Subject: literacy and numeracy standards among trainee teachers


John Compere:

Almost one in ten trainee teachers, eight per cent of teachers, do not make the grade when it comes to the basics of literacy and numeracy, which, when you think the job of teachers is to help kids acquire the same skills, this is something of a worry. If they can’t read and write properly, can’t do their times tables, the chances that the students might have aren’t all that great. Now this is a survey, it’s a trial test of 5000 trainee teachers. From next year, this will be the real thing and it will need to be passed from any perspective teacher if they want to get out into the teaching profession. The Federal Education and Training Minister, Simon Birmingham, and he’s my guest. Welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon John and good afternoon to your listeners.

John Compere: Nice to talk with you. How surprised were you by this result?

Simon Birmingham: I wish I could say that I was surprised, but of course, the whole reason for the reform we’re undertaking here in terms of providing this mandatory test for those who are training to become teachers, is because there’ve been concerns about whether appropriate standards of literacy and numeracy were being met. State and Federal ministers agreed, back in 2011, that those who are training to be teachers should be within the top 30 per cent of all Australians for their literacy and numeracy skills. Since then, there has been mounting concerns that perhaps this is not being met and what we’re seeing from this test is that while in the vast majority of instances it is occurring – 92 per cent for literacy and 90 per cent for numeracy – there are of course a number where it is not occurring, and thankfully from the middle of next year, we will have in place a test to guarantee that that is no longer the case.

John Compere: Which is probably a very good thing. It’s certainly a very good thing. But, it begs the question, how is it that so many people can become trainee teachers without having the basics of numeracy and literacy, and if not the basics, then the aptitude to acquire them? 

Simon Birmingham: Look, this is a real problem for our universities and the way they’ve been teaching those who are training to become teachers. And it’s important now that universities take very clear responsibility for the fact that they need to be confident in taking students into their teacher training programs, that those students are capable of reaching that top 30 per cent level. And whether they have that capability at the outset, or whether they learn it during the cause of the program is a matter for the for the university’s judgement, but the university needs to be confident that when they take on a student, they are going to be at that top 30 per cent level for literacy and numeracy, because otherwise they will not be able to graduate that student.

John Compere: What level of confidence do you have, Simon Birmingham, that universities are exercising that kind of discretion or asking people to clear that hurdle before they are admitted into the teacher training courses? Do you believe it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, nine out of ten is of course a good indication that the vast majority of people that universities are taking on board either already have those capabilities and competency, or have acquired them during the course of their studies. But clearly the universities need to focus in on the eight per cent in literacy and ten per cent in numeracy and make sure those students capabilities are lifted and if indeed they are taking students who are not able to reach that standard, then they need to have a long hard look at their admission practices. 

John Compere: Okay, now, the admission practices are one thing. What about then universities allowing students to graduate without having these basic skills? Because clearly, this has been happening, so why would they do that? What does that tell you about the standard that’s being applied by universities and some of the people it’s happy to have as graduates?

Simon Birmingham: If indeed these students are set to graduate- and, it’s important to put the caveat in this discussion that the 5000 students who participated in the trial this year volunteered to do so. They could well be at different levels of completion of their university studies. So those who have failed may still have a year or two or three to go in relation to their studies before they’re actually reaching the point of graduation. But, I do think that universities need to reflect upon the fact that if they have been graduating students who are not meeting these thresholds, then that’s a problem for those students, it’s a potential problem for the education system if those students have managed to secure permanent places as teachers. But, of course, it’s highly likely that without those adequate skills, the students themselves have been let down by the university because they actually may not have secured permanent teacher positions and may have been exposed during their placements beyond their university experience. 

John Compere: You’ve got to say there’s a fair chance of that as well. It’s four to five. My guest is Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education and Training Minister, talking about the literacy and numeracy standards among trainee teachers. Are there any insights, Simon Birmingham, into the demographics here? The people who flunked the test? Was there any insight into what kind of backgrounds they come from? Male or female, city or country, well off backgrounds, disadvantaged backgrounds? Any insights?

Simon Birmingham: John, look not so much from this initial pilot. Because of its voluntary nature in terms of the application, we haven’t sought to slice and dice the data to that level. From next year, when it becomes a mandatory requirement for graduation, we expect to be able to have much more robust data in terms of assessing geography or other demographic factors that are at play. And it is important to know that this is all about providing confidence that in future, parents, principals, everybody involved in school education, can know that those who are graduating from our universities meet this minimum threshold and are well placed to go on and be able to assist with the many different reforms we’ve applied at a federal level, where we recognise that quality in our schools is not just about the money that’s spent, but about how you apply that money. And that’s why we’re focused on teacher quality, why we’ve ensured that the new national curriculum has been finalised to be rolled out from next year with a renewed focus on some of the basics around literacy and numeracy, and the use of phonics in the teaching of literacy, to make sure that students really are getting the skills they need from their school experience.

John Compere: On the standards, here’s a text from one of our listeners. His name is Ian, and he says “regarding teachers, it’s now possible to be accepted into a teaching course without year 12 maths and English. It’s called the Instep Program. It’s a new thing and old teachers hate it.” That’s from Ian. Is that a good thing?

Simon Birmingham: The message to Ian, I think here, is, as I say universities can consider their admission practices and there may well be instances where you want to consider in your admission practices the capacity of somebody that goes beyond their raw ATAR score or the like, their raw year 12 scores. But importantly, they will not in future be able to think that they can admit people who don’t have basic literacy skills, who don’t have basic maths skills and then think they can go on to graduate those individuals, because those individuals need to be in the top 30 per cent. 

Now, there are many people who come into university to study teaching qualifications who are not school leavers directly. They’ve gone on, they’ve had other careers, they have other qualifications sometimes, and of course some of them are our most valuable teachers because they actually bring a diversity of life experience to the classroom.

John Compere: Yeah, real life experience.

Simon Birmingham: So, we need to be cautious in not getting two prescriptive about what the actual entry criteria are, but we are now being very prescriptive about what we expect the outcome and standards of teacher training to be, and to make sure that the universities, when they’re making that decision to take a student on board, are very conscious that the student must be capable of reaching that top 30 per cent threshold.

John Compere:
Good to talk with you today, thank you so much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: An absolute pleasure, John.