Ben Fordham: Now, NAPLAN. This year’s NAPLAN test results, well, are they a wake up call or what? The scores reveal that billions of dollars in extra funding to our schools have failed to deliver improvements in learning. Literacy and numeracy skills have flat-lined over the last three years, writing skills have gone backwards, spelling, grammar, punctuation all going downhill and this is despite a boost in funding of nearly 25 per cent. The Education Minister Simon Birmingham says the results prove that more money is not the solution. So, what is? Some experts say that maths and English have been watered down in the school curriculum and that’s part of the problem. The Australian Catholic University researcher Kevin Donnelly says the school syllabus has been taken over by political correctness. He says subjects about Aboriginal history and culture, Asia, sustainability, all these types of things, are being priorities ahead of core skills. But there are others who are blaming technology, claiming the poor NAPLAN results could be linked to the increasing use of digital devices. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority says declines in writing skills have been most significant at the high school level. It says digital technology could be taking away the motivation to write properly. Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education, joins me on the line and then I’m going to speak to a dad who’s got some firsthand experience about devices in the classroom and what they’ve done to his children. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education, good afternoon to you.

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

Ben Fordham: Bad result.

Simon Birmingham: Well, they are concerning that we’ve put, as a federal government, 23 per cent extra into school funding over the last few years and yet we’re not seeing the type of improvement in terms of results that we would expect. A plateauing of results is not good enough which is largely what we’ve seen on average across the nation. There are marginal differences up and down around the place and very small backward steps in terms of reading and writing in New South Wales, a notional improvement in terms of numeracy in New South Wales but all of that is really saying we’re not making the type of progress you would hope given the scale of additional investment that’s being provided.

Ben Fordham: Alright, so numeracy scores have improved slightly across the board so students are doing better at maths than they are at English because then when you have a look at writing skills, for example, for Year 7 and 9 since 2011, well there’s a consistent decrease there in writing skills. Is technology part of this?

Simon Birmingham: Technology may be part of it Ben and that is something we need to be very conscious of and that parents as well as teachers and schools need to be very conscious of. We have to understand when we talk about writing being tested, it’s not the handwriting capacity of a student that’s being tested, it’s actually the composition of writing, creative writing if you like, sentence structures, those types of things. So, of course writing can be done either by paper and pen, on a tablet, on a computer, it doesn’t really matter the medium that is used for writing.

It’s about ensuring that people are writing in a quality manner that equips them to succeed later in life when they have to write in their job or at their university studies or in their TAFE studies or whatever it is that they’re going on to post-school.

Ben Fordham: I know you’re always interested in firsthand feedback. I’ve got a bloke who’s just messaged me as I promoted the fact that I was going to be talking to you. This is a guy who I’ve known for 15 years or so, he’s a very passionate dad and a professional bloke who works in the TV industry. He just sent me a message, as I said that you were coming up, and I’ve got him on the other line and do you mind having a listen to him for just a moment because I’ll tell you what he said to me, he says I’m currently battling our school since they introduced the Bring Your Own Device program, both of our children have gone downhill and the school can’t control the internet. Technology in schools is killing education. Tim is on line, Tim just tell the Minister directly your experience of what’s gone on with your children and how technology’s played a part.

Caller Tim: G’day Fordo, g’day Minister, thanks for taking the call.

Ben Fordham: No worries.

Simon Birmingham: Hey Tim.

Caller Tim: We- our school- and I’m happy to name the school, it’s Penrith Anglican College because I think they need a big wake up call, they introduced the Bring Your Own Devices at the start of the year which I was kind of for, but what we’ve noticed is that the- both of our children have introduced the private computer life into the school classroom and so when they bring their private, Bring Your Own Devices laptop into the classroom, everything in their lives, in their social media lives, in their photographs, whatever it is, in on their laptop, it’s on their screen and it’s distracting them in their classroom and I’m not surprised that nationally- that the NAPLAN results are done because we’ve experienced that in our family and the school that my kids go to are out of control.

They- the kids are watching YouTube, they’re looking at football results, they are using Messenger, they are using Instagram during class. It’s out of control.

Ben Fordham: And this is coming from someone- I should just tell you Minister, the bloke who’s talking here Tim is a TV nut, he’s a technology freak, right Timmy, you’re the last bloke to say oh no, I don’t want technology to progress but you raise a very relevant point with all of these distractions in the classroom, that tool that’s meant for teaching well, it’s also got social life on there, photographs, football, weekend stuff, everything else on there as well.

Caller Tim: Fordo, there is a big difference between a personal computer and a school computer and I’m all for school computers but the Bring Your Own Devices program that many schools are implementing and I also must say that many schools are getting rid of, because they’ve realised that it’s a major distraction and it’s a bad learning policy [indistinct] …

Ben Fordham: Alright, good man for sharing that with us. Let me go back to the Minister. Minister, what do you make of that, there’s some firsthand advice?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah well, I think Tim provides some really valuable feedback there and it’s critical that schools have very strong policies about what can be accessed in the school environment and if policies or- such as Bring Your Own Device are undermining that, then schools need to revisit how those policies work because emphatically, we expect that kids when they’re at schools ought to be learning, learning the different areas of the curriculum, it’s not all just, of course, literacy and numeracy but…

Ben Fordham: [Indistinct] But I mean it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I hadn’t thought about it, I don’t have children who are that age going to school but it makes perfect sense. I mean, I know what I was like at school, if I had a device there and I could have a look at my Instagram and I could have a look at YouTube and I could be showing people whatever latest thing that had been sent to me and email and everything else, photographs, that’s way too much distraction to have in the classroom.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah look, absolutely and I can see how it plays through. My kids are only three and five but my five-year-old likes nothing better than picking up my phone if I’ve left it sitting on the table and finding photos or videos of her ballet concert or things like that and I can only imagine sort of extrapolating that into a school environment, if she had access to that that she’d be wanting to show all of her friends and it becomes an extra challenge for the teacher as well. You really do have to back teachers in this space too to make sure they’ve got the authority to control what’s happening in the classroom, what’s being accessed in the classroom so that they can keep attention focused on teaching the curriculum we expect kids to be learning.

Ben Fordham: We’re talking to Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister, some more free feedback here for you Minister. Helen, you go right ahead.

Caller Helen: Yeah, my son used to go to Rosebank College in Five Dock and he used to be a fantastic public speaker and an amazing writer, like he really did really good English. His vocabulary was spot on, his punctuation was amazing and the minute he stepped into Rosebank, because everything there’s with technology, all of their books and everything are on their laptops that you have to pay the $900-odd whatever a year, it just went downhill and I used to get regular calls from the English teacher complaining constantly that my son is texting someone using whatever live messenger, he’s watching some live Manchester United games because he’s a soccer fanatic and all the rest of it and I always used to tell the teacher, why can’t you go back to textbooks?

Ben Fordham: I’d be doing exactly the same thing Helen, if I had that at my fingertips when I was in class, I would have been looking at exactly the same stuff. Simon Birmingham, back to you. If we are to have a look here at the intrusion of technology into the classroom, this would be a major U-turn we’d have to undertake here because it really has infiltrated daily life in many classrooms around the country.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it really is a case we have to find a way to get the balance right, that we absolutely need to have a focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy and high performance there and that’s’ what the NAPLAN results are showing us, that we’re not getting the type of improvements in performance that we should. Technology is not something we should be banishing completely from schools because we need to be preparing kids for a world where 70 per cent of the fastest growing jobs require high levels of science, technology, mathematics skills, requiring interaction with technology [indistinct] …

Ben Fordham: [Interrupts] But do you need to be undertaking some kind of investigation about personal devices in classrooms and whether children are accessing all of this stuff which is becoming too much of a distraction? It’s sounding to me like that is a problem, is that something you need to investigate?

Simon Birmingham: It is sounding like that’s a problem and we have seen particularly deterioration in some of the Year 9 secondary school levels of NAPLAN that is stronger in some of those areas of writing skills than for some of the lower levels and of course at that older age you’d expect that if there are intrusions from these devices and this technology that would be stronger. So, I- it is something that I will absolutely be taking up with the state and territory ministers. We are all conscious of it. We, at our last meeting of Australian education ministers, had a discussion about putting elements of the NAPLAN testing onto an online regime and that was fine but we also all had reservations and we’ll look into- perhaps limit that application so that we don’t end up disadvantaging some children or putting too much emphasis on developing computer skills at the expense of developing handwriting skills.

Ben Fordham: Yeah well, I’ve got some sympathy for teachers and this has given me a new understanding of it. I mean, if they’re competing with Instagram and Facebook and film clips and Manchester United and everything else, I can understand why they’re battling to get control in the classroom and to get everyone to pay attention to what they’re trying to teach them. So, based on the funding situation here, the funding boost of nearly 25 per cent, has shown not a lot of action as far as results so does that mean we’re going to keep on throwing more money at it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we went to the election with clear funding policies and that involves continued growth in federal school funding which will go from about $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020 so…

Ben Fordham: [Interrupts] But it hasn’t worked Minister.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right, so nobody can say we’re not keeping up with the costs of schooling and the cost of education but importantly, what we outlined at the time of releasing that policy were a range of other reforms that we want to see the states and territories implement. So, starting in the earliest years, assessment of Year 1 students for their phonetic awareness, the teaching of phonics in schools is a critical component of learning to read effectively so that we can have earlier intervention guaranteed for every student who might be falling behind in that absolute foundation.

But equally the application of minimum literacy and numeracy standards in schools and I was pleased to see the New South Wales Government talking about applying minimum standards the other day and they did exactly the type of thing that we had flagged pre-election and it is an encouraging step in the right direction. How it is that we reward our most capable teachers so we keep them in the teaching profession, encourage them to take on leadership roles and can then provide incentives to get them in to some of the most disadvantaged schools where they can make a real difference, a range of difference types of measures that we have proposed which we’ll now work through with the states and territories and try to get them to…

Ben Fordham: Alright.

Simon Birmingham: …implement that are focused on making sure money is spent as effectively as possible…

Ben Fordham: Alright…

Simon Birmingham:
…rather than just worrying about how much there is.

Ben Fordham: Alright, if you learn anything over coming months about technology in classrooms and what impact that’s having I’d love to hear more from you on that one. Great to talk to you.

Simon Birmingham: You bet, thanks so much Ben, really good [indistinct]…

Ben Fordham: Simon Birmingham the Education Minister federally and that makes complete sense to me. I mean, think about it, I know what I was like. If I was sitting there in a classroom when I was a kid and I had access to a computer and I could look at anything on there- well if I think back to when I was in my primary school years, I’d be embarrassed about what I would have been looking at. It would have been Kylie Minogue and her big hit Locomotion back in the ‘80s. But you imagine, sport, social media, film clips, you can be watching all of that stuff in the classroom and as Tim told us, well, his boy wants to watch that stuff and you’ve been away for the weekend so what do you do, oh, I went on the motorbike over the weekend, I know that Tim’s young bloke is into that, his dirt bike, so what does he do, gets in the classroom, brings up the photos, all the videos and shows his mate what he’s been doing at the weekend. Well, that’s fine for the weekend but during the week they’ve got to be focusing on schoolwork. I’d love to hear from anyone, parents, students or teachers about the impact of technology in the classroom. We’re not saying it doesn’t have a place but all of the social aspects that go with it, maybe don’t belong in the classroom.