Doorstop interview, Australind Senior High School
School funding; NAPLAN; same-sex marriage

Nola Marino: So look, it’s really fantastic to have Minister Birmingham here today in the South West, visiting some of our wonderful schools. It’s also fantastic that it is our Coalition Government that has ensured that there will be nearly $450 million extra coming into this electorate alone through the additional Gonski funding. Minister, it’s fantastic to see you here. Thank you for being here.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Nola, and it’s just so inspiring to get the chance to come and see students in schools like this one, the Australind Senior High School – secondary high school, I should say – a school that is really delivering in terms of new technologies, new opportunities, inspirational learning experiences for its students. This school is one that as a result of the Turnbull Government’s consistent application of needs-based funding around the country, is set to receive around an extra $17 million over the next decade, thanks to true, fair, Gonski needs-based funding.

Of course, Western Australia is a great beneficiary of our reforms, because previously WA got a dud deal on school funding. And we are implementing something that treats every state consistently, based on the individual need of each student and each school community, as it should be. But today’s the day in which we have seen the NAPLAN results released for this year – the initial NAPLAN results at a state-by-state level.

[Alarm rings] [Laughs] And we’ll just let the class bell change time. Nobody’s going to miss the fact that it’s time to change classes here at Australind.

It’s a mixed bag of NAPLAN results today, where in some areas of particularly reading and numeracy, we’re seeing gains. But in others, especially around writing skills, we’ve seen some decline. And that’s a real concern, that we need to make sure that across the board, we’re getting all of the basics right. We’ve fixed needs-based funding for Australia for the future, and we’re delivering it. But we must make sure that every single dollar is then used as efficiently and effectively as possible to boost and lift student outcomes.

Our priority as a Government now is to build on the reforms that we’ve already implemented; better teacher training in our universities, where we’re guaranteeing that future graduates are going to be literate and numerate themselves, and in the top 30 per cent of Australians for their capabilities. We’re guaranteeing that future graduates are going to have subject specialisation, so that into our early years, we get more English, maths, science specialist teachers into our classrooms. These are really positive reforms.

We’re now looking forward to working with David Gonski on his second review; the body of work that he – together with a collection of principals – are doing over the course of the next six months or so, which is going to identify further evidence-based reforms, that I hope and trust states and territories will work with us to cooperatively deliver into the future, so that every state can get positive results in their schooling. The West has seen some really positive gains, stronger gains relative to much of the rest of the nation. And I congratulate particularly Peter Collier in the previous WA government, for their education reforms that have put Western Australia in a winning position. We now need to make sure that some of the lessons from that are taken, replicated, and applied in other states where we’re not doing so well.

Journalist: How did you arrive at that figure, that $17 million [indistinct] NAPLAN?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the $17 million figure is a function of using the Gonski formula of needs-based funding around the country. It’s about looking at the total number of students, and then applying additional support for those who come from low socio-educational backgrounds who might need additional assistance because they’re a student with a disability, or giving extra support to students from Indigenous backgrounds, where we’re seeing around $46-$47 million of extra support flowing into supporting Indigenous students here in WA alone to really lift performance right across the board. It’s a function of having a needs-based funding formula, which means you give more support to the schools and the students who need it most.

Journalist: Minister, what about this argument that NAPLAN is a tool – less for the benefit of students, but more so to make schools look good – as some people have suggested in the media this morning.

Simon Birmingham: NAPLAN’s an important tool to get an assessment of the basics – of reading, writing, numeracy skills. And they’re really important foundational skills upon which all the rest of student learning depends. Now, NAPLAN is not the be-all and end-all, it’s not the only assessment tool that schools should use – far from it. There are many things that schools should use, and the judgement of teachers is essential to that. But NAPLAN is important, and it’s important to give us a guide as to whether we’re getting those foundational skills right upon which we can then build more complex skills.

Journalist: But doesn’t the structure of NAPLAN allow schools to pit themselves against each other in a, I guess, a battle of who’s the best, and then apply for funding using those results?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s certainly not about applying for funding. Funding flows on the basis of school need, and that’s what the Turnbull Government’s delivered – consistent, needs-based funding around the country. NAPLAN can help inform where we’re doing good things that are working and where we’re failing in school systems and need to change what’s happening and improve it for the future. And that’s where NAPLAN plays a role. And I really encourage and look forward in the future to us using NAPLAN results more to identify the schools that are getting good gains in terms of improving across those basics, picking up the learnings from that, what it is those principals and hard-working teachers in those schools are doing, in terms of programs and policies they’re applying, and making sure that’s replicated elsewhere around the nation. That’s why we want to make sure that out of the second Gonski review, we identify how to get the best use of record-growing funding, get the best bang for our educational buck in the future, and guarantee that every dollar is being used for the benefit of students.

Journalist: But isn’t it true that NAPLAN results can be used by schools to pitch for funding and even teacher promotions of staff?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we as a government want to make sure that NAPLAN is used in the best way possible, which is to identify what schools are doing right and make sure that that is then picked up, shared right across the education system, and replicated in other schools, so that everybody gets the benefit of gains and success in terms of school policies and delivery.

Journalist: Minister, can I turn your attention for a moment to same-sex marriage? Would you support a postal plebiscite as a way of moving forward with same-sex marriage?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the policy we took to the last election was to give the Australian people a say on this issue. That remains the Coalition’s policy, and of course we should do everything we possibly can to find sensible ways of giving people that say so this issue can be resolved once and for all with the endorsement and support of the Australian people.

Journalist: Should the Government have another go at convincing the Senate that that’s the right way to go the plebiscite?

Simon Birmingham: Well, for Bill Shorten, the Labor Party – and all of those who say they want to see this issue dealt with – we could absolutely have a plebiscite this year, get it done and dusted, have a Parliamentary vote following the plebiscite. And I predict that same-sex marriage would be legislated by the end of the year. But it would occur with the endorsement, the support, the goodwill of the Australian people, which would make it a really positive reform if that happened. But really, the ball is in the hands of the Labor Party. If they want to see the issue dealt with, then of course they could back a plebiscite, let it happen, and this would all flow through.

Journalist: Should this policy be considered by a joint party room? Or just the Liberal members?

Simon Birmingham: Look, they’re all technical matters that we’ll deal with when we’re back in Canberra.

Journalist: Minister, crossing back to NAPLAN for a minute: which learning area do you see as the most important to grow in the next 10 years?

Simon Birmingham: The message out of today’s results is that we’re getting good progress in reading and numeracy, but clearly we have problems in writing, and that we need to make sure that we focus on developing those writing skills. And that will be a core topic of my conversation with state and territory ministers to lift writing skills in the future.

Journalist: And how do our NAPLAN results compare us to other countries?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we have other tools that give comparison with other countries – the PISA and TIMMS surveys that were released last year – and they have sadly shown that Australia, both in real terms and relative to other countries, has been slipping in a number of areas. That’s why the focus for the future needs to be on how we get maximum bang for our record and growing buck. We’ve fixed needs-based funding through the delivery of Gonski principles in the future, now we’re going to focus on how we use that money as effectively as possible.

Journalist: Minister, how damaging is it to have some of your own Coalition MPs coming out and defying the Coalition’s policy of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage?

Simon Birmingham: Look, of course, every Member of Parliament is elected as an individual. In the Liberal Party, we recognise and respect the right of individual members of Parliament. Unlike the Labor Party, we don’t go around expelling people because they actually have an opinion – Members of Parliament are there to have an opinion. But the Government’s focus is on issues like education, having delivered needs-based funding for the future – how it is that we get the dollars to then be used as effectively as possible; equally, 10,000 jobs for the PaTH program of internship placements for students who might not otherwise get a start in the workforce that were announced in the West yesterday by Michaelia Cash and the Prime Minister; or of course, incredibly serious issues that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks in particular around national security and the success, thankfully, that our law enforcement agencies and security and intelligence agencies have had thwarting what could have been a terrible terrorist incident on Australian soil. So they’re the real priorities for the Government – that’s what binds us together, and that’s what we’re focused on.

Thanks everybody.