Interview on 2GB with Michael McLaren
Topics: NAPLAN and Civics/Citizenship test results;

Michael McLaren: Yeah, welcome back. Look, as we flagged earlier, there’s a bit of bad news around today for our education authorities. Two key reports have been released, and they say our students’ numeracy and literacy rates are stagnating, and in fact their knowledge of democratic process is actually going down. Well, the National Assessment Program’s literacy and numeracy report says the reading skills for our high school students have actually failed to progress in the past decade, and they’ve even gone backwards in several states. It says while the results of our primary school students have gone up, and Indigenous students indeed have gone up, the scores for students in year 7 and year 9 have flatlined.

Now, the federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is not too pleased. In fact, I think you could say he’s quite upset. He said while there have been pockets of improvement, we’re not seeing the sort of consistency we should expect in these results. That’s not the only bad news for our education bosses today, because the civics and citizenship report says two thirds of Aussie students lack the basic knowledge needed to be informed and active citizens. Well, Birmingham describes those as woeful. I think he’s right. I thought we’d speak to him. The federal Education Minister joins me on the line.

Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.

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

Michael McLaren: Not a great report card, this one.

Simon Birmingham: Well, no it’s not. Certainly, the civics and citizenship one is of particular concern. In terms of the basics, the literacy, numeracy skills that NAPLAN routinely assesses, we see and we should acknowledge that there are, as you indicated, pockets of improvement. We should also acknowledge that New South Wales is one of the better performing states and territories, so credit where it’s due there, and indeed if you have a look at the areas of improvement year on year, we see that in particular the secondary school students in New South Wales have recorded improvements compared with last year across all categories. I think some of that may well be down to the fact that the New South Wales Government has put in place some of those minimum standards for school leavers around the HSC that is ensuring there’s a bit more focus on meeting the types of minimum standards that we are looking for in literacy and numeracy skills.

Michael McLaren: Yeah. I mean, I was reading through some of this. One of the things that shocked me was the fact that 80 per cent of year 10 students believe in actively supporting human rights and ethical shopping and all these sort of things, but only 38 per cent were at or above a proficient standard in civics. Only half of them believed it’s important to discuss politics. I mean, people are concerned about the left’s long march through the institutions; it seems they’ve nobbled the year 10 students on the ear pretty hard.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah. On the civics and citizenship side, as you rightly said, I described the results as woeful, and the fact that less than 40 per cent of Australian year 9 students have a clear understanding of the way our democracy functions and works, the way our political system works, the way our court systems work, it really is a demonstration that not enough time is being spent explaining the basics of those democratic features of our way of life in Australia. It is wonderful, whatever your views on the issues themselves, it’s wonderful that young people might be passionate about certain issues, but it’s rather pointless if they don’t then have the skills and knowledge when they leave school to be fully participating members of our democracy in terms of how they actually act on [indistinct].

Michael McLaren: That’s right. I mean, look, I would imagine in due course we’ll get the usual response from the usual sector, saying oh, well, look if only the Federal Government had put all of Gonski number one’s funding in, we’d be in a better position, blah, blah, blah. But look, be it Indigenous affairs, be it Education, whatever, you know this as well as I do, Simon, that more money doesn’t necessarily equal better results. And in fact, your side of politics, despite the naysayers, have banged on very loudly about how you’re tipping more money in this year and even more money next year to education, yet the results aren’t necessarily improving. I mean, a lot of your base says, you know, all this extra money isn’t doing any good anyway, why spend it?

Simon Birmingham: And look, that’s absolutely an argument that wages. You know, we have funding, particularly federal levels of funding, at absolute record levels. We faithfully, as we promised, implemented each and every one of the first four years of Labor’s different Gonski deals, which dramatically increased funding. We’ve now reached a point where we’re getting rid of special deals and different treatment of different states, but in doing that we’ll be adding an extra $25 billion over the next decade.

Michael McLaren: But people then look at that and say, well hang on, we got results like today; why would you bother?

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. So Labor may say it should be more. That’s their business. We certainly have the view that there’s plenty of money in the system. We now have to focus on how we make sure it is used effectively to lift outcomes. So there are some things we’ve already done in government, such as reforming the training of teachers at universities and putting in place minimum literacy and numeracy skills for teachers themselves, getting more primary school teachers with subject specialisations coming out of our universities, changes to the national curriculum to have more time on the basics. They’re things we’ve already done. We’re arguing with the states to try to get clearer early assessment and screening of kids, to identify people who aren’t learning to read effectively in their first year or two of school, so that you can have more targeted interventions to help those children. And of course we’ve asked David Gonski, who authored the funding reforms, to now do a further piece of work with a panel of education experts that doesn’t look at funding, but does look at how we ensure we get bang for our buck and ensure that teachers and principals and school systems are actually using the right evidence, [indistinct] with that evidence as to how they teach and what they teach in classrooms to get the best results.

Michael McLaren: I mean, one of the things that struck me out of these results and some of the early take away messages was that children from migrant families seem to be the standouts when it comes to spelling tests. These are students obviously from families where English is not the first language, and yet they’re more proficient at spelling than the kids that are growing up in Anglo-Saxon households like I did. What are they doing right, or what are we doing wrong?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there’s a message there which is not so much one for the school system, but is one for households and families, and that is that learning starts in the home environment; learning relates to the attitude in that home environment towards learning; learning relates to how much time you spend reading to your children when they’re very young, reading with your children as they get older. It cannot all be lumped on teachers and the school system. There is a fair whack of responsibility that sits with parents, to make sure they do their share of the heavy lifting, and that they ensure children start school with a reasonable vocabulary, with a reasonable understanding in terms of some of the basics, that they take access and the opportunity for early learning, pre-school, which is universally available but is not universally participated in. So there are a number of things that go beyond the school system that we do need to encourage people to focus more on, and I think in some of those areas where you can see different cultural groups having stronger results, the driving factor there is quite possibly not what’s happening in the school, but what’s happening in the attitudes in the home life.

Michael McLaren: Well, you look at the selective school system in New South Wales, for example. I mean, it is heavily dominated by people of non-Anglo-Saxon background, heavily dominated by people from families where English would at least be the second language. That’s not a criticism, that’s a wonderful statement of perseverance for those people from that point of view. But, I mean, in this day and age of quotas and what have you, that even the Liberal Party seem to be sucked up in, no one seems to want to do anything about that. I would assume that’s a little concerning to some.

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, it certainly is concerning that we see a failure in terms of the quality of achievement across the board, and whether that is because of different levels of social disadvantage or different cultural backgrounds, we have to identify and be honest about failings. There are failings in terms of boys in particular meeting minimum standards, too. So there are gender issues that need to be properly addressed, and clearly more work needs to be done in terms of how teachers can differentiate their teaching and the way they apply it for boys and girls where there are problems, to address some of those issues and to make sure that the boys are succeeding in developing those foundation skills. We go on about literacy and numeracy because they are the building blocks upon which the rest of your learning depends. You’re not going to succeed in the science disciplines if you don’t have good numeracy skills; you’re not going to succeed in the humanities disciplines if you don’t have good literacy skills; you’re of course not going to be a fully functioning member of our society if you don’t at least have the minimum literacy and numeracy skills, as well as some understanding of civics and our country and how it works.

Michael McLaren: And I suppose students won’t achieve or succeed in anything if there’s not good discipline in the classroom. Is there enough discipline these days?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I visit many, many schools, and in many cases I see schools that I think are succeeding in terms of capturing students’ attention, imagination, and ensuring that there is a strong level of discipline applied. In others, I think they battle with technology and disruptions, and again probably a lack of support in terms of the type of respect that students come to school with as a result of a failure to have that type of respect and values instilled in the home environment.

Michael McLaren: Simon, just one last one before you go – and I thank you for your time – you mentioned teachers and university before. I look at the numbers of people going into universities and the number of places universities offer for wannabe teachers to study, and the number of permanent placements which are available when they come out the gate with their HECS debt and their degree. Is it simply the case that we are enticing too many people to study education, to study to be a teacher at university, knowing full well that there’s no hope that even half of them will get a permanent job placement when they come out?

Simon Birmingham: Well, a couple of points there. On the schooling side of things, what we’ve done is to put in place minimum standards that are expected of graduates from the teaching profession, that are much higher in their minimum standards, so that we actually can have confidence of the capabilities of those graduates. But in terms of administering and running universities, what we’ve also sought to do as a government – and sadly Labor and others have stood in our way of doing this – is put some performance payments around university that ensure they can’t get away with over-enrolling people in one discipline area, one subject area where there just aren’t enough jobs or opportunities for individuals. I find it remarkable that Labor, the Greens, the crossbench and the Senate have stood in our way in terms of actually putting some performance metrics around universities so that they at least are held to account for what is an enormous amount of autonomy they have at present to enrol as many students they want, in whatever subject disciplines or degrees they want, and are guaranteed taxpayer funding as a result.

Michael McLaren: Yeah, they’re running businesses sometimes more than educational hubs. I thank you for your time, Simon. I appreciate it on this busy day. Appreciate it. Bye-bye.

Simon Birmingham: Absolute pleasure.