Doorstop interview, Windsor State School, Queensland
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; Year 1 phonics and numeracy skills check; Newspoll

Member for Brisbane Trevor Evans: It’s my huge pleasure to introduce you to the Commonwealth Minister for Education, Senator Simon Birmingham. It’s great to have him here so soon after the Budget, which did of course contain some really impressive measures and commitments of this Government for school funding. This school is going to receive an extra $4.3 million over the next ten years. And Brisbane – my electorate – in total has 46 schools and they’ll benefit to the tune of almost $15 million just over the forward estimates. This is a great announcement for schools funding. It’s really great to be able to be here with the Minister, and Minister, I’ll let you take over. 

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Trevor. And thank you for the welcoming here, and to Grant the principal and the Parents and Friends Committee, and all those at the Windsor State School for a very warm welcome. And I’m really looking forward to getting into some of the classrooms as school starts this morning to have a chat to the hard working teachers, have a chat to the kids and to get to see how it is that strong investment in Australian schools is making a difference and how it is that the Turnbull Government’s $18.6 billion plan for record levels of investment across Australian schools will make an even bigger difference into the future. 

And our reforms will make a difference because they are acting comprehensively on the David Gonski review handed down six years ago. We are going to deliver fair, needs-based, sector-blind funding for Australian schools that treats Government schools across Australia consistently according to need, and non-Government schools across Australia consistently according to need. No special deals. No differential treatment. Just a fair, consistent model that ensures the schools with the greatest need receive the greatest level of funding and support, and that we invest more to help schools focus on the things that can make a difference to school and education performance.

Here in Queensland, we are going to see more than $1 billion of extra funding flow over the next four years. And as Trevor’s indicated, that means significant extra funding for schools like this one and even more for schools in regions of greater need and with greater challenges across regional Queensland, particularly those schools catering to smaller, rural or regional or remote areas, schools catering to Indigenous populations, schools catering to students with disability; these are the areas of higher need that will receive greater resourcing, greater support into the future. 

We’re really thrilled though that David Gonski is going to support us, not just in terms of delivery of his funding recommendations and reforms, but he is now going to do a further piece of work looking at how it is that we best achieve educational excellence across Australian schools – the types of reforms that are necessary. 

Reforms such as the one the Turnbull Government’s already started work on in terms of a phonics skills check across schools – a year one assessment, a soft-touch skills check between teacher and pupil that ensures students are learning to read properly, that they’re developing the skills to identify phonetic sounds, to make sure they can decode words, to understand basic numeracy, all of those types of skills that are essential at the year one level to make sure students have got the basic foundation blocks upon which the rest of their schooling life and educational success depend. And these types of reforms are the things that we want to see our record levels of investment used for, and they’re the types of things that David Gonski’s review will now build upon by looking not just at how we fairly distribute record funding across Australian schools, but how we most effectively use it to get the best bang for our buck in terms of lifting student outcomes and performance. 

Thanks everyone. Questions?

Journalist: The year one testing that you’re bringing out – the trial program – that’s being used overseas at the moment is it?

Simon Birmingham: So the phonics check is built upon a UK model. We’ve had an expert panel take a look at it. But in the UK they’ve seen a real lift over the years of its implementation now, in terms of students developing those phonics skills in their first year or two in school. And these phonics skills are about kids learning how to decode the written word – what are the particular sounds and letter combinations, when you put them together – so that children have the skills to then successfully read all manner of words and sentences into the future. And those basic literacy and numeracy skills are the building blocks upon which school success depends for the rest of the child’s life. If you don’t have that early skills check, coupled then with intervention to support kids who need additional support, they’re not going to enjoy the types of success that we want them to in the future. And so, we’ve had an expert panel look at the UK model, look at what different states and territories are doing. I know that some schools are already doing a brilliant job in this area, but we want every school across every state of Australia to undertake the type of early skills check that guarantees the educational success of their children.

Journalist: So in real terms, when you say a soft test, will it be like an oral one on one with a teacher exam, or a written exam, or what exactly does it mean?

Simon Birmingham: This is about an individual teacher sitting down and verbally discussing with a child and getting their understanding as they read to the teacher of whether or not they can identify certain words, certain sounds that are essential to a child’s understanding of phonics, as well as we’ll have a look in terms of numeracy skills too. And so it really is nothing like a NAPLAN test or a formal exam. This is an age appropriate, light-touch assessment between teacher and pupil, but ensuring that it’s done in a nationally consistent way, in a way that is guaranteed by research to achieve excellence and identification of children who might be slipping behind, who need earlier help. Because if left until you get to a year three NAPLAN test, for example, it’s way too late to actually catch kids up to the types of standards and skills that are necessary.

Journalist: Minister, how close are you to reaching an agreement with the Greens on your school funding bill?

Simon Birmingham: I’m very pleased that impartial commentators across the country have warmly welcomed the Turnbull Government’s genuine delivery of Gonski needs-based funding reforms, rather than the Labor Party’s historic approach of carving out 27 different special deals and inconsistent approaches around the country. Now, I hope that every single crossbench senator – be they Greens or other non-government senators – recognise and support these reforms. But I sincerely hope that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party change their position; that they recognise we are doing the hard yards that they squibbed; that we’re committed to having consistent, needs-based, sector-blind funding  across Australian schools, that we’re investing an additional $18.6 billion to do so. And that, rather than standing up for different deals or special interests, Mr Shorten and the Labor Party change their position and help us deliver the reforms that they’ve talked about for so long, but that they’ve never had the courage to do themselves.

Journalist: The Greens want funding to flow more quickly to underfunded schools, can you [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Our model does ensure that the schools who are furthest away from receiving a common share of the schooling resource standard will receive the greatest level of growth in the future. So we’ve built a 10 year transition period that ensures those who have the greatest journey to travel to receive their fair share, get the greatest rate of growth. That’s a fair model and it ensures that everybody has certainty over those 10 years, certainty they’ll receive the funding growth they need across more than 9000 Australian schools, certainty to plan and certainty that it will be fair and consistent across the country.

Journalist: Is 10 years too long to wait for funding though for schools [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Well Labor’s current model takes 150 years to still not achieve consistency of approach, to still not achieve the fair needs-based reforms David Gonski talked about. And so doing it in 10 years is a damn sight better than Labor’s model of 150 years.

Journalist: With this phonics test, how many schools will take part under the screening process [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Our expert panel has just finished its work and we’ll be taking that to discuss with state and territory ministers. I’m very pleased that some governments, including the Labor Government in my home state of South Australia, have indicated their support for phonics tests, for phonics checks, skills checks across schools and I hope that we’ll see other governments, including Queensland, embrace that. As I said before, some schools are already doing this type of thing, some schools are already excelling at this in their classrooms and our expert panel has had a look at the practice around Australian schools. We want to take that best practice and international experience and apply it across every school so that every child gets the same chance to be assessed and that nobody misses out in terms of being picked up if they need additional support in the future.

Journalist: And the results won’t be released the same way, say, like NAPLAN is, for example?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not. This has got nothing to do with NAPLAN testing or NAPLAN reporting. This is a completely stand-alone, soft-touch skills check between teacher and pupil; where what we want to do, though, is ensure that there is uniformity of excellence based on national and international best practice so that every teacher in those early years can have the confidence that what they’re doing in the classroom gives them the best chance of identifying whether their children are going to succeed and guarantees hopefully that success in the future for every one of those children.

Journalist: So when will the trial actually begin, and then when will you decide if this is something that’s going to be rolled out to every school?

Simon Birmingham: So as I said in a state like South Australia there’s already a commitment to undertake this type of work, starting from next year. And I hope that as our expert panel steps each state and territory through the types of reforms that we have in mind and the evidence behind it that we’ll see others come on board too.

Journalist: Minister, just back to the Greens on school funding. The Greens have referred this to a Senate inquiry which will report back in June. Are you comfortable with that time frame? 

Simon Birmingham: We are absolutely comfortable with having a thorough Senate inquiry where I’m confident people will again hear from the likes of the Mitchell Institute, the Grattan Institute, Smith Family, Anglicare, the types of impartial stakeholders who have embraced and welcomed the Turnbull Government’s commitment to truly deliver on the Gonski reforms. I think if you look at the level of commentary from those who aren’t seeking to hold onto a special deal with one state or an advantage of one sector over another, if you look outside of those noises you will see that the impartial commentariat has been very enthusiastic. Because what we’re doing is truly what David Gonski recommended.

Journalist: Will there be enough time for schools to adjust to the changes if they don’t pass until June at the earliest?

Simon Birmingham: I think you just asked me a question before as to whether 10 years was too long to undertake the transition. Yes, of course there’s enough time to make sure that schools step through a steady 10 year transition pathway. Much faster than Labor’s which gets nowhere near consistency even in 150 years, but a fair level of adjustment for those 24 schools across Australia who will see some reduction in funding over the next couple of years; for the 300-odd schools who won’t see quite as fast a rate of growth. But importantly for the 4500 schools who receive more than 5 per cent growth per student per annum because they’re the schools with greatest need around the country, and more than 9000 schools who receive strong growth above inflation, above wages growth, for real additional investment in the education system.

Journalist: Have you received any indication from Kate Jones or the Government here as to what their view is on this phonics tests?
Simon Birmingham: Kate and I have discussed this. She has emphasised to me that there are some schools in Queensland doing this type of thing already, and that’s welcome. What I want to make sure though is that every school in Queensland and every school across Australia is abiding by the highest standards in the classroom and giving every child the opportunity to succeed which starts with identifying problems in the earliest years.

Journalist: The $18.6 billion, where’s that money coming from? You said that 24 schools across Australia will lose money – excuse my naivety – is that from private schools or where is that- Who is losing that money out of the 24?

Simon Birmingham: Well the $18.6 billion is additional funding into the Commonwealth schools budget over the next decade. This is fundamental reform coupled with real growth in schools investment. But in ensuring that we treat everybody according to the Gonski needs-based principles of school funding there are some schools – a handful – who will see a modest reduction in their funding over that time. But more than 9000 schools receive strong growth in their funding; more than 4500 of them, growth greater than 5 per cent per student per annum for 10 years. That’s enormous additional support into those schools that will see them able to focus resources on the things that can make a difference to student outcomes. 

Journalist: The latest Newspoll’s out today, 53 points to 47 – Labor’s leading. What is Government going to do to turn this around?

Simon Birmingham: Well I noticed one of the polls today has really strong, almost 90 per cent support, for the Turnbull Government’s Gonski schools reforms. And I hope that that strong level of support will see every party, including the Labor party, accept that what we’re doing is the right thing, free of special deals, free of special treatment, guaranteed to ensure investment goes into the schools who need it most.

Journalist: Does the poll concern you, Mr Evans?

Trevor Evans: Oh well look, I’m very pleased to stand here with the Minister and talk about what we’re doing into the future. I’ve got 46 schools in this electorate; one is receiving the 1 per cent in funding cut next year, a handful are receiving a low rate of growth, but a rate of growth nonetheless. I encourage all parents to jump on to the Government’s estimator and to have look at how these announcements will flow out for all of our schools locally, because what they’ll see when they dive into the detail is that this is fantastic package for all of the students and all of the families in this local area. And I think it’s just one example of all of the longer term and medium term goals that the Turnbull Government is pursuing to ensure that we are in the best position possible to give families the confidence and the stability that they need for schools.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys.