Doorstop interview, Parliament House
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms; NSW teacher strikes; Future schools funding arrangements

Simon Birmingham: The latest data released today, international comparisons in terms of Australia’s performance on maths and science, is disappointing and it should be a wake up call to state and territory governments, to all education authorities, to make sure that we turn the focus in the school debate to how it is we can get the best bang for our buck from our record growing levels of investment in Australian schools. 

For too many years now, we’ve had a debate that has endlessly been about how much money is spent and not enough about how well it can be spent, how we can better spend it, how we can best invest it to get optimal outcomes for Australian schoolchildren. It is not acceptable to see Australia falling behind more and more countries in terms of our maths and science performance at a time when maths and science is becoming ever more critical to the job prospects and economic prospects of our nation. 

The Turnbull Government went to the recent election promising record growing levels of school funding to be distributed according to need fairly and equitably across the states and territories. But there was one big difference that we actually had with the Labor Party and with historical practice. That one big difference is that rather than the Federal Government being a silent partner who hands a blank cheque over to states and territories, we now want to be a committed, engaged partner whose funding is conditional upon real reforms in our school system to lift the outcomes for Australian students. 

The types of reforms we proposed address issues in terms of teacher quality, better training for teachers in universities to ensure they meet minimum literacy and numeracy levels. The actual proficiency of teachers when they graduate being assessed to ensure that we don’t just assume a graduate from uni is ready to fly in the classroom, but they have proper assessment practices in place to ensure they’re proficient in the classroom after a period of years; better reward for our most capable and lead teachers so that teacher industrial arrangements aren’t built around more money for time served, but are built around more money for those who are recognised by their peers against credible standards to be the best in the profession and the best in the classroom for their children; better ambition and higher ambition in our schools where we actually should set minimum numeracy and literacy levels for school leavers, which pushes pressure right down the system to ensure children are equipped to meet those minimum standards; tougher requirements for university entrance to have more children having to keep up their studies in maths and science right through to the Year 12 level, and earlier interventions, earlier assessments so that in the Year One level, we can identify children who are falling behind in their reading skills, their literacy skills, and their numeracy skills to support them with appropriate interventions. 

The time is surely right now to recognise that we have to actually reform what happens in our schools to get a better outcome for the future. These TIMSS results come on top of NAPLAN scores, PISA tests, a range of evidence over the years which demonstrate that Australia is not performing to the standard we should expect as a developed economy, as a country with high standards providing record investments in our schools.

Journalist: Minister, are you embarrassed that Australia has fallen behind countries where there’s been [inaudible] like Kazakhstan, and are you likely to be heading on a study tour over there to see what they’re doing that we’re not? 
Simon Birmingham: Australia should be a world leader in terms of school education, not a world lagger. And we need to turn that around to make sure that we do again lead the world in the performance in our schools of our students to get the best outcomes. Of course there are things that we can learn from other countries, and I want us to listen clearly to the evidence that’s there – and there’s a lot of evidence around school education – and ensure it’s committed to and implemented in our school systems. 

For too long, we’ve had many reports, many analyses that look generally at what it is we ought to do in schools, but too little action in terms of the implementation in the states and territories in our school systems. Just last week, we’ve had another credible paper released looking at, in terms of reading skills, that the use of phonics and the importance of phonics and the application potentially of a UK-style assessment at Year One, such as the Turnbull Government has proposed, in terms of the use and assessment of phonics to identify problems earlier. There are international lessons that we can learn. We should learn them, but most importantly, we need to actually apply them in our school systems.

Journalist: Minister, do schools need to stick to the basics and stop being social laboratories for people? Almost every week someone calls on some new course for students to be socially integrated. Should they stick to maths, reading, and spelling?

Simon Birmingham: There’s a lot of pressure on Australian schools and a lot of expectations put on teachers in particular. Most Australian teachers are hard-working, well-meaning, and doing a good job but we need to give them the time to focus on the basics, to ensure that they are actually getting the literacy and numeracy skills right; that they are supporting children in terms of the development also of advanced skills they need in terms of technology, but also collaboration and other skills essential to succeed in a modern economy. They also need better partnership and support from Australian parents and families. 

This is not just a message to our education system. This is a message as well to Australian parents and families that they have a role to play. Parental engagement is critical, and Chris, in terms of your point, parental engagement in ensuring that children are supported in many of the things that have been loaded on to our school system over the years is an essential attribute that we should be thinking about as well. Expecting that parents help with the foundation stones in literacy and numeracy, in reading to their children, in helping them learn to count and add up, but also ensuring that many of those aspects in terms of social skills and so on are developed in the home, supported in the home, supported in extracurricular activities, so schools have maximum time to focus on academic excellence.

Journalist: Minister, you just praised teachers. New South Wales teachers are planning to strike in the coming weeks. Do you have a message for them and the State Government to try and sort that out so these children that are falling behind can spend more time in the classroom?

Simon Birmingham: Well, my message in terms of teacher industrial negotiations is that we should be shifting away from arrangements that simply reward teachers based on time served to embed arrangements that reward teachers who are recognised by their peers against agreed standards as being excellent in the classroom, as being lead teachers in the school, as being highly capable in changing student outcomes. These are the types of measures that we should expect in terms of how it is that teachers are paid and rewarded in the future. Of course, school strikes are not helpful for anybody, and of course, that will do nothing to help lift student outcomes, so we need to make sure those matters are resolved, but they should be resolved in ways that encourage and reward excellence and inspire our best and brightest teachers to stay in the profession, to stay longer, and give them the capacity and support to go and work in some of our most disadvantaged schools.

Journalist: Given these tests were done in 2014, not that long after the Gonski money started going to schools, how much do you think state education ministers will buy your argument that this bolsters your case for the need to overhaul the funding system?

Simon Birmingham: Australian school funding has grown significantly, not just over a couple of years, but over a couple of decades. Funding growth since 1988 has been around 100 per cent in real terms, a doubling in real terms since ’98. It’s grown by about 50 per cent since 2003, and it will keep growing from around $16 billion of investment that the Federal Government, the Turnbull Government is providing this year in 2016 to more than $20 billion of investment by 2020. We’re at record funding levels. Funding will keep growing above enrolment, above inflation into the future. The focus now cannot continue to be on just how much money there is. It’s got to be a focus on how well it’s invested, how well we spend it, how we can spend it to get better outcomes for our kids.

Thanks everybody.