Doorstop Interview at Alfred Deakin High School, Canberra
Topics: Release of Gonski 2.0 report
Simon Birmingham: Thank you for coming along to the Alfred Deakin High School in Canberra today. It’s wonderful to be at a school that has been cited in the significant landmark report released – authored by David Gonski and a panel of experts and educators – yesterday. This school was cited in that report because of its leadership in the engagement of parents, carers, students in ensuring that we maximise that engagement of those who are co-authors of the outcomes of our education system, if you like. That families, integrated families, in terms of the work of parents, the work of carers, the work of students, coming together with a school elevates the overall outcomes in terms of our education system.
Critically, the home environment often sets ambition, expectation, in terms of the attitudes that come to school, and they are critical things then to help teachers, in terms of knowing that those students come with the right outlook, with good ambition, with support at home. But of course, it’s a two-way street. The more open that schools are, in terms of sharing of information and encouragement of that engagement, then the better it is in terms of the levels of respect, engagement that come from that home environment.
What we’ve got here is a great example where, in terms of the practical, physical engagement with parents, carers and families, as well as the use of technology, it provides a wonderful example of how parents can be better, more engaged in their child’s learning and therefore in the outcomes of the school.
I’m very pleased that what we’ve seen in the last 24 hours since we released this report is widespread endorsement of its direction and its findings, across schooling systems, government, Catholic and independent, across primary and secondary settings, across many other education stakeholders and commentators. What it shows is that it sets a clear framework for cooperation and action between federal and state and territory governments that breaks down some of the usual lines of political debate, whether that be federal or state or Labor or Liberal, and gives us a shared purpose and direction to really focus on how we lift student outcomes, student achievement in the future; how we make sure that every student progresses and grows to the maximum of their capability each year of their studies and ultimately leaves school with basic skills, with rich knowledge and with the competencies and skills to participate in further education, training or the workplace.
Journalist: Are you disappointed the report wasn’t more specific in evaluating whether reforms like phonics or reducing class sizes worked to improve results?
Simon Birmingham: I think it’s important this report has laid down a framework, not just for the next 12 months or couple of years, but indeed for the next couple of decades in terms of how we achieve improved results in our schools and then continuously evaluate those results and build upon them. So if you look at the changes to the curriculum that are proposed and put those alongside the changes, in terms of the formative assessment tool that is recommended, and then the research feedback loop that’s attached to that, you can see that we will have not only a better system for teaching in our schools, but a continuous improvement cycle where there will be better analysis of what is happening and indeed better practice and information going back to schools and teachers as to how to keep improving like that. But that’s not to say that we don’t continue to act on the other findings we’ve had recently, and we’ve had findings from the Chief Scientist, from an analysis looking at early reading skills, and all of those other reports are critical for us to keep working on to make sure that we lift participation in maths throughout secondary school and particularly high level maths in terms of those going on to university subjects that require maths skills. To make sure that in the early years we get the basics right, as the Gonski report indicates, that we have to ensure by age 8 children have basic literacy, basic numeracy skills in place. And I’m confident the assessment tool that’s recommended will indeed chart achievement at different points each and every year of a student’s progress, and ensure, whether it’s learning phonics, learning overall, reading skills or learning to write, learning numeracy, building that into maths skills, that we will have a tool and resource that absolutely keeps accountability and progress.
Journalist: It’s only been three years since the state signed on and endorsed the national curriculum. Now it’s about to be thrown out. Is that efficient?
Simon Birmingham: I wouldn’t go so far as to say the national curriculum’s about to be thrown out. What’s recommended is that the national curriculum be overhauled in a way where we put in place clear progression steps in that curriculum. So it’s not changing, necessarily, the knowledge that has to be taught under the curriculum, but it’s ensuring that progress against that curriculum can clearly be measured, and by measuring that progress, you can then clearly show and demonstrate what students know, what knowledge they’ve attained.
Journalist: Do you think year 11 and 12 is too focused on kids getting an ATAR and getting into university?
Simon Birmingham: I think we have to recognise the majority of children do not go to university. The majority of children leave school as young adults and they go on to further training, further study, into the workplace, and that there are a diversity of directions where young adults go when they leave school. Now, of course, it’s essential that admittance to university, admittance to higher education is based on high level skills and sound knowledge, and we have to make sure that an ATAR system, whatever it is that’s in place, guarantees the level of those skills and the capability of that knowledge. We need, as the Chief Scientist has said, to make sure that young Australians going to study engineering or study the sciences understand the language of science, which is mathematics; that they understand and are able to succeed in the first years of university with those basic skills and knowledge around maths and other parts of their learning, without the need for universities to run catch-up or remedial programs. So, this is not about saying we should step away from having high ambition in terms of year 12 outcomes, but we do have to recognise that for many students vocational pathways, apprenticeships, direct pathways into the workforce are critical, and that’s where you have to ensure that students don’t just leave with the basics or with rich knowledge, but they also leave with the capability to collaborate, to engage, to be successful participants in a workplace.
Journalist: And just the corollary of that question: do you think some schools treat students who aren’t planning to go on to university as second-class citizens in year 11 and 12?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think we may have seen that over the years, but increasingly, as I’ve travelled around schools such as this one here, you can see a richer and more professional focus on the development of vocational skills, and we need to keep fostering that and encouraging that. Now, it’s something that is perhaps easier for bigger schools who can offer a diversity of vocational experiences to their students than it is for some smaller schools, and they’re some of the challenges that school systems have to work through to ensure that vocational skills, which come in many different shapes and sizes, are accessible to students, if not in school then complementary as part of their TAFE systems or other aspects of their training system.
Journalist: What will states be required to do on teacher professional development and promoting the best teachers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, this Friday we will sit down with state and territory ministers to talk through the outcomes and recommendations of the Gonski report and the next steps in terms of its implementation. I do not want to forerun or front-run those discussions with the state and territories, but I hope that they will endorse clearly the recommendations from the panel that say we should put real emphasis around professional development in the teaching profession, and making sure that that is high-level, ideally accredited professional development that is really advancing the skills of teachers. Because that will lead to greater workforce satisfaction for those teachers as well as better outcomes for our students. I hope they will endorse the approach that says we should take the concept of highly accomplished and lead teachers, which the Turnbull Government, the Coalition Government have helped create and the certification process, that is not done by a bureaucracy but is overseen by a peer-reviewed process that fellow teachers who demonstrate to each other the capabilities and competencies they’ve developed in terms of their capacity to lead in a school, and therefore to lead new teachers and to mentor those new teachers, and that really a good industrial framework for teachers in the future is one where we recognise and reward those highly accomplished and lead teachers. Incentivise them to stay in the profession, in the classroom teaching children, which is what they do best, and of course, to be mentoring new teachers and each other to continuously lift and improve practice across the profession.
Journalist: One of the things that was in the Gonski report and was obviously a big focus of the Finkel report was trying to get industry to partner with schools more and do more in schools. Now, the Business Council has said that it’s going to be spending a lot of money trying to get your government re-elected. As Education Minister, what do you think big business should be- would you rather they spend money on getting your government re-elected or would you rather them spend money on doing these collaborations with schools?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the Business Council has said they’re going to invest in promoting policies that support job creation, and I fully endorse them to do so because what it is we want to see out of graduates from schools, training systems, or universities, is that they have jobs to go to and that they have successful careers ahead of them. And having strong businesses across Australia who are growing, who are creating more jobs, is absolutely essential to that. But business is a partner, no doubt, in terms of education, particularly secondary schools like this one, and especially then as they enter into the training system. The Business Council has been an active participant in terms of policy settings in this space – they made submissions to the Gonski review, they welcomed its release yesterday; there is no doubt that they are playing a leading role in encouraging the advancement of our training systems, and they’re undertaking a significant national research project at present in looking at the tertiary landscape and the type of models to support tertiary training. But a message to businesses themselves is that if you want to ensure that you have the best young Australians pursuing jobs in your businesses, then engage in great schools like this one. Give opportunities for work experience, send staff into schools to talk about the types of skills, knowledge that is required to succeed in those jobs. Open the eyes and awareness of young people to the vast array of different careers that different businesses and industries have. We’ve got some good examples and we’ve developed very good models, such as our P-TECH program, that I think are very positive for the future. But of course, business has to be a partner in training to get the outcomes they want from training.
Journalist: But that does take money. It seems that they’d rather spend the money on making sure that they’re not taxed.
Simon Birmingham: Michael, I think that Australian business spends much, much more already on supporting training, training places, opportunities, apprenticeships and the like, for Australians and the type of dollars that are being talked about in terms of this campaign, and I would also emphasise: Australian business needs to be profitable and needs to be growing to not only create jobs, but to create training places.
Journalist: What would you say to parents and students who are worried that the idea of breaking the curriculum into progressions will just mean more testing, without evidence that that will necessarily improve results?
Simon Birmingham: It’s not more testing, it’s better testing. Ultimately, teachers already undertake a range of different assessments in their classrooms at each stage of the year. What we want to ensure, particularly in those early years around the development of literacy and numeracy skills, is that the assessments undertaken are best practice assessments, that they are evidence-based assessments, that actually we’re really clearly demonstrating the development of knowledge. And it’s important to understand this – I’ve seen some commentary that seems to suggest that talking about progression means you’re not worrying about achievement. Well, you only measure progression by actually looking at levels of achievement at different points in time. So, progression is how much more a student knows and has achieved over a period of time, and that’s a critical aspect here, that by assessing progression, we will also be better assessing the achievement levels and the actual achievement of individual students.
Yvette Berry: Thank you for giving me the chance to just make a couple of points here today. Minister Birmingham has made a couple of really important points about the review and its implementation. First of all, I am very happy to see in the report that there is a particular emphasis on early childhood education and that that is a very important process to consider as far as a child’s learning journey starting at three. Importantly, what I would like to see from the Federal Government, given that there is an emphasis on early childhood education and care, that a partnership with the Federal Government includes funding announced at next week’s Budget to include universal access for four-year-olds and extending that to three-year-olds. I think that’s important to note, that David Gonski, in putting early childhood education as a special part in his report, identifies the need to make sure that that is an important part of a child’s learning journey. So, I look forward to seeing that announcement next week, Minister Birmingham.
The second thing I wanted to point out is around partnerships again, is that the Federal Government has made a decision recently to tell state and territory governments exactly how funding will work in state and territories. So, the report – it’s a good report, it talks about all the great things that teachers are already doing – can we lift the bar higher? Yes, absolutely we can and we’ll work with our excellent teachers to make sure that we can give them the support, value the work that they do, and respect the work that they’re doing already. But importantly, that partnership, if it’s about funding, the Federal Government has set the rules that means that they are the minor funder. So, if implementation of this report comes to a conversation about all care and no responsibility, we’re going to need a better partnership with the Federal Government and I ask Mr Birmingham to have another conversation with his federal colleagues about how that funding will work as far as implementing any of the reforms that have come out of this report.
But I do thank Mr Birmingham for engaging Mr Gonski again in putting this report together. It was a very useful effort to be able to be involved in those conversations, and Mr Gonski has pretty much confirmed all of the work that we’re doing here already in the ACT and Mr Birmingham has seen that in our school here today, hearing from the students and the school principal about how children are getting the best chance to do what they want to do and follow their passions and their pathways.
Journalist: Are you going to accept any extra conditions, then, if you’re saying that you’re already doing the work on teacher professional development and the other things recommended in the report?
Yvette Berry: Well, I think the first thing is to acknowledge that our teachers are doing a great job. And I know that there are academics and experts at 20 paces now having their points of view and sticking their noses into classrooms. I think now it’s time to acknowledge that teachers are doing a great job. We need to value the work that they are doing and also consider the partnership that we have with the Federal Government around the funding model that they have implemented into law.
Journalist: But other than funding, on your side, in terms of responsibility for schools, are there any reforms that you can say that you’ll commit to now when it comes to renegotiating that?
Yvette Berry: Well, as I have said, the review really does confirm the conversations that I’ve been having here in the ACT with students, teachers, and school principals, about how we can further improve our great education system here in the ACT. We already have the best system-wide Google classroom process, where parents are connected in with their students’ work every day. This school gave a really good example about how it engages students, teachers, and parents in their students’ learning, and that’s an important way forward. We’re already considering a way forward to make our education here in the ACT even better than it is, but the first part of that has to be about respecting and valuing the work that teachers already do.
Journalist: Can anyone put a price tag on these latest Gonski measures?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, in terms of a price tag for the measures themselves, it’s a very modest cost compared to the many billions of dollars spent on school systems across the country. But in terms of developing the type of tool that’s proposed and in terms of applying the type of research that’s recommended, those sorts of things are very, very minor in the scale of billions and billions of dollars annually – some $18 billion in federal funding for schools this year. Now, of course, others relate to practice and how we practice the teaching profession in schools, those sorts of policy settings, which don’t necessarily come with a cost, aside from how you make different transitions along the way in terms of the way work is undertaken.
What I would say in relation to funding, and we need to be clear here, is that we have record funds flowing into Australian schools – more than ever before from the Federal Government, not just in dollar terms, but in terms of the proportion of funding for schools that comes from federal taxpayers, is higher now than it’s ever been before in Australia’s history and it’s going to keep growing. And so yes, the Federal Government will continue to be a minority funder of schools relative to the states and territories – that’s how it’s always been – but we’re actually putting in more and a greater share than has ever been the case in Australia’s history. And the challenge now is to ensure we get value for money from that funding. We do it, of course, already in so many ways with outstanding schools that achieve great things. We have to make sure when we’re putting more in, that we get even better outcomes in the future.