Doorstop interview, Adelaide
International reports on student performance; Discipline in classrooms; Improving student outcomes
01:40 PM

Simon Birmingham: New analysis undertaken of the international TIMSS and PISA samples of Australian students and their academic performance shows that we have a number of worrying trends that really, we need to work cooperatively as policymakers, with schools, teachers, principals and with parents, families and communities, to address. In particular, issues in terms of student behaviour, or misbehaviour as the case may be, and attitudes. Because what's so critical is that students must go to school with a positive attitude, a positive disposition towards their school, to learning, respect for their teachers, and engage in an appropriate way in the classroom. And the research shows that unfortunately our most disadvantaged schools who receive the greatest levels of public funding are also the schools that seem to have the greatest challenges in terms of behaviour in that school environment. 

Now, this is not a problem that money alone can fix. It's not a problem that teachers alone can fix. It's a problem that requires effort by parents, families, communities, working with schools and policymakers to ensure that teachers are empowered to take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to bad behaviour in the classroom, that there are always interventions applied to make sure that children are doing their best, learning at their best, showing respect to one another, to teachers, to the school community, and it's that type of environment that can really help to lift the performance, particularly in some of our most challenging schools.

Journalist: Is this enough evidence now to show that there is a crisis of underperformance in our schools?

Simon Birmingham: Australia still has a high-performing education system. We should not talk down our system. It's a system that performs at world standard, and we have hardworking teachers, school leaders, working in sometimes difficult circumstances. But this is important analysis. It's not analysis that should be just brushed aside, as Tanya Plibersek did today, by trying to liken it to debates about school funding. Because this analysis shows that the schools that receive the greatest level of public funding already are the ones who have the biggest problems in terms of bad behaviour of students, in terms of poor attitudes, in terms of lack of respect for teachers. 

So what we really need to do here is take this evidence, take this analysis, engage as policymakers – I will, with my state and territory counterparts – to talk to them about how we turn this around in school communities, what more we need to do in policy settings that back principals and teachers to take a zero-tolerance approach to ill discipline, but also what it is that we can do to back those school communities to engage with their parents, to make sure that children come to school with the right attitudes in the first place.

Journalist: With respect Minister, we have already heard a lot of what you're saying: that it isn't just about money, that there needs to be a discussion. Yet we keep seeing more reports like this. So what is the Government doing on a practical level to try and change these things?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Turnbull Government's outlined more than a dozen different areas of reform, which we took to the last election, that will ensure we put a stronger focus on learning the basics of literacy and numeracy in the early years, that set minimum standards in terms of competencies for school leavers and raise the level of ambition within our school communities. We've invested previously and continue to do so
in parental engagement strategies, targeting areas of disadvantage like our $40 million-plus investment in the Smith Family, their Learning for Life program that is helping some of the most disadvantaged families and parents to do more in terms of getting the best for their children in the interface between home and school that's so critically important there. 

We're absolutely taking action. But this is a reminder that we can't sit still. A system that stands still is one that will fall further behind, and we need to keep looking at how we can improve, how we can respond to the evidence, and the evidence here shows that school behaviour, student behaviour in schools is a key factor that, if we can get it right, can lift Australia's performance further.