Interview on 2GB Sydney Live with Mark Levy
Topics: Programme for International Student Assessment scores
3:40 PM

Mark Levy: But the head of an international student test is sounding out a warning to Australia over our consistently poor academic results. The coordinator of the Program for International Student Assessment says Australia needs to address the issue or risk undermining the economy. Every three years, 15-year-olds in 72 countries sit the PISA test, which looks at their maths, reading and science skills. The results from the latest exam in 2015 show our average teens are about on par with Singapore’s most disadvantaged. In fact, students from Singapore are more than two years ahead of Aussie students in maths, 18 months ahead in science and 12 months ahead in reading.

Those figures are being seized on by the head of the test, Andreas Schleicher, who says without the right skills, Australia will face an uphill struggle to remain ahead. Mr Schleicher is in Australia this week to give talks about how we can improve our education system. He’s pushing investment in early education, saying quality care in the younger years can improve outcomes. So should we be looking overseas to redesign our education system?

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. He joins me on the line. Good afternoon Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Mark, and good afternoon to your listeners.

Mark Levy: No doubt you would have read this story in today’s press and, like me, been a little bit concerned by what you’ve read.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I have, and I’ll be meeting and talking with Andreas while he’s in the country over the coming few days. It really does reinforce the fact that, as we’ve been trying to drive as a government over the last couple of years, that the education space in Australia has been too focussed on how much money is spent and not enough focussed on how well it is spent, how well it is invested to actually get the best results for our students. And what we have sought to do is fix the funding problems that Australia has had, and there’s a record and growing sum of money that’s available, but really to make sure that we also invest more effort in teacher quality, so we’re overhauling the way in which teachers are trained at universities to get more subject specialists in from primary school years, to have minimum standards for people who are graduating from university going into the teaching profession.

We’ve of course also initiated now a really significant sort of overhaul looking at the way in which our education dollars are used, which is being led by David Gonski again, but this time not looking at how much is spent or who it goes to, but instead looking seriously at how we get best bang for our buck, because Andreas Schleicher has compared us to a country like Singapore. Well, Singapore spends less per student than we do. They have bigger class sizes than we do. They pay their teachers less than we do. Now I’m not suggesting that we should do any of those sorts of things but it certainly shows that money is not the answer. Getting better use from that money is the answer.

Mark Levy: Well, the thing that really jumps out of the page at me is when you read things like our average teens are on par with Singapore’s most disadvantaged. I mean this is Australia 2017, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right and it’s not good enough. We have to acknowledge that changes are required. Now, it’s not all about the education system either. We have good hardworking teachers and school leaders in many, many cases. Andreas Schleicher rightly points out in his article today that there are cultural issues as well; that we need to value education, and that goes right back to home environment in which we really need to motivate families and parents to spend as much time as possible reading with their children in the early years, developing vocabulary and early skills to ensure they start school in a position where they’re able to succeed, as well as of course supporting kids and being engaged with schools and teachers right through their child’s education.

Mark Levy: Tell me something, Minister. When I went to school, I sat my school certificate in year 10, I then sat my high school certificate in year 12. It seems to me – and I don’t have kids – but there are a lot of tests that kids are currently sitting in our schools, whether it be primary school or high school or even when they get to university. Are we doing too much testing and not enough teaching?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that’s the case. Much noise is made by the teacher union and others about, for example, the NAPLAN tests. Now ultimately, they are a one-off check on literacy, numeracy, writing skills at several different junctures. But they are – like the PISA tests that gives us international comparison – a way for us to know how we’re performing and they give us the signals where we’re making some gains but also where we’re seeing some poorer performance.

Now, New South Wales is actually showing some positive gains in NAPLAN recently. Hopefully that will flow through in terms of further international testing in the future. But they are, just like any other in-classroom, in-school test or exercise that teachers in schools should use to assess the performance of their students, but they’re not the be all and end all. They’re not like an HSC or an exam that determines your entry into university or the rest of your career. They’re just about giving point in time assessments that can hopefully value-add to teaching.

Mark Levy: A couple of quick things before I let you go. You mention the $23.5 billion being spent on disadvantaged students based on the advice of David Gonski. This is the same man who’s happy for the word marriage to be banned from a maths course at the University of New South Wales. In our overhaul of education, do we need to start looking at some of our universities first?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we are looking at the universities. Now, I’m not sure that David Gonski as chancellor has too much direct say in terms of what happens in each lecture theatre at the University of New South Wales.

Mark Levy: He’s put out a letter to all of the students and all of the community as far as the University of New South Wales is concerned about this issue, given some of the outrage that I spoke about on the program yesterday. So he’s aware of it.

Simon Birmingham: Okay, well that’s a letter that I can’t say I’ve seen, but I’ll look into that one. Look, we, as I said, are overhauling the way in which our teachers are actually trained at university in the first place. So every university teacher training program in the country is undergoing reaccreditation. If they’re training primary school teachers, they’re now going to have to introduce subject specialisation which means we’ll have more primary school teachers with specialisations in English or maths or key subjects to take into their classrooms in the future. They’re all having to apply minimum literacy and numeracy standards to their graduates and teaching programs.

So we really have put the hard word on universities to ensure a higher quality of teaching graduates in the future, as well as trying to work very hard with the existing teacher profession to create new standards for highly accomplished and lead teachers, the best in the profession, who we want to actually see recognised, retained in teaching and mentoring more teachers to ensure they have better impact in the classroom.

Mark Levy: Well, Minister, for my listeners a little later in the program, I’ll have a bit to say about our universities. I touched on the word marriage being offensive apparently in a maths course at University of New South Wales and we’ve got Dr Tim Anderson at Sydney University, who’s fully supporting North Korea and its dictator, its lunatic, in Kim Jong-Un. So I think there’s a few universities that we might need to look at as far as who is teaching these courses and educating the people at them. I appreciate your time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Mark, and I’ve certainly had a bit to say about Tim Anderson. I think he’s an embarrassment to his institution and the entire academic profession.

Mark Levy: Yeah, well said. Good on you Simon. Great to hear from you.

Simon Birmingham there, the Federal Education Minister joining us here on Sydney Live.