outcomes of this conference. I look forward to your continued passion and engagement in the public policy debate, the contribution that you will make to our response to the Gonski Review, and to being able to work with all of you in terms of achieving the best possible outcomes for our youngest Australians, our littlest learners, in getting the foundation skills they need and deserve.


Thanks so much for the chance to be with you today, have a fabulous conference.