Doorstop interview, Adelaide
Topics: NAPLAN and Civics/Citizenship test results

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming. Today, we release two sets of NAPLAN data: one looking at the core NAPLAN testing around reading, writing, literacy, numeracy skills, and the other a sample test around citizenship and, indeed, civics.

Across the core testing, we see a continued trend that is stagnation at best, really, in terms of Australia’s NAPLAN scores and results, that all too often across the country, despite record levels of investment in our schools, we’re not getting the gains in literacy and numeracy skills that we would expect to see. Now, our hard-working teachers are delivering good results in some areas. There’s improvements, particularly amongst Indigenous students, which is encouraging, although a big gap still to be closed for those Indigenous students.

But elsewhere, we see some problems. Year 9s, in particular, in the high school years, are not meeting an adequate standard. One in four Year 9 boys fails to be achieving the type of literacy levels we would expect as a minimum standard. That’s just not good enough and certainly it means that there is more work required to build on reforms that have already strengthened teacher training, strengthened the way our curriculum focuses on the basics to ensure that the record growing $25 billion of extra funding in the future is used to deliver better results.

On the civics and citizenship front, the results, though, are truly woeful. The fact that less than 40 per cent of Year 9 students can manage to understand the way our democracy works, government works, court systems work, is a true failing and one that education authorities and systems across the country need to face up to.

Journalist: Is it tough for you to stand here as Education Minister and call the situation woeful?

Simon Birmingham: I think you have to call a spade a spade. In terms of the civics and citizenship results, it is very clear that there are terrible failings in terms of students grasping and understanding the basics about how our democracy works. Now, it’s great that there are indications that there is an interest and a passion in a number of issues, but we need to make sure that people will who will be voting in just two or three years’ time are actually also grasping the basics of how democracy works, how Parliament works, so that they are informed and engaged voters when the time comes.

Journalist: How do we know that the process that is happening now will improve it? Is it enough to just say let’s continue doing what we’re doing now?

Simon Birmingham: We certainly know that we have taken steps to improve teacher training in our universities, particularly minimum literacy and numeracy skills amongst graduate teachers, that there’s more time in the curriculum to focus on basics around literacy and numeracy skills as well. But there is clearly much more to be done. That’s why this year, in addition to reforming school funding, putting an extra $25 billion into a needs-based approach, we asked David Gonski to lead a panel of education experts to come back next year identifying how can record funding be put to best use.

We have to make sure that teachers, school leaders, principals, are armed with evidence of what the best practice is to apply in their classroom. What are the types of approaches they need to apply? Now, the Turnbull Government is already advocating for certain changes, such as earlier, consistent screening of reading and numeracy skills at the Year 1 level to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks and that early intervention can be delivered.

There is a message for parents as well in this, that reading to your kids at an early age, encouraging them to spend time away from technology but engaged in their studies is critical and that that of course requires a consistent effort across home and school.

Journalist: Are you still confident that the NAPLAN model is correct and these figures are conducive with what’s happening?

Simon Birmingham: NAPLAN’s been in existence 10 years now, and so it provides a good trend line for us. It’s not the only tool upon which students should be assessed, far from it. The judgement, the input of teachers is critical for that individual student assessment. But NAPLAN does give policy makers, ministers, systems, clear advice on whether the system is improving or stagnating or going backwards. Here we are seeing that, in terms of civics and citizenship, parts of it’s going backwards. In terms of literacy, numeracy, we’re not getting the return on investment that Australians would expect.

Journalist: Is it time for the education system now to just focus on the basics, go back to those core skills like spelling, reading and writing?

Simon Birmingham: It is essential that, particularly in the early years, the core skills are developed so that students have the foundation blocks upon which the rest of their learning depends. You’re not going to succeed in the advanced STEM disciplines if you haven’t got basic numeracy right. You’re not going to succeed in the humanities subjects later in life if you haven’t got basic literacy skills right. So it is essential that especially in those early years we focus on that.

There are some changes in different states and territories. I acknowledge that New South Wales and Western Australia are now implementing new minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers that is having a flow-down effect through their school system, striving more clearly to meet minimum benchmarks at an earlier age, and they’re welcome changes.

Journalist: Do you think one issue may be that these students are being tested in a different way than they’re being taught, particularly with literacy? I mean, they’re probably doing a lot of typing in the classroom, as opposed to writing on paper in a test.

Simon Birmingham: We’re making further changes to the way NAPLAN is delivered, and next year I look to forward to hundreds of Australian schools trialling NAPLAN online for the first time, which we believe will deliver a more satisfactory experience for students, but also richer, faster data for teachers and schools, meaning that NAPLAN becomes a useful tool for those schools, as well as, of course, being a useful tool, as it already is, for policy makers.

Journalist: And in South Australia, Year 3s are behind. What do you think of that?

Simon Birmingham: This is the second set of data we’ve seen in a while that shows that South Australia is not keeping pace with the rest of the country when it comes to academic performance. Just in the last couple of weeks we had international assessment on reading and literacy that showed South Australia was the worst performing state in Australia, and of course, these NAPLAN results show that there is cause for concern that after 16 years of the same government here in SA we’re not getting the type of lift in school and education performance you would hope to see.

Journalist: So you’re blaming the State Government here for this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the school systems around the country are administered and run by state and territory ministers and state and territory governments. We seek to provide national leadership, national leadership that we have delivered reforms to teacher training, delivered reforms in terms of the National Curriculum and are trying to provide a focus for states and territories to use their record federal funding they’re receiving on evidence-based measures in the future. That’s what the Gonski report will do. I hope whether it is a Labor, a Liberal or in any other government in SA or anywhere else in the future, that they will heed that evidence-based advice in the future and make sure it’s applied in their schools.

Journalist: The results are terrible overall. Across Australia, migrants are speaking better English, the boys are falling behind. Can we blame the Federal Government for that then?

Simon Birmingham: The Federal Government doesn’t run a single school in Australia, but we do try to provide national leadership in terms of funding, support and policy and direction. What we will be doing out of this is doubling our effort to get the states and territories to change in the way they run their schools to better focus on the evidence to help students succeed, to identify kids who are falling behind faster, sooner, so interventions can occur rather than us dealing with a problem at a Year 9 level when it is way too late, in many instances, to provide the type of intervention that could have helped those children sooner.

Journalist: In terms of South Australia, I mean, what do you think the Government here is doing wrong?

Simon Birmingham: In terms of South Australia, I welcome the fact that the State Government is at least trialling phonics checks and early intervention identifications, and I hope SA sticks with that. But I think they need to lift the level of ambition to follow the likes of New South Wales and Western Australia in setting some minimum standards for school leavers that mean the entire school system then has to respond to what those standards are and make sure that each and every year they’re working towards them.

Journalist: You may have touched on this already, but does this- efforts to improve these results need to go beyond the classroom, to home with the kids?

Simon Birmingham: Parents, families have an essential role to play in helping their child’s education. Reading to your children as much as you possibly can at an early age, and then reading with them as they learn those skills is essential to develop the type of learning attitudes that enable success in the classroom. And so, I really urge parents, school communities to work together in terms of the solutions that are necessary.

Journalist: And are you concerned that’s not happening enough at this point?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we see and hear far too many instances of more kids spending more time on IT and devices that might take them away from learning the basics around reading. Now, technology can be a great tool to be deployed in helping with learning, but it can be a terrible distraction as well, and we have to make sure it’s used for good, not bad in those cases.

Journalist: Shouldn’t schools be able to participate in Gonski’s review?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Gonski review has sought submissions from all around the country, and I know that various state governments, school bodies, principal bodies, and I’m sure individual schools have made submissions.

Journalist: What’s it actually hoping to achieve?

Simon Birmingham: The ambition there – and I note it has a secondary school principal from the South Australian Government system as part of that panel – the ambition is to make sure that we have evidence upon which schools make their decisions as to what they’re teaching and how they’re teaching in the classroom; that rather than teachers looking at a range of different teaching practices that might be pushed by various agents, they actually, like doctors, know what to pick up off the shelf to deal with different problems and challenges they face in their classroom. That’s at the heart of what the Gonski review is: how do we take record, growing funding in our school systems and make sure we’re getting gains and improvements from it?

Journalist: What isn’t your Government doing that led to these results?

Simon Birmingham: Look, as federal Education Minister, I take my share of responsibility to drive change in the education system. It’s a system that is run by states and territories in terms of the operation of schools, but we will make sure that we continue to push states and territories to implement change and reform, to use the record, growing funding we’re providing them – some extra $25 billion – to make changes in their classroom practice, to help their hard-working teachers achieve what is necessary, and that will be our focus. And we will absolutely be taking those recommendations of the Gonski review next year, and pushing and encouraging states to adopt every single one of them.

Journalist: And do you feel that funding that’s been put into the education system recently has gone to waste?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think funding in terms of school investment is showing some returns. We have been driving towards a needs-based funding, and that’s what the Turnbull Government’s reforms deliver. The fact that there are improvements in areas like Indigenous education show that there are some, there are some glimmers of hope there, and that we can continually work to improve results for even our most disadvantaged children, and it’s essential that we keep that focus up. That’s why we’ve put an extra $25 billion in, reform the school funding model federally to make sure it’s truly needs-based in its focus. But of course, the thing is how do you use that money most effectively, and that’s what the Gonski review is looking at.

Journalist: Sorry, I probably missed this at the start. What was your reaction to those results in the snapshot we’ve been given now?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, as I said at the outset, that in terms of the literacy and numeracy scores overall, it’s a message to us that we need to keep working harder to do better. We have a good performing education system by global standards, we shouldn’t talk it down, but of course we’re not getting the gains and improvements you would hope from record, growing funding. In terms of the civics and citizenship results though, they are truly woeful results. They demonstrate that our schools are failing to teach our students the basics of our democracy, what it is that makes our country so great in terms of the freedoms we enjoy, the standard of living we enjoy, the way our government, our court systems work – all of which are essential for students to be successful participants in democracy in the future. Thanks guys.