Interview on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliott
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms; Future schools funding arrangements; Protests at Parliament House 

Tom Elliott: The reason I brought up long division before was just this little test, just for mucking about, as to whether or not Australian schoolchildren could still do it. Because we read today that by its own by its own estimation Australia’s ranking in international maths is falling. We’re behind places like Kazakhstan and Cyprus and Slovenia. We’ve fallen against traditional rivals like America and Great Britain. What is going on? Our next guest is the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Tom, it’s good to speak with you.

Tom Elliott: So what- why are slipping down the maths tables? Are we getting worse or are those other countries just getting better?

Simon Birmingham: There’s a little bit of both in that. Certainly what we’ve seen is that our relative position compared to other nations has gone backwards. But in some areas our real performance has slipped backwards as well, so this report should be a real wake-up call to all areas of the education establishment in Australia. Coming on top of – as it does – doubts around our performance in NAPLAN, in other international benchmark tests, that we really need to focus very, very hard on how it is that we reverse these types of declines, and actually get far better bang for our buck in Australian schools. Especially in the basics of literacy and numeracy, reading, science; the types of areas that people expect of course our students to excel in.

Tom Elliott: [Talks over] Is that what it is, though? Do we study too many other things that have been introduced into the curriculum and don’t focus enough on the old core subjects of maths and English and science and so forth?

Simon Birmingham: There’s certainly been an element of clutter in the curriculum, and [indistinct] doing a review of the national curriculum which was settled a little over 12 months ago and tried to de-clutter aspects of the curriculum. So that’s one factor there. But the Turnbull Government has proposed a range of other reforms to try to increase the specialisation of our teachers and ensure that we get more specialist teachers. Not just in secondary school but actually ensure primary school teachers undertake some specialisation in their training as well so that we get maths teachers actually into our primary schools specifically.

Tom Elliott: But isn’t the issue that not that many people even do maths anymore? For example I did maths at school but from what I read today it’s fallen, you know, a long way back now. Like, students have got so many more subjects to pick from, they’re not actually doing maths. And if you don’t have students doing maths at the VCE or HSC level- I mean, you can’t get maths teachers out of them, can you?

Simon Birmingham: And that again is one of the points that we took to the election, as one of our policies that we now seek to make a condition of future federal funding arrangement. The proposal we’ve put on the table is that any student who wants to obtain an ATAR and seek to apply to go to a university should ideally be maintaining at least one maths or science subject as part of their studies, as well as at least one English or humanities study. So that our Year 12 students – if they’re going onto university studies – are demonstrating that they are well-rounded. And of course have been encouraged – in fact have had to through their schooling – maintained studies across the different disciplines so that it no longer becomes acceptable to give maths a flick, or maths and science in their entirety a flick, by around Year 10.

Tom Elliott: Could we make it compulsory? I only raise this because one of our producers grew up in the country, and at her country high school in Northern Victoria every VCE student had to do maths. The teacher for some reason just made it compulsory. Should we maybe consider that?

Simon Birmingham: Well essentially the idea we’ve put on the table is we should make it effectively compulsory to be doing maths or a science subject if you’re wanting to go onto university. The other option that we’ve put out there, or the other issue of policy…

Tom Elliott: [Interrupts] But sorry, but just on that. I mean, can you enforce that? Because I mean, this is the issue. You’re the Federal Education Minister but, you know, education is largely a state concern, not a federal one. How do you make the states follow that?

Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, what we’re talking to the states about is that our record growing level of federal funding into schools should be conditional upon them actually delivering on certain areas of reforms. Now, I want to have a conversation with the state ministers about which of these reforms they think will work best, that they can deliver as fast as possible. But we then want to tie federal funding to the delivery of these things so that no longer is the Federal Government providing, as we are this year, $16 billion in funding to Australian schools with no strings attached. But by 2020, when we will be providing more than $20 billion to Australian schools, we’re actually expecting some clear returns. And increased uptake of science, technology, engineering, maths subjects, is absolutely part of that.

Tom Elliott: Okay. But just so I’m clear, you’re saying you will link federal university funding- that is you can only go to university and get funding if you’ve done math?

Simon Birmingham: No, no. Linking federal schools funding to the state governments applying these types of reforms into the schooling system. Now, one policy that we’ve given to the states to give us some reaction to is should we make maths or science compulsory as at least one subject to be undertaken for those who are seeking to go off to university. Another…

Tom Elliott: [Interrupts] But if you say should we- but I mean, you’re just sort of posing an idea. I mean, that’s not forcing the state governments to do something, that’s just saying, well, what do you think of this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m seeking their feedback before we actually sit down and sign a deal with them. So at this stage it’s a case of actually trying to work through. We’ve presented more than a dozen different measures, many of which go to teacher quality, but some go to earlier identification of problems, others go to improving the uptake of particularly maths and sciences in secondary years. And the other one of those, in particular, is that we’re also pressuring to see a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy apply for the receipt of a high school leavers’ certificate, so that you can’t just get through year 12 and it not mean anything. It must mean something to employers, TAFEs, universities, that you’ve reached at least some minimal level of attainment in the basics of literacy and numeracy.

Tom Elliott: Could I just put my own theory on this? My observation is – and I’ve spoken to maths teachers who have been teaching for a long time – that maths is avoided because it’s seen as being too hard. So rather than people tackling hard subjects, they actually go for what they perceive to be easier subjects, because they reckon, well, just getting the score is the important thing, it doesn’t really matter what you study. Now, I don’t know how you turn that around. I mean, I personally liked maths, and to me it’s an easy subject because it tends to be right or wrong, unlike some humanities subjects. But there’s a perception out there that it’s simply too hard, and that turns students off it. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s why we want to try to change what the requirements at the end of school are, so that you actually then ensure kids have to continue to study it and you change the attitude right through the school system. Then that says, well, all of our children are going to have to meet minimum numeracy standards before they get a year 12 certificate, and those who want to go to university are going to have to be studying maths or science if they’re going to get an ATAR or a university admission score. 

So by doing those sorts of things, you then put pressure down through the schooling system to change practice, to change attitudes, to say, well, we have to focus on these things more so. And it will also have impacts on the attitudes of parents and students in terms of where they focus their endeavours, which can only then help hard-working teachers if they’ve actually got more support from parents for effort in the maths and sciences.

Tom Elliott: Well, good luck with that. Now, I know you’re in the Senate; there was quite a large protest in the House of Representatives today during question time. Did you see any of that?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve seen snippets of footage. Of course, we were in Senate question time, so I didn’t see it live, but I got a message that came through that the House of Representatives had been shut down due to this protest. 

Tom Elliott: Tell me, during Senate question time do you sit there and abuse each other the way they do in the Lower House? Or is it more refined, more genteel in the Senate?

Simon Birmingham: It’s a little bit more refined, but I wouldn’t say that it’s perfect on any given day. Certainly, Penny Wong likes to interject an awful lot, I find, when I’m answering a question, and most others I think. But look, I’ve seen a bit of the footage from the House, and whilst it is everybody’s democratic right to protest, I have to say I think people betray that democratic right to protest when they, in effect, attack our democratic institutions by stopping, as it was, the questioning of the Government by the Opposition, by the crossbenchers, which is what question time is all about. By all means protest, by all means have your voice heard, but to shut the Parliament down, to do ridiculous things like gluing hands to rails in the Gallery of course just interrupts the actions of democracy. It betrays those democratic processes in many ways. And of course, for those other people who had come to view the Parliament in action today, it would have been a fairly negative experience for them too.

Tom Elliott: Thank you Simon. Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister.