Address to the STEM Partnership Forum, Canberra
Simon Birmingham:

And Alan, as you acknowledged, this forum was established out of COAG Education Council recommendations and decisions, and that’s a wonderful sign, that it has the ear of state and territory ministers, as well as the Commonwealth, in terms of the deliverability of what you discussed, and what you recommended. And I really hope and trust that that openness and willingness from states and territories is something that continues, in terms of their embrace of what you all have to say in that regard.

Sorry that I couldn’t be here for the first such forum earlier this year, but thanks very much for the chance to be here right now.

I think you all appreciate the reasons to why there is such focus on STEM, that I don’t need to rehash much of that, aside from of course as government we continually emphasise that around 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations in Australia are estimated to require high levels of STEM skills. But I’m also always very keen to emphasise that point; that’s not to say the fastest growing jobs are for scientists and engineers and mathematicians. The fastest growing jobs require skills in the STEM disciplines that can be applied across a range of different occupations, some of which are current existing occupations, some of which are occupations that we absolutely can’t conceive of yet.

But recognising that, in occupations that we’ve not necessarily thought to be traditionally rich in requirements in the STEM disciplines, they will have higher requirements in the future because of the way in which we will be gauging the data of analytics and other breakthroughs. It will change a whole range of traditionally liberal arts-type focused occupation in areas of work, to require a greater emphasis on responsiveness to market research analysis, that will be drivers to such eventualities.

There’s of course other changes that have happened across the economy which we’re already seeing in terms of the shift to automation which the OECD estimates could see displacement or change to perhaps 40 per cent of jobs across the economy. You can look at that in a glass half empty way and there will be parts of the Australian economy and society this week, as Holden in my home state shuts its door, who do look at it in a glass half empty way. Or you can see opportunity from automation. In particularly, in manufacturing and advanced manufacturing, we see increasing potential for opportunity for a country like Australia. Because although we’re coming in a sense through and possibly out of period where widget-making and manufacturing activities that were built upon very repetitive and very labour intensive activities have shifted to economies of greater scale, at lower wage costs lower input costs. What we’re also seeing is that automation requires fewer workers but higher skills, and a country and economy like Australia’s should be incredibly well placed to capitalise on providing high skilled workers in highly technical, technologically advanced industries and sectors, to be able to integrate those industries.

Sometimes, people talk about the education portfolio as being one of the social policy portfolios of government and of course it is; it’s a very important element of human capital, and of preparing students for life. But it’s also incredibly important economic portfolio and driver, too, in some very direct ways such as our international education landscape, but then of course in other ways in particular, the formation of skills that we need across our economy.

And we’ve had some warning signs, I guess, in terms of ease of comparisons to come from our own NAPLAN assessment, as to whether we’ve been succeeding in developing all of the skills that are necessary for success including some of those key skills? That’s why we’ve sorted government to go about a few things. School funding of course is about the enabler, the tools, the resources, for schools, sectors, systems to be able to do what’s necessary for the future. In and of itself, it doesn’t improve outcomes in the education landscape but put to good use, and it can and should make significant improvements and we hope that in the STEM disciplines and that the significant investment we make in school funding will absolutely be a core part of that. We hope and trust that using the National STEM School Education Strategy will be a real enabler for change.

And a couple of months ago I was at a school in the southern suburbs of Adelaide, they were referenced at the last Commonwealth Science Council meeting as well. The school had turned over the entire school week – it was an under-12 school, or a Foundation Year to Year 12 school – and up to the Year 10 level students, they turned over the entire week to a STEM week. They put teachers into inter-disciplinary clusters, the English teacher and history teacher and phys-ed teacher, working in clusters alongside maths and science teachers to be able to work out the types of activities that students could do as groups over the course of that week to be able to enhance its STEM skills consistent with the national curriculum.

And that was encouraging in a whole range of ways but what I found to be also very encouraging was when the deputy principal who engineered this week took me through the way in which they developed it, she said one of the resources they’d used to do so was the National STEM School Education Strategy. And I thought hoorah, evidence that actually when government develops some of these documents and strategies they don’t just look good on the departmental book shelf, but actually do sometimes flow through and translate into action in schools, and it’s a credit to the leadership in that school, to leadership across our schools, that they’re engaging more, they’re looking more for ways in which to be able to engage their students, their teachers, school communities in STEM activities. And, as a result, that means that they’re turning to those types of documents, those types of strategies, and out of this forum, hopefully the type of activities and actions that they might be able to take.

Importantly, schools also are recognising the need to partner more with business and I said before, I’m thrilled to see various representatives of business and particularly TechBridge businesses who are participating today. We’ve sought to try to highlight and develop different ways in which those partnerships can occur. The P-TECH program which we’ve modelled on developments in the US, and brought into Australia across around a dozen schools now, has created a number of different partnerships between those schools and standard-reach businesses – either large individual businesses or clusters of local businesses. It really is trying to create a model of low-cost engagement between schools and industry in the local communities that can be replicated, ideally over time without the need for government seed funding, but can really provide a way in which students can be exposed, first and foremost, to the range of those different career opportunities that are available, that they can get the understanding of STEM-rich skill requirements across a range of different qualifications. And up on the New South Wales Central Coast, I’m fond of the example where the Wyong High School is partnering with Mars Corporation.

And of course again, at a simplistic level, you could think: oh well, so they’re partnering with chocolate manufacturers and got a bunch of people standing along the production line. But of course, there’s the whole range of other skills and activities and jobs that Mars Corporation requires. Packaging, branding, marketing, distribution channels, supply networks, all of those sorts of transportation activities, as well as the sourcing of all commodities and goods in production chains, the whole way through. So it’s through those types of partnerships and exposure that hopefully they, in the future, with a good local partnership down on the Central Coast, won’t be spending so much time and energy saying: how do we convince people from Sydney to move up the coast or to travel and commute up the coast to meet our high school requirements. But, by early engagement in the local high school, they will have inspired people to actually train locally in those disciplines and fill those jobs. And really continuously trying to work on how we can better build those linkages I think will be quite essential, and look forward to additional thinking out of this forum in that regard.

Across the National Innovation and Science Agenda and government, there’s a range of other different initiatives that we’re undertaking. You’ve probably been briefed on a number of them, and don’t really need to step through each and every one. The start of well and truly trying to encourage more engagement in the early years, support all programs on Let’s Count, Little Scientists that have delivered externally and traditional, governmental school education deliver, the early learning STEM Australia program that’s going to try to get into preschools and provide engaging ways for STEM delivery in preschool by educators, who may not have special skills in STEM disciplines, but with little support, mirrored on what we’ve been doing in foreign languages, will be able to better undertake STEM delivery in those preschool settings.

I’m really looking forward to see Dennis and APPA here to the advancement of the Principals as STEM leaders program modelled on frameworks that the Prime Minister’s done previously around Principals as Literacy Leaders, really up-skilling school leaders across the country around some of the best practice approaches to flow through their school communities, and ensuring that those principals are well placed to be able to take a leadership role in the STEM discipline and I know that APPA through their constituent bodies and membership framework will really hit that benchmark.

Overall, we’re really looking over the next few years to try to leverage record-growing investment in schools into reforms, in our school sector, integrative accountability, in our tertiary and higher education sectors, to get the type of engagement in STEM activities and a level of education excellence. So with that, I just want to say a very big thank you to all of you, for giving your time to participate in, and I really look forward to the type of recommendations that flow from here. There are a range of other areas that I’ve touched on in terms of teacher training, as well as professional development for existing teacher workforces. I know than Alan is particularly passionate about how we also recruit skilled experts, people with experience from science and engineering disciplines into the teaching profession in the future. And I think they’re absolutely all concepts that, with your endorsement I guess, can help to de-politicise some things; that it can really lead to state and territory school systems, and others across the education landscape be engaged and support progress.

Thank you.