Doorstop interview, Adelaide 
Teaching of phonics in Australian schools, Islamic College of South Australia and Housing Affordability

Simon Birmingham: I’m thrilled to welcome Nick Gibb, the Minister for School Standards in the United Kingdom here to Lockleys North Primary School today, and importantly to Adelaide and South Australia, my home state. This is part of a national visit that Minister Gibb is undertaking. He’s spent time in New South Wales, has had time with the New South Wales Minister for Education Rob Stokes and will be meeting South Australian Minister Susan Close. And really it’s an opportunity to share and showcase to get a better understanding of the types of evidence-based reforms that the UK has been pursuing, and how it is that we can learn from that as part of our school reform agenda in Australia. 

I’ve been very clear that I want to see us use our record and growing levels of investment in Australian schools in a way that is targeted to really lift outcomes – particularly in the basics of literacy and numeracy. We were really pleased to start today in a reception class with the Jolly Phonics Program, seeing those children get their really basic skills that can build their literacy blocks to enable them to succeed throughout school, because it’s very clear that without those core reading skills in the early years, children will not succeed in the later years with the more complex skills and knowledge that we need them to achieve. 

And so we as a government, as part of our reforms, are investigating the utilisation of a phonics skill check as part of a national assessment process at Year One that would be about identifying and ensuring children were learning properly, were developing those skills, and having the diagnostic check to intervene and give additional assistance when necessary. I’m thrilled the South Australian Government is trialling something similar, and we hope from their trial and our work nationally, to be able to build a national approach the likes of which Minister Gibb has championed and pioneered in the UK and provides a really strong example for us to learn from.

Question: How important is it that we improve our teaching early to reach those NAPLAN benchmarks when we get to Year Three?

Simon Birmingham: The early years are absolutely essential to build the basic skills in literacy and numeracy to enable success later on. We won’t be able to turn around some of the stagnating and declining results we’ve seen in NAPLAN and international assessments as well if we don’t get it right in those first couple of years. And really the focus on teaching skills that can deliver in terms of phonetic awareness and phonics is essential, because they’re the sounds that children need to learn to be able to decode words to then be able to construct those words as they’re reading in their sentences later on, and without those skills, they’ll struggle across all of their other lessons because those are the basics they need.

Question: Why haven’t we been doing it yet, these sort of targeted lessons?

Simon Birmingham: I think there’s been a lot of experimentation in terms of teaching practice and design over the years, and while it’s good to experiment, we should follow the evidence, and the evidence is very clear that you need a clear focus on phonic skills in the early years to ensure that all children develop the capacity to be able to deconstruct words, put them together, put those individual sounds together, and that’s an essential skill and attribute in our children. It also of course is warmly endorsed and recognised by many of the learning disability organisations, particularly those focused around issues of dyslexia, because they know that if you enable an earlier identification of children who have problems and therefore early intervention to assist those children.

Question: Right. Well, you know all about this. What sort of success have you seen in the UK with these sort of targeted lessons in phonics?

Nick Gibb: Well, we were very worried in England about too many children leaving primary school after seven years of education still struggling to read as they started secondary school. Sort of like one in three or so were struggling. So we looked around the world for the evidence. We looked to Scotland, the Clackmannanshire study. We looked to the United States, the National Reading Plan, and we looked to Australia as well where a lot of research was done in 2005. 

It’s hugely impressive that the current Australian Government is putting such an emphasis on reading, because it is absolutely fundamental to a child’s long term success and education. So we introduced, in 2012, a phonic check that checked in a very low-key way every six-year-old’s initial introduction to reading. Are they able to decode simple words? When we first introduced it in 2012, 58 per cent had reached the expected standard. So that was alarming, because nearly half have not reached the expected standard after two years of schooling, and by 2016, four years later, 81 per cent had reached it, and that was because we had put such an emphasis on phonics as the method of teaching those children to read in reception and Year One. Similar to what we’ve seen in this school, in the reception class that we saw who were using Jolly Phonics.

Question: What have you seen in the classrooms that was … what have you seen in the Australian classrooms that you’ve visited? Is there improvements that can be made?

Nick Gibb: Well, if schools were adopting the approach that we’re seeing here today, it would be very impressive. What we saw today was a systematic approach to the teaching of reading using their phonics program, in this case Lockleys North Jolly Phonics, which is a very good program.

Question: So you’d like to see that rolled out sort of as soon as possible, you think?

Nick Gibb: Well, that’s a matter for the Australian Government and for the Australian people. What we’re seeing in England is that by focusing on phonics, systematic synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading, it has led to dramatic improvement in children’s reading. As Simon Birmingham was saying, that is fundamental to a child’s later education.

Question: Okay. Alright, we’ll just ask a couple of questions on other matters. The Islamic school here in South Australia. We’ve seen that there’s been a funding cut from the Federal Government. Where are we at with that?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve taken a very strong approach in terms of the Islamic College of South Australia, to be clear that we will not tolerate any misuse, misdirection of government funding. The decision was taken to cease funding to the Islamic College of South Australia at the conclusion of term one. All funding has been paid up to the point of end of term one. The College is seeking a review of that decision. That review will follow all of the proper and legal processes, but the Government decision stands pending that review.

Question: And why did the Government make that decision, and why are you standing by it?

Simon Birmingham: It’s been a very long process across six different sites affiliated with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, and across those six sites, we undertook comprehensive audits that demonstrated poor governance standards, that demonstrated concern about where funds were flowing and whether schools were truly operating in a not-for-profit way where every dollar was being used clearly for the wellbeing of those individual students. And ultimately a decision was made in relation to three sites – the Malek Fahd School in New South Wales, the Islamic College in Canberra, and Islamic College of South Australia – that funds were not being used and governance was not applying the high standards that are appropriate for the use of taxpayers’ money going into those schools.

Question: So there’s hundreds of students now that may not have anywhere to go next term. Does that concern you?

Simon Birmingham: South Australian Minister Close and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions, and she is confident and our officials working together are confident that were the Islamic College of South Australia to close, those students could be accommodated in other schools, and all assistance would be given to make sure there was minimal disruption to students. Unfortunately, students and staff are the innocent victims in this process, but of course we cannot tolerate a circumstance where taxpayer dollars are being misused or misdirected when they’re intended for the wellbeing of students and the development of their school.

Question: There was talk of a one-off payment or- was that for last term, or for so the school can keep going while there’s a review?

Simon Birmingham: The only payments the College has received from the Federal Government were payments that they were entitled to to continue operating up until the end of this term.

Question: Could we see more schools around Australia under this organisation close?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve gone through a very comprehensive process around those three schools- sorry, around the six schools, three of whom findings have been made that have been adverse. Others are complying with different conditions to continue to operate and receive funding under those conditions. But we will keep a continued close eye on those schools through the conditions that have been applied and in relation to the others, the determinations have been made by my department and will go through the proper legal processes from there.

Question: And just to be clear, the Government’s strong on this even though you might be taken to the Federal Court?

Simon Birmingham: We absolutely stand by what I think Australians expect us to, and that is that every taxpayer dollar handed over to a school for the wellbeing and benefit of students should be used effectively, governed appropriately, and only used for the wellbeing and education of those students.

Question: And just one more subject. What do you think about housing affordability? Do you think people should be able to access their super to buy property?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as a member of the Cabinet, I’ll be going through all the proper processes in the lead up to the Budget. We have appropriate Cabinet government in Australia to set the terms of the Budget, and all of these matters will be canvassed through there.

Question: Do you think it could further fuel the housing affordability crisis, especially in the East Coast?

Simon Birmingham: I think we should frame the Budget through internal government discussions, and I’ll be having the discussions internally.

Question: So no opinion on the matter?

Simon Birmingham: As a Cabinet minister and the Education Minister, it’s not my place to provide running public commentary in relation to matters that are rightly considered inside the Cabinet as part of the Budget process.