Interview on 2GB Drive with Ben Fordham
Programme for International Student Assessment; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms; Technology in schools; Political advocacy in classrooms
07 December 2016

Ben Fordham: Hundreds of primary and high school teachers are set to wear pro-refugee T-shirts in classrooms next week. Up to 500 teachers at 30 schools in Victoria will don T-shirts emblazoned with: close the camps, bring them here. And this is another example of teachers in schools being confused about their role, and we’ve been talking about this at length during 2016, like the Safe Schools program where you’ve got some in the education system more interested in discussing sexuality or gender fluidity than maths or science or English. No wonder we’re falling behind. 

We hear today the latest international report card has Australian students lagging behind the rest of the world. The OECD Global Report says that 15 year olds in Australia are going backwards in science, maths and reading. In fact, a 15 year old Australian now has the same level of mathematic ability as a 13 year old in Singapore. That’s how bad it’s got. When it comes to science, Australian students are almost a year behind those in Japan, a year and a half behind their peers in Singapore. But these shocking results aren’t just because other countries are improving their education. We’re going backwards. We’re getting worse. 

Australia’s results in maths, English and science have been declining for the past 16 years. The majority of school children are now performing at a lower level in these subjects than students were in the year 2000. Year nine pupils in Australia are now reading and doing maths at the same level our year eight pupils were doing in the year 2000, and we’ve seen similar slides in scientific abilities. 

And there’s been a lot of talk lately about the different reasons our academic results are plummeting, many pointing to funding, teaching, but I believe one of the factors that’s overlooked in the education debate is the explosion of phones, laptops, tablets and other devices in the classroom. And this issue has had a big reaction when we’ve discussed it on air. We’ve had teachers calling in telling us that they’re constantly competing with technology in the classroom. Barbara called in to tell me that every student she teaches brings in a smart phone or tablet or both to school. Sean said he’s tried to suspend students for using technology inappropriately in the classroom, but- John called in, who’s a teacher, he said look, I’m not allowed to confiscate phones. I’m not allowed to confiscate them when they’re using them inappropriately. 

So children are using these devices during class time. Is it any wonder that children are lagging behind when the teachers are competing with up to 50 devices at once in the classroom, while trying to get the attention of the students? On the line, Simon Birmingham, the federal Education Minister. 

Good afternoon to you, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Ben, good to speak with you.

Ben Fordham: You must be disappointed with these results. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m disappointed and I’m very concerned, but we firstly should acknowledge that Australia remains above the OECD average. So we are still a high performing nation, but we have unquestionably gone backwards. The trend line is very clear, dating right back to earlier PISA studies in 2003 that show over that 12 year trajectory, the one undertaken last year, we have gone backwards across maths, across science, across reading, and that an average 15 year old in Australia today is only performing at the same age as a 14 year old was back in 2003. So [indistinct] …

Ben Fordham: [Interrupts] It’s very easy to say we need to throw more funding at education, but we’ve already seen, haven’t we, that throwing more money at it isn’t the answer. It’s got to be something else; it’s got to start with the teaching.

Simon Birmingham: Well the same period of time, since 2003, federal funding into our schools has gone up by 50 per cent in real terms. If you go back to 1988, we’ve doubled in real terms the investment in school education around Australia. So we’ve pumped an awful lot of extra money in, yet over the same period of time our performance has gone backwards. So clearly we now need to really focus the debate, on how it is we can get more bang for our buck out of that money, how we can ensure it is spent and invested more effectively, that teachers are getting the training to do their best to supporting the classrooms to achieve their best, delivering an appropriate curriculum that really focusses in on achieving outcomes in these key basics of maths, science and reading that are so critical to our future. 

Ben Fordham: Minister, what are you doing to investigate the issue of devices in classrooms – phones, laptops, screens – because look, I can tell you every time- and the open line is often a good way of testing the water on things, and I’m going to take this call right now because John’s just called in. And I’m telling you, Minister, every time I mention this I get bombarded with phone calls from teachers and principals and everyone else. 

John, you’ve got the federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham listening in, go right ahead. You’ve been a teacher for how long?

Caller John: Thirty-five years.

Ben Fordham: Tell me.

Caller John: I’ve been teaching 35 years and I think the results of students have gone backwards inversely proportional to the amount of devices we have in the classroom. So the more technology they’re able to use, whether it’s related to mathematics or not, we’re tending to find that their results are going backwards. Also the do-gooders are telling us we should be giving less homework, and many people are reticent to give homework and actually check and chase it. So there’s been many of those situations and I think – as you said over the last week when you’ve been having these discussions – on the majority of cases people are talking about technologies and there’s no- we’ve lost control of technology in the classroom.

Ben Fordham: Let me go to the Minister, Simon Birmingham. Minister I’ve had teachers describing during the Olympic Games, during major soccer games in the European Championships or the English Premier League that you can look into the classroom and you know straight away, hang on a moment there are kids here who are not listening in because they’re watching a football game or the Olympics or Facebook or anything else.

Simon Birmingham: And so Ben, John picks up on two points. In both of which, first we start with making sure that parents, families and communities back teachers to be in control of their classroom. Back teachers to set appropriate standards, whether it is in the use of technology or in relation to setting homework.

Ben Fordham: [Talks over] But that- Minister, that doesn’t happen. I can tell you that doesn’t happen because I’ve got countless examples from teachers who have tried to confiscate phones for inappropriate use; they’re not allowed to.

Simon Birmingham: So I will unquestionably take this up next week when we meet with state and territory education[indistinct]. Because it’s been a recurring theme and indeed if you look at the international standard results that are out today, you can see that across advanced Western countries, everybody’s had a downward trajectory. Ours is steeper than others, which of course is unacceptable. But if you look at many of our comparable nations, nations like New Zealand or Canada or the UK, we can see similar declines in a number of key areas. And what are some of the potential consisting factors? Well there are family and demographic factors that have changed over time. There are perhaps factors in relation to the way teaching occurs and the approach of teaching. 

But obviously technology is a very common factor right across the world, particularly in those Western countries and we need to face up to it. If it is truly providing disruption in schools who find themselves unable to control it, well then we have to work out how to empower those schools to effectively control it. There are some that ban it outright. There are some that seem to have effective controls in place. I think I’ve said to you before that when I enter the cabinet room I have to leave my phone and any devices outside of the room so, conversations are very focused while we’re in there.

Ben Fordham: [Talks over] Well look I- I hope you can have a serious chat about that next week and I hope we can continue to talk about it early in the new year because I’m telling you- I mean, after doing this show for a little while you get a good sense of when things really hit a mark with people and I reckon a fortnight doesn’t go by now without me receiving some kind of correspondence or being stopped by someone in the street saying please keep talking about that because we don’t think it’s getting enough attention. 
Can I quickly ask you about these teachers in Victoria who will be wearing close the camps, bring them here t-shirts next week. Is this another example where teachers and certain lobbyists in the Education Department have got their eyes focused on other things instead of educating the children?

Simon Birmingham: This is completely unacceptable. Teachers like every Australian have their right to protest in their own time. The classroom is where they are the teacher and they should be focused on the curriculum, and on providing appropriate learning to their children in that classroom. Not undertaking political campaigns or delivering political messages. And it is a complete abuse of the system. And I would hope and expect that authorities in Victoria will come down hard on them.

Ben Fordham: Thank you for your time, we’ll talk next year.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Ben.

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister joining us on Sydney Live.