Zed Seselja: Welcome all, it’s great to have you all here at St Anthony’s in Wanniassa and can I thank Greg Walker, the principal, all the teachers and the staff and the wonderful students here at St. Anthony’s for hosting us. It’s great to have Minister Birmingham here visiting one of our wonderful schools here in the ACT; one of the schools where we see some really good student outcomes and, of course, we’re working towards always improving those outcomes. We’ve got a very good education system here in the ACT but as we’ve seen from the results today, there is room for improvement and Minister Birmingham will, no doubt, have a little more to say on that. So I’ll take the opportunity to welcome Simon, it’s great to have you here. It’s great to have you there with the wonderful kids and I’d like you to say a few words.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Zed and thanks everybody for coming along to St. Anthony’s and what we’ve seen today is the wonderful benefit of hard working, committed teachers, who are striving to find new and better ways to engage their children and ensure they are interested in maths and reading and the fundamentals that the NAPLAN data released today talked about and gives us evidence around. And unfortunately that NAPLAN data released for Australia today shows in the words of the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority a plateauing of results. A plateau in performance is not good enough at a time when we're putting record levels of funding into Australian schools, which has grown by some 23 per cent over the last three years.
The Turnbull Government has recognised that this has been an issue for a while, which is why, in the lead-up to the Budget and the election campaign we outlined real reform measures to ensure we lift the performance of reading, writing, numeracy skills around Australia. We recognise it's not just about the amount of money you spend, but how you best invest that money to get real results in the classroom for students in the future. Which is why we are committed to ensuring the school improvement plan that we outlined in the election campaign is delivered upon, that we get early assessment around the teaching of phonics and children's understanding of reading from a Year 1 level, so early intervention can occur. It's why we want to see better rewarding of our most capable and leading teachers, to keep them in the classroom and to incentivise them to be teaching in our most disadvantaged schools where they can make the greatest difference to student performance.
It’s why we want to see minimum standards of numeracy and literacy applied to school leavers to lift the ambition right across the scale of education. I'm disappointed that the Labor Party today continues to think that it's all about money, when the truth is that funding has grown over the last three years by 23 per cent and under the re-elected Turnbull Government, federal funding for schools will grow from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. What we must do is make sure that money is spent as effectively as possible on evidence-based measures that actually can improve performance, and I would hope that the Labor Party would recognise the importance of shifting the debate onto how we get improved performance in our schools, not just sticking with the debate about how much is spent. And certainly our focus will be on working with the states, territories and non-government school authorities to get the reforms we need to lift student performance in the future.
Question: Given we’re only talking about a relatively small period of time here, is it too soon to draw any conclusions from that data?
Simon Birmingham: We've got three years now of funding under the new school funding models that were put in place and what we've seen is 23 per cent growth in funding and a plateauing of performance in terms of actually what's happening in our schools. So I think we can see that the evidence is there, that funding itself does not deliver improved outcomes. What delivers improved outcomes are great teachers applying the best pedagogical practices, applying measures in schools that make a difference to children. So that's our focus, is supporting teachers to be their best and ensuring that we identify problems in kids at the earliest possible stage so they can get the help they need to be their best.
Question: Given the increased funding over the last few years, does that mean that it hasn't been directed to the right place, that we aren't seeing the results now?
Simon Birmingham: Well we are absolutely committed to ensuring that school funding in future is directed according to need, that those students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or with a disability or in smaller rural and regional settings receive additional support so that they can achieve and be their best, but what we do see out of this data is a real message to schools and policy-makers around Australia that we have to focus on the things that will make the greatest difference in the classroom, and that really means we need to go back to looking at the teaching of phonics, the way in which instruction occurs in classroom and the type of standards we expect from school leavers which can drive performance at every other stage through schooling.
Question: The measures that you’ve outlined in the schools policy ahead of the election and I guess particularly the foundation level literacy and numeracy testing, how soon do you think that we can start to see improvement in results from those being implemented?
Simon Birmingham: So Year 1 assessment for reading and numeracy skills that we want to see implemented is modelled on a UK application of policy, and I had discussions over the last couple of months with the British Minister for Schools to get an understanding of how they have applied that assessment in a way that is sympathetic to the fact that we're talking about five and six year old children. It’s not designed to be a challenging test for them, but rather a light touch assessment that ensures teachers, parents and schools know at the earliest possible stage if children aren't picking up the reading skills as quickly as they should and that they can intervene rapidly. Now I think we can borrow from the UK experience and ensure that it is hopefully rolled out within the next couple of years, and that's the type of timeline I will be talking to state ministers about.
Question: If these results are not [indistinct] of what’s going on in schools – shouldn’t we be doing more to find out what is exactly going on?
Simon Birmingham: It’s important to appreciate NAPLAN is not the sole determinant of school performance. There are a range of other benchmarks, some of them international, but of course a lot of them localised to different school factors. And for parents, they need to appreciate that NAPLAN is not the be-all and end-all, it’s an important indicator on which we can make policy decisions and be informed to make those policy decisions. It’s an important indicator for parents, teachers and schools, and we are working to improve the application of NAPLAN over the next couple of years with a shift of some parts of NAPLAN to an online format that will provide richer information to teachers in a more timely manner that can help them with the instruction of their children, but we shouldn't see it as being the sole determinate. There’s a range of other things that schools already use that are really critical to ensure that they can teach best to their children.
Question: Well in that case shouldn’t we be taking the results with a grain of salt?
Simon Birmingham: We need to keep everything in perspective. These are relevant results, relevant information that, particularly at the national level gives a rare national snapshot of performance, and what we see in this performance is it plateauing. After some years of improvement through the early years of NAPLAN post 2008, there has been this plateauing of results despite the record levels of funding growth going in, which is why we need to recommit to making sure that money is used as effectively as possible to improve the reading, writing and numeracy skills of our kids.
Question: So if you could get these measures started say in 2018, perhaps, as part of the new funding agreement with the states and territories, would you expect to start seeing improvements and results in 2020, once those Year 1 kids are up to Year 3?
Simon Birmingham: I would absolutely hope that we can see reforms implemented in tandem with new school funding arrangements from 2018, and yes, I would hope that those types of reforms will deliver benefits for children within the first couple of years. Certainly the experience in the UK is that they are seeing improved outcomes in Years 2 and 3 thanks to the increased focus of phonics teaching and interventions at that Year 1 level.
Question: The figures for numeracy actually aren’t all that bad, so is reading and writing the real weak point?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve certainly seen some improvement in numeracy, which is welcome, and of course the Government, alongside our basics approach around reading and writing has an ambitious STEM agenda which we hope these improvements in numeracy will better equip students for. There is a message here that reading and writing skills remain important, but particularly in secondary schools we need a real focus on the ability of children at that secondary school level to maintain writing skills, notwithstanding the greater use of technology in many of those circumstances. Basic writing skills, by whatever platform they are writing it down on, whether it's computer, a tablet or a pen and paper, still needs to meet a certain standard of literacy and capability.
Question: How long do you give it to see if there is improvement in the results before you decide something else needs to be done instead?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve outlined a comprehensive range of reforms that do start from the earliest years of teaching through to school leaver standards, through to reforms in relation to the pay of teachers and encouragement for our best teachers to stay in the system. I think we've got a comprehensive range of policies that will take a couple of years to be implemented, will take a couple of years then to have full effect, but are important that we get them implemented, rather than just keep doing more of the same. Thanks guys, cheers.