Doorstop interview, Adelaide
Topics: Year 1 numeracy and literacy checks

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Nothing is more important in our education system than the success of our children, of students. And in school, that starts at the earliest ages, where the building blocks are established upon which the rest of their schooling and educational success depends, and those building blocks are the basics of literacy and numeracy.

It’s for these reasons and after much urging, particularly from dyslexia advocates and others concerned about the welfare of children who slip behind, that the Turnbull Government commissioned a panel of experts to take a look at the possible implementation of a skills check in year one around literacy and numeracy. We’re very pleased to have received that report and we thank Dr Jennifer Buckingham and her panel of experts, including principals, including researchers, including experts in disability who worked together on a report that has recommended we should proceed along the path of taking a look at implementing a thorough, consistent, national skills check in year one across literacy and numeracy.

They’ve identified that around one in 20 Australian children don’t meet the national minimum standard in terms of their year three literacy skills. Many, many more fail to meet a level of proficiency or adequacy in their skills, and of course at year three it becomes that much harder to give targeted additional support to ensure they succeed. Earlier identification can lead to earlier intervention, and earlier intervention can help ensure children don’t fall behind, and that’s what this is all about.

In the UK, where they’ve undertaken this type of skills check for a period of time, they’ve seen a real lift in terms of children meeting the skills check and flow on benefits in terms of their literacy skills. That’s why last week we shared this report with state and territory ministers. I was pleased that when we met and briefly discussed it last Friday, we agreed to invite Dr Buckingham and authors of the panel to come and brief us at the meeting later this year. I was also very pleased that Susan Close, the Education Minister in South Australia, offered to brief her colleagues on the trial around the phonics skills check that the South Australian Labor Government is undertaking.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This should be an issue that is about the welfare and wellbeing of our children, and that’s certainly the approach the Turnbull Government will take – careful, steady steps to build support for something that is a light touch check delivered in the classroom by a teacher known to the child in a verbal, one-on-one manner just to make sure that right across the country, in every school, in every year one classroom, our littlest learners are getting the help they need to succeed.


Journalist: Why do year one students need another test? Should schools not have been monitoring them already?

Simon Birmingham: Many, many schools do an outstanding job already, and of course for many they are already identifying problems, but we can see that many also slip through the cracks, and it’s unacceptable to have so many young Australian children advancing through their schooling without the basic literacy skills they need. So to make sure nobody slips through the cracks is why we want to have something national in place, something consistent in place that can guarantee, as I said, in every classroom, across every school, no young child isn’t getting the support they need to get the literacy skills upon which the rest of their learning depends.

Journalist: You say it’s going to be a light touch test, but isn’t it by its very nature, that fact there would be a test, adding pressure to what are very young children?

Simon Birmingham: Children shouldn’t notice the difference between this assessment process and the many other things they do in the classroom. Teachers sit down and ideally read with their children, have the children read to them, engage in a range of ways already. The fact that this would be something simply applied consistently across the nation doesn’t mean it becomes a NAPLAN-style test, because what we’re clear here is it’s delivered in a one-on-one personalised manner, that it’s delivered by somebody known to the child, that it’s about reading some words off a piece of paper.

It’s pretty simple, pretty light touch, and importantly, for those who want to scaremonger around this, we’ve been very clear it’s not about providing new benchmarking that would be nationally published. It’s about ensuring purely and simply that there’s a diagnostic tool used consistently across the country to make sure that kids don’t suffer from having a failure of dyslexia identified until they get to year three or later, to make sure that there are those earlier interventions applied where they can be to help the kids out.

Journalist: If an issue is identified, what happens then? Is it just more concentration on that child from the teacher, or what resources will be put in to help that child?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re providing already some significant additional funding resources for schools and around $23 billion of extra support over the next decade, which across Australia translates to about $2300 on average per child into schools for additional assistance. That can provide more tailored and targeted teaching, can ensure additional support in terms of learning skills programs applied in the classroom. Of course, again, teachers, school systems across the country do that very well already; we just want to make sure that nobody misses out, that everybody gets the identification they need if there’s a problem, the correct teaching – beforehand, ideally – to ensure there isn’t a problem, but if there is one, then the support to overcome that problem.

Journalist: What guarantee is there that it won’t become another NAPLAN-style test where schools are compared?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t want it to become so, the Turnbull Government doesn’t want it to become so, and I’m yet to find a state or territory that does. So I think we can be absolutely confident here that this is something purely that can be used as a diagnostic tool, as a skills check that can help schools and teachers. Yes, it can also help school systems, state governments to know whether they need to deploy additional resources into a particular school, but in no way should it become a public process upon which schools are judged or otherwise.

Journalist: Will it at all determine where the NAPLAN spending is done?

Simon Birmingham: Well, NAPLAN itself is already undertaken consistently, universally. Nobody is proposing changes to that as a result of this, but what it can absolutely do is help to inform state and territory education departments, other education systems in their thinking about where they might want to direct their resources, whether they need to deploy specialist teachers in particular schools, additional support, work on the type of programs that are delivered there, extra help for those teachers themselves in terms of some of their teaching techniques or practices. They’re the types of things that I would expect it could help to drive in terms of getting better outcomes.

Thanks everybody.