Tom Elliot: Anyway, our next guest is the federal Education Minister. Senator Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, good to be with you.

Tom Elliot: Now, I know this is sort of an official budget leak, but apparently you’ve got over a billion dollars to pump into primary and secondary schools – is that correct?

Simon Birmingham: Well yes, I think it goes beyond the realm of official budget leak when you stand up with the Prime Minister and announce it. So it is absolutely an announced policy that we will grow school spending as a Federal Government from what is forecast to be $16.2 billion this year in 2016, through – if the Turnbull Government is re-elected – to some $20.1 billion by 2020. Now, that’s growth that we think is affordable, but we’re putting some pretty tough conditions about it.

Tom Elliot: Well that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, because I mean it’s great to put in money and all the rest of it, but what are the conditions?

Simon Birmingham: The conditions we’re applying start at the absolute earliest years. So in year one we want to see some literacy assessments undertaken of the reading capacity of those children who have been in school by then, usually for 12 to 18 months, to really identify those who are learning to read effectively, who understand and are getting the right sense of phonetic awareness and of phonics, and if they’re not, to be able to ensure that there are then intervention programs in place, because reading is the most important foundational skill for a child in the school environment to help them then succeed in all the other areas of learning.

That flows then through right to the other end of schooling, in terms of setting in place minimum standards of numeracy and literacy capability before being able to acquire year 12, and indeed ensuring that over time we apply a requirement for those going onto university that they must have undertaken some studies in maths or sciences and in English or humanities so that we lift that ambition, particularly in maths where we’ve seen fewer and fewer students continuing to undertake those studies [indistinct] …

Tom Elliot: [Talks over] But does that mean, like for example in our VCE, where I think you still only do – this is in Victoria – five subjects, six for some kids. Does it mean you actually have to take a mathematical subject, or do you just have to show that you’re at least reasonably proficient in maths?

Simon Birmingham: So two things there, one is to have a minimum standard of maths or numeracy capability and literacy capability for school leavers. The other is for those who want to go onto university in terms of university admission standards that they would need to do as one of their subjects a maths or science subject, and they [indistinct] …

Tom Elliot: [Talks over] so you’re- but wait a minute, so you’re saying that anybody who wants to go to university. So at the moment the only compulsory subject at VCE level is English; you’re saying that if you want to go to university you must do English and some sort of maths or science subject?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, and this would be phased in over a decade, we will negotiate these reforms sensibly with the states and territories. But we’ve seen far fewer students pursuing maths and sciences at the senior secondary level and into year 12, and it’s important that we do reverse those declines in an economy where we know that some 70 per cent of the fastest growing occupations of the future are STEM-based – science, technology, engineering, mathematics-based occupations.

Tom Elliot: Okay, actually this- I didn’t realise this was what you were going to do. Look, can I just ask one thing first? I mean, is it not a concern that you could conceivably get your HSC or your VCE but need another test in basic English or maths? Because I mean if you get your VCE you must have passed the subject of English, but you’re saying well we still need another type of English or comprehension or spelling test on top of that. I mean, how is it that secondary schools can teach someone English but they need a separate English exam by the Federal Government?

Simon Birmingham: So we’re not proposing a separate exam in that sense. The Western Australian Government is already pursuing a model, particularly around minimum numeracy standards that we think has some merit. It is about the school though being confident that at least a student who may not be going onto university, who might be choosing other subjects for their final year at school, but that they do have at least a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy behind them …

Tom Elliot: [Talks over] But do you test it though?

Simon Birmingham: … and the school obviously needs to be confident of that for the student to then qualify through year 12, and that assessment should happen well before the student gets into year 12 so that remedial assistance can occur if a student is not up to those minimum standards. We’re not talking about, of course, advanced year 12 mathematics here – that’s for those who are doing advanced year 12 mathematics – but we are talking about having basic literacy and numeracy skills so that if somebody goes out into the workplace with a VCE or a year 12 leaver’s certificate – whatever it’s called in the different states and territories, that they- that employers and others know that that means this student does have some clear level of literacy and numeracy standard.

Tom Elliot: [Talks over] Okay,, I get where you’re going, but just so I’m absolutely clear. So at the moment you have NAPLAN testing at the younger age groups, and that’s to make sure that they’re hitting those benchmarks at set times so that they can move on. Are you saying you’d have like at the start of year 12 or, I don’t know, halfway through the year, some sort of Federal Government NAPLAN test? I mean is that- I mean, you’ve got to test it. It’s no good just saying we have to have these standards unless you actually make sure that people meet them.

Simon Birmingham: And we would expect, and this is based on the Western Australian experience, that intervention would most likely start around the time of the last NAPLAN tests, which happens in year 9, so actually being able to identify then those students who are clearly on track and meeting minimum standards, and those who are going to need additional assistance in those final years.

Tom Elliot: Okay, and the mathematics one also confuses me a bit. I mean, you’re saying if someone wants- let’s say someone wants to just do arts at Monash University for example, you’re saying that because they want to go to university, even if it’s just to do an arts degree, which usually doesn’t involve, or necessarily involve some maths, they must sit a mathematical subject at VCE to do so?

Simon Birmingham: Maths or science, to maintain at least one of those subjects amongst their subject choices in their final year. That’s about really putting in place ambition right through the schooling system. We don’t want kids to be dropping the science subjects earlier on in high school and then having doors closed to them when they get to year 12.

Tom Elliot: But do you understand though, year 12, I mean not everybody is suited to maths. I mean, there’s general maths, then there’s the harder maths, then there’s physics and chemistry. I mean, these are the sorts of maths and science subjects that are on offer. To be honest, there’s plenty of people out there who are not mathematically minded, they simply would not be able to do them at year 12 level.  

Simon Birmingham: Well you don’t have to go back many years to find that this was quite a common condition in terms of entry into universities and the type of standard that was put in place. I’m not saying, and we’re not saying everybody has to do maths. There are the options of doing biology or other science subjects which students can choose to pursue, but it is about really lifting the ambition at the tail end of the school experience so that we get greater focus on these subjects in the years prior to that. And of course it is also going to be applied in a very even-handed way: the same conditions apply across all students so it’s not that a particular student should be disadvantaged. Their strengths may lie in one area and not another, but of course equally students who have strengths in mathematics might need extra support in terms of their focus on undertaking an English or a humanities subject. So it’s about making sure though that we actually lift that level of ambition, that people have confidence that kids who are leaving school have the skills to go out into the workforce, and that kids who are going into university have demonstrated that they have achieved and attained a high level of accomplishment in going onto university. And I need to emphasise for parents worried about it today: we do recognise that these things take time to implement, so they’re not about to happen tomorrow in terms of university standards; this is something we’ll work with the states to achieve over the course of a decade.

Tom Elliot: Thank you Simon. Simon Birmingham there, the Federal Education Minister.