Doorstop interview, Adelaide
Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check and Australia-US relations

Simon Birmingham:  We know how important those early years of a child’s education are, to ensure they learn to read and learn basic numeracy skills. For too long in Australia, we’ve had debates about whether or not the teaching of phonics, literacy skills, numeracy skills have been adequate. You can go back as far as 2005 to find expert reports that have recommended we should take a more holistic approach nationally to identifying those children who are falling behind. The Turnbull Government is determined to act on those years and years of reports and evidence and make sure that we do actually have early identification, effective identification of children who need a helping hand to make sure they get interventions as early as possible to develop literacy and numeracy skills.

What we know is that there are around a couple of hundred thousand Australian school children who don’t necessarily read effectively. And, of course, if you start school in the first year or two without developing effective reading skills and effective numeracy skills, you’re most likely to fail through the rest of your education. The basics are essential – reading, writing, numeracy – these are the critical building blocks for the rest of a child’s education. That’s why I’m very pleased that today we’ve announced the next step in our process to implement a national skills check. 

And I want to stress, this is not another NAPLAN test, this is not something that children will be forced to sit down and undertake in a written form or that will see national benchmarking of schools. This is about providing teachers, principals, schools with a tool and a resource that they can take into the classroom that they can be confident helps to identify those children who need the assistance. It can help to ensure that phonics are taught properly, something that advocates in the dyslexia space have long called for, and I’m very pleased that such groups have welcomed the step we are taking today and will be participating in it. 

Because what we’re going to do is bring together speech pathologists, teachers, principals, dyslexia advocates and those from the disability sector, experts in maths, all to work together on this national skills check and we’ll then work cooperatively with the states and territories to ensure it is effectively rolled out in a manner that can ensure every Australian child is taught what they need to learn in the first couple of years, is identified if they’re falling behind, and gets the help they need from there on in to ensure they succeed. 
Because this is the critical building block for every child’s future and we want to make sure they get it.

Question: So, if it’s not a sit-down test, what form will it take?

Simon Birmingham: The type of examples that exist internationally and have been recommended before is a one-on-one verbal discussion. So, a teacher sits there with a child, with a list of words – some of them real, some of them made up – and they work through that in a very gentle, soft-touch way to make sure they get a clear understanding of exactly what it is a child understands and where it is that they might be failing. So, it really is about making sure we have the right type of skills check in those early years to enable kids to develop the reading, writing, literacy skills they need, as well as the numeracy skills they need to succeed in their latter years.

Question: Is there any chance the results could be used in some sort of league table to compare schools?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. This is about providing the right tool for teachers for use in their classroom to help their children. And we want to work cooperatively with all stakeholders, and I’m very pleased that we’ve got a principal on board in our working group who has rolled out this type of thing in his school and speaks highly of the benefits of it; that we have maths teachers involved; that we’ve actually brought together those from the profession, together with the experts in speech pathology and in disability services to ensure that the skills check we develop is one that can work in the classroom, work for children, and help ensure that they and the teachers get the support they need to succeed.

Question: Is this adding to the burden on teachers by asking them to carry out yet another form of assessment?

Simon Birmingham: I think all Australians would expect that this is the type of assessment that should be taking place in classrooms, and it is already in many, many classrooms. I want to acknowledge that thousands of hard-working Australian teachers already do this type of thing in their classroom. What we’re proposing is simply that we give them some evidence-based tools that can be applied uniformly and nationally so that they can be confident that they’re getting the right standard of performance from their children in those first couple of years and that where that’s not being achieved, interventions can occur to help those children who need additional assistance to stop them falling further and further behind.

Question: Why is it necessary to have another form of assessment that will just determine gaps in education and students?

Simon Birmingham: The last thing we can afford as a country is to see continued decline in our school education performance. We saw in a number of benchmark tests late last year that Australia is at best plateauing if not falling behind many other countries. So, it’s essential that we make sure we help children and help them by starting off with the basics. And this is about ensuring that no child doesn’t manage to slip through the system in their first couple of years without learning to read, without learning to count. It’s absolutely critical those foundation skills of reading and counting are there for success in other areas of their school studies.

Question: Have you had any progress on the negotiations with the states for education funding?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, well, we’ve had a number of discussions, both multilateral discussions at the Education Council but also I’ve had a number of one-on-one discussions with the states and territories. I’m confident that we can come to a landing point but it’s important to realise we have record levels of investment in Australian schools already and under the Turnbull Government, our record funding will continue to grow into the future. We just want to make sure that that record growing level of funding is used as effectively and efficiently as possible. And that’s why these types of reforms that we’re proposing with the states and territories focus not on putting new burdens on the system that cost more money, but using the time of teachers and schools more effectively to identify problems to put out record growing level of funding to best use so that they can support the children who need it most.

Question: So, how far away do you think you are on a funding agreement?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve always said that funding deals will be settled by COAG this year in the first half of the year and that continues to be the case.

Question: Just on another matter Senator, are you able to confirm that the refugee resettlement deal will go ahead with Donald Trump?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I can certainly confirm that the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Turnbull, and President Trump have spoken. I’m not privy to the details of their conversation but I do know that Australia and the United States have long been close allies and have worked cooperatively on a range of agreements and I’m very confident and the Government’s very confident we will continue to work cooperatively on agreements in the future.

Question: Do you have any concerns around dual national Australians and Australian residents under the new refugee policies in the US?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, look, we will of course look at policies of the Trump Administration as we would any other government insofar as they might affect Australians and will consider those matters as they come to hand.

Question: Do you think it’s the right approach that the President has taken?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not my place as an Australian Government minister to provide advice to the United States President but Australia has a proud immigration policy of non-discrimination while ensuring we have tight and tough standards to scrutinise the background of every person who comes to Australia and we believe that that type of approach is the best approach.

Question: So, you think it’s a positive that he’s confirmed he’ll honour the refugee deal with Australia?

Simon Birmingham: We believe that Australia can continue to work as we always have cooperatively with the United States and that agreements that we have will of course continue to be honoured and worked upon as they always have been. Thanks guys.