Michael Rowland: Okay let’s go to the other hot button issue of the forthcoming Federal Election campaign, that is education funding. The Government announced yesterday that it will increase funding in tomorrow’s budget but the pledge falls well short of Labor’s commitment under the Gonski plan. Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Parliament House. Minister good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael great to be with you.

Michael Rowland: Yes, great to have you on board; $1.2 billion by 2020, that’s about a quarter of what Labor’s promising. Are you sure that is enough to improve education quality and teacher standards?

Simon Birmingham:  Well I believe we can get really good improvements from this funding increase as long as it’s spent effectively and well. What we’re proposing as a Government, as a Turnbull Government, is to take Federal school funding from some $16.2 billion this year in 2016, and increase it up to $20.1 billion in 2020. That is strong growth, well above inflation growth, but is also affordable growth. And most importantly we want to make sure that it is targeted and spent on real reforms, reforms that actually will improve outcomes for students, and that’s why we’re having a look at measures such as identification of children, young children, in their first year of school, who are struggling in terms of their literacy capabilities, and making sure they are identified and the assistance is there. Raising the ambition for maths and sciences later in life, and ultimately ensuring that our teachers are given support so that the most highly capable teachers stay in the classrooms and are rewarded to stay in the school system.

Michael Rowland: We’ll get to teachers shortly. How important is it that those kids in their first year of school are tested for both literacy and numeracy? Is the absence of that at the moment a big gap in our education performance?

Simon Birmingham: Well it is in some ways. Now many schools do this well, but far too many don’t do it effectively enough. There are research estimates that around one million Australian children struggle with their reading, and there are equally research estimates that say that for the bulk of those children struggling with their reading the problem lies in how they were taught. They weren’t given enough teaching and understanding in terms of phonics and phonetic awareness in the earliest years of their education.

I’m pleased to see editorial in The Financial Review today that supports this type of assessment at the earliest years. It’s not a test in a NAPLAN-type sense, it is about an early screening process that occurs in a gentle assessment process with a year 1 student who’s been at school then for their foundation year and perhaps the first part of year 1 to identify whether they are able to read basic words, pick up basic sounds out of letter constructions, and from that of course if they’re not, give them the early intervention and support. Because if they don't get reading right in the early years they will in all probability fail at many other aspects of their schooling life.

Michael Rowland: The government as you say wants to improve teacher performance. I’m just interested to know Minister how you go about measuring that?

Simon Birmingham: There are structures in place already, put in place by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership. And that institute has put in place a framework to recognise how you identify lead teachers within a school environment, high performing teachers within that school environment. And so the reforms we’re wanting to have a look at there are not, as some have reported, about rewarding performance based on what happens in a particular classroom. It’s not about paying teachers on the basis of NAPLAN or the like. It is about paying those teachers who have demonstrated themselves to be the most capable teachers, to be able to lead in their school environment and mentor other teachers in that school environment. Rewarding them to stay in the school system so that we actually have pay that recognises the most capable teachers, because we have great teachers out there, and we want to keep them in our classrooms and we want to give them the incentive to pass on that knowledge to others.

We’re also proposing in terms of graduate teachers that they have a period of time within which to become proficient as teachers, to demonstrate that they have within the classroom developed proficiency. Just as many other professions have a period of time to get recognised as an outstanding member of that profession, we are looking to have the same type of process, so you come out of university, have a period of acquiring that proficiency, and are then recognised as a proficient teacher before moving up the other progression scales.

Michael Rowland: We all know, and in fact you pointed out yesterday that Australia's literacy and numeracy skills compared to global standards aren't that great. Is it the case that there are too many teachers out there not good at their jobs?

Simon Birmingham: Well it is a problem that we have over the last 20 years doubled the real funding for our schools, and yet our performance in literacy, in reading, in numeracy, in maths, in sciences and in foreign languages has all gone backwards. So something is terribly wrong in the way we've been running the system…

Michael Rowland: Is it the teachers?

Simon Birmingham: …to spend ever more money and to be getting poorer results.

Michael Rowland: [Talks over] Is it the teachers? I mean is that the nub of the issue? Are you concerned about the quality of the teaching workforce?

Simon Birmingham: Well we want to certainly lift the quality of teachers. As I said before there are some great and outstanding teachers out there, and the last thing I want to do is demean the teaching profession.

I think that we have absolutely brilliant teachers in many cases. But we do need to make sure the standard of all our teachers is exceptional, that those lead teachers are mentoring new teachers coming through and that within our universities we are testing, as we propose to do, teachers, trainee teachers coming through universities to make sure they themselves have high personal standards of literacy and numeracy. We want the best and brightest to be teaching our children and we must be confident that that is the university graduate we get that they anyway are amongst the best and brightest when it comes to going into the classroom and teaching our teachers, and that will be another important part of the reform agenda we expect to see implemented.

Michael Rowland: Quality of schools, quality of teachers, education generally is a subject very dear to the heart of our viewers. Do you expect that Minister to be a key issue in the election campaign?

Simon Birmingham: Well I have no doubt that it will be, and Michael what I hope that people will engage in is a proper debated about what goes on in our schools an what we can do to really lift the performance of our schools. As I said at the outset, our funding will grow year on year. Now it’s not growing by the same outlandish promises that the Labor Party has, but we think our funding growth is affordable, and it doesn't require $100 billion of new taxes. Importantly we will make sure funding is also distributed in accordance with need. People talk about needs-based funding a lot nowadays. Now that’s not just about how much you spend, it is most importantly about how you distribute the spending. So we have more funding for students with a disability, specifically in this year's Budget and next year's Budget, before we then see this further growth occur from 2018 of the extra $1.2 billion. We will make sure that low SES schools continue to receive loadings, that Indigenous students, and students in rural or regional areas get extra support. It is about delivering needs-based funding, but needs-based funding that is affordable, and is geared towards getting changes in the classroom and real results that improve the outcomes for our students.

Michael Rowland: And finally Minister, you provide me with a perfect segue to our sports report coming up next as a South Australian. How good was Adelaide United?

Simon Birmingham: Well they had a great win last night. I was pretty pleased yesterday morning in Sydney with the Prime Minister to run into a bunch of young soccer fans who were all wearing red tops. I couldn't convince any of them to support Adelaide last night, but I’m delighted for the Adelaide Reds fans back home, and big celebrations I hear were had in Adelaide last night.

Michael Rowland: They need to get behind the strength. Simon Birmingham thank you very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure.