Interview on 2GB Breakfast with Chris Smith
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms
30 November 2016

Chris Smith: Which brings us to a national issue that we need to not only tackle, but we need to debate fiercely. Another study has been released overnight showing the performance of Australian school students is stagnating. Students in other countries have surged ahead, Australia is now behind Kazakhstan in year 8 maths and year 8 science. The latest results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study – which is titled TIMSS – shows Australian students are still in the middle of the pack after 20 years of testing, but they’ve slipped backwards in rankings as students in other countries improve. The study looks at how well year 4 and year 8 students have mastered maths and science lessons, asking questions like: how many legs an insect has, and what the angles in a triangle add up to.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham will use the results, along with next week’s Programme for International Student Assessment, as a key part of his mid-December discussion with state counterparts about a new school funding agreement. Simon Birmingham is on the line. Minister good morning. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Chris. 

Chris Smith: This is a shocking indictment on the way we have run education in this country for two decades, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: These are terrible results. As many education researchers overnight have acknowledged, it must be a wakeup call. That we need to change the topic of discussion in Australian education, from not just one of how much money is spent – as the Labor Party and The Greens and others want us to endlessly discuss – to actually one of how it is spent most effectively; how we can ensure that Australian school children are learning the basics of literacy and numeracy, are developing their maths and science skills, and that we stop this trend, which sees us falling further and further behind other nations. 

Chris Smith: Well if I put this out on the open line now and I said to people, what should we do? What is the fundamental thing we should do? You know what they wouldn’t say? Spend more money on education, because we’ve spent more money on education and it hasn’t worked. What we need is more maths and science and less topics like climate change and gender and Safe School learning. This is the problem, people think; hang on a minute, if you want us to succeed in these areas, you’ve got to concentrate our attention and the student’s attention in these areas. 

Simon Birmingham: We’ve absolutely got to make sure there is enough classroom time to get the basics right. And we’ve got to ensure then that there is accountability and ambition built into that. So, the Turnbull Government went to the election proposing that we should have earlier assessments to make sure we pick up on problems in reception in year 1 students at the very earliest years, so that they can be intervened and assisted. There should be better consistent reporting on literacy and numeracy standards right through schooling to parents that gives them a consistent benchmark of performance. That we should expect – as I’m pleased New South Wales is moving towards – minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers, which puts pressure right down the chain then of the school system, to make sure that those standards are met in those final years. 

Chris Smith: Okay, so just in terms of improving education standards and testing children; there’s an old saying, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. 
Simon Birmingham: And of course, Chris. Testing is not the answer, but making sure we can get that early intervention is essential. Ensuring that parents actually know for their child, where they are in relation to their individual performance is essential and making sure we have minimum standards; that somebody going out with a high school certificate, and waving that around; that employers, universities, TAFEs, know that actually means something, know that it equates to a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy attainment. 

Chris Smith: Yeah, of their space, so what kind of response do you think you’ll get when you sit down with state and territory counterparts in December and you start saying, something has to change. Like I noticed that Geoff Masters, the Australian Council for Educational Research Chief Executive, is saying: we cannot afford another 20 years of stagnation. The answer is not to do more of the same. I hope you don’t have your state counterparts tell you as the Federal Minister – ‘oh we’re doing very well at this stage. We should keep things as they are’. 

Simon Birmingham: Well indeed. I hope the states and territories recognise that these results should be a wakeup call. That we cannot keep doing more of the same and that continued conversations about spending more money, or throwing more money at a problem are not necessarily the answer. When of course we’ve seen funding double in real terms since 1988, go up by 50 per cent since 2003 and federal funding from the Turnbull Government will grow, to Australian schools, from around $16 billion this year, to more than $20 billion by 2020. So we’ve got record levels of money on the table already, the conversation now has to be about how we use it as effectively and efficiently as possible, how we ensure that teachers are skilled enough to deliver …

Chris Smith: [Talks over] Well see these are the hard questions we’ve got to ask. We’ve got ask the questions: are our teachers good enough?

Simon Birmingham: And we’ve put efforts in place to make sure that teachers who graduate today have minimum literacy and numeracy standards. We’re trying to drive to get more specialist teachers so that – not just in secondary schools, but into our primary schools as well – people who know maths and science at a level of depth rather than simply having undertaken a high-level teaching degree but having no particular depth in any one discipline area…

Chris Smith: [Talks over] And I wonder whether we need to copy what some Scandinavian countries do where they have these inspectors that go into the classroom, record a teacher doing his or her thing- teaching kids and then they all sit down at another stage and they go through the tape and they say now listen: I would suggest this is not the way to go about this; you taught that very well; that’s great; that’s not so great, let’s get it better next time.

Simon Birmingham: So there’s two parts to that to think about. One we took to the election as part of our policy which is: we need to have a look at how we ensure graduate teachers are actually proficient when they get into the classroom, that they are up to scratch. You don’t just assume somebody who’s finished university is then good when they get in the classroom and I think that is one process. But then there is absolutely the re-registration process, how you ensure that teachers who have been in the job for 20 years are actually keeping up with technological change and other pressures that they face. And then that we better reward those who are the most capable teachers, not just those who have served the longest. And this is something we’ve really got to push into industrial arrangements so that teachers who are peer recognised are assessed through credible standards and processes as being highly capable or lead teachers in their school, get more reward and are encouraged to stay in the profession, encouraged to work in our most disadvantaged schools; not just a system that rewards time served. 

Chris Smith: Maybe we should also be asking serious and hard tough questions about school hours. Like if you go past – I went past a primary school in the inner west of Sydney about a week or so ago, and it was about 4:55pm; I reckon there were 50 students in the playground – obviously in after day care – because parents now have to have two and three jobs to get through life to live in a big city like Sydney. But there were 50 kids still playing in the playground and I thought to myself, why wouldn’t we just keep them at school till at least four, to do more work, and to make them better?

Simon Birmingham: Look I think they are some of the innovative discussions that we have to start to have. I’ve certainly challenged principals especially, in talking about areas of high disadvantage that we have to think outside of the square if we’re putting ever more funding based on need into areas of disadvantage …

Chris Smith: [Talks over] Yeah, we don’t fund methodology that’s not working. 

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. And just considering what happens in the school day between 9:00am and 3:15pm or 3:30pm, may not actually be the optimal outcome in terms of getting better results for those children in those areas of high disadvantage. And thinking about more innovative ways to engage them outside of hours and better ways to engage parents; because parental engagement is absolutely critical to education outcomes. 

Chris Smith: [Talks over] I wonder whether that’s where we’re broken down in the system as well, where parents have flicked past their own responsibility to teaching their own kids. 

Simon Birmingham: Well most of our teachers are incredibly hard working individuals. That’s not to say we can’t do better in our schools, but we absolutely have to recognise that the biggest single factor in terms of a child’s educational attainment, is the home environment, is the support they get from parents. I have two children who are four and five and I know how challenging it can be, but I also know how much effort my wife puts in and I do when I’m about, to reading to them, to help [indistinct] …

Chris Smith: [Talks over] Yes exactly. I’ve got to move on, I’m right on news, but Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time. 

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Chris, pleasure.