Interview on 2SM Breakfast with Grant Goldman
International reports on student performance; Discipline in classrooms; Improving student outcomes

Grant Goldman: The Federal Education Minister’s calling for zero tolerance to bad behaviour in the classroom. Two studies have linked under-achievements in the classroom to discipline problems and bullying. And I think people with a lot of kids and their family would probably know that, that this has been a problem for some time.

Simon Birmingham joins us on the line, this morning. G’day Simon.  

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Grant. It’s good to be with you.

Grant Goldman: You too. Look, you say those who are doing the wrong thing are disrupting others and need to face penalties. But here’s the problem that I’ve seen over the years – because I’ve got seven kids – what I’ve noticed over the years, is that, that person disrupting the classroom is not thrown out of the classroom any more. They actually work harder to try and get him back to- back online. In the meantime, while they’re doing all that, you’ve got students in the classroom, desperate to learn, that are not learning.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Grant, I think we have to have a close at all of the policies that apply here. This can only be addressed if it’s a thorough team approach. It requires not just teachers, doing the best they can – which so many of them already are – but policy makers to have a look at, across schools and across entire school systems, whether we’ve got the settings right that give teachers enough power and capacity to deal with issues. 

And, of course, ultimately parents and families and the school community have to back teachers in areas of discipline, discipline in areas of respect. If we’re to turn around behaviour in attitude, that requires families, parents, the home environment, working hand in glove with teachers and the school community to get that done.

Grant Goldman: Right. Simon, as Education Minister, are you able to get in to the classroom, yourself, or send other people in to the classroom to basically look at how it’s progressing, look at how we can fix the problem? Because you have to be on the ground to do that, working with headmasters and teachers. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, as Federal Education Minister, the answer to that is probably no, not really. Of course, our schools are run by state systems, essentially, and the state ministers have direct accountability for day to day operations in schools. Our role federally, is one of policy leadership as well as dealing with some of the issues around funding and teacher training and important areas that we can drive reform on. But I absolutely look at evidence like this. It is a nation wide report, using international statistics and comparisons. And we’ll be taking it to the state ministers to talk to them about how it is they can better deal with these issues, to demonstrate it’s not just questions of funding, it’s not just questions of what’s in the curriculum, but that behaviour, attitudes, discipline, do actually make a big, big, difference to outcomes. Not just for a student who might be disruptive, but of course then to the whole class and the whole school.

Grant Goldman: Are you- I think you’re obviously concerned, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing this, this morning, and talking to others as well. It is of concern when somebody says perhaps we are – well not encouraging – we have the highest incidence of people disrupting classrooms in the whole of Asia. That can’t be good for the future.

Simon Birmingham: It’s absolutely not and it’s coupled with statistics that show we have problems in certain areas, in terms of truancy and kids not turning up, as well as overall lack of respect towards teachers and indeed, people in those positions of authority.

Grant Goldman: Just on that, you know that in some public schools it’s a situation where you got students telling a teacher to get effed and getting away with it. I know that when I was growing up, I’d probably be close to death after that and that was from my father alone, let alone the teachers. 

Simon Birmingham: And that, Grant, of course, is why I indicate this has to involve parents, families, the whole school community accepting a responsibility here. It can not rest alone on the shoulders of teachers and principals. They have plenty to contend with already. 

While your number of kids is a little larger than mine, I know with two young small children, myself, that just controlling, disciplining two children, who want to be a bit noisy or difficult sometimes, can be challenging, let alone a whole classroom. But we need to make sure that children go to school with a respect for teachers, with an attitude that they’re there to learn, with an ambition to succeed while they’re in the school community. And if they actually attend school with those traits, then of course the teachers and the principals have a great chance of success.

Grant Goldman: Yip, Simon, as Federal Education Minister, do you have much clout with the various states? Would they listen to Simon Birmingham, if he had something to say?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we have good working relationships and I’ve certainly already met with and spoken with Rob Stokes, on a couple of occasions, about New South Wales’ system. And I think, if you look at the recent re-write of the curriculum in New South Wales, if you look at the new arrangements that are in place to ensure minimum levels of literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers in New South Wales, there are some really positive things happening there. 

But clearly we have to have a look at these fundamental issues of attitude and behaviour that impact on overall achievement and which are sadly demonstrating a significant disparity between schools in high socio-economic circumstances versus those in lower socio-economic circumstances, in terms of those attitudes and behaviours that come to school – which have nothing to do with funding – but absolutely dictate that we need to give those teachers, the right policies, the right support to be able to address that. But hopefully, also better embrace or better get involved, parents in the school community to ensure they know how to improve the attitudes of their children, when they come to school.

Grant Goldman: Do headmasters and headmistresses- do they listen to the concern of parents? 

And I’ll give you an example- I have a seven year old at school and something’s been concerning me for a while. I’m a supporter for homework from year dot, by the way, but not a lot, particularly in the junior school. But I just noticed that so far for the last couple of years all it has been is on literacy and nothing with numeracy- nothing at all. And I do know a little bit about mathematics, if you don’t build the proper foundations then you’re lost clear through to year 12.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I mean that would be a concern, certainly in my view. And I’ve looked at my six-year-old and she certainly brings home a mix of spelling words each week but also then usually one of the weekly homework activities involves a bit of maths. And I think – that again – is an important trait in terms of how it is that you engage parents in the learning journey and parents in trying to build that level of respect for doing your school work, having the right attitude to it, being successful at it. And so homework in those early years shouldn’t be much and  it shouldn’t be too difficult, but it’s probably just as important to set up the right attitudes towards learning and school in parents and families, as it is in the kids, themselves.

Grant Goldman: Yeah. Are you old enough to remember singing the times tables?

Simon Birmingham: Just, I think [laughs].

Grant Goldman: [Laughs] You know what is interesting? I’ve tried singing the times tables with my seven year old, but she thinks I’m nuts [laughs].

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I have been wondering if I can download it somewhere, actually, to torment them with it in the car one day. 

Grant Goldman: Yeah, I think I might do that. I’ll leave it to the experts. But thank you for your time, this morning. We’ll get some callers, no doubt.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. 

Grant Goldman: Thank you. Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.