Interview on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliott     
Topics: NAPLAN; National School Chaplaincy Program





Tom Elliott:     Okay, NAPLAN, this has come up for me in a bit of a rush because I remember when my daughter was born someone said to me, the days are long, but the years are short, and they’re absolutely right. Suddenly, she’s eight-and-a-half, she’s in Grade 3, and tomorrow – I looked in our family calendar, bang, NAPLAN Writing. Now, I believe NAPLAN was started a few years ago. My understanding is that we have it so that federally we can get an objective measure across the different states of how different state education systems are going, how schools are going, how individual children are going in basic subjects like numeracy and literacy, that sort of thing. Kids do get nervous about it, and I understand that. I mean, it’s normal to get nervous before a test. However, many teachers say they hate NAPLAN, and some of them are urging parents to boycott it this week and next. This morning, for example, Neil Mitchell spoke to Lucy Honan, who is a Victorian secondary school teacher. She wants parents to pull their kids out of the NAPLAN testing. Here’s a bit of what Lucy had to say.


Tom Elliott:     There you go. NAPLAN is the rotten heart of school testing. Okay, joining us live in the studio right now is the man in charge of NAPLAN, the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Mr Birmingham, good afternoon.


Simon Birmingham:    Good day Tom, great to be with you.


Tom Elliott:     Okay, why do we have NAPLAN?


Simon Birmingham:    We have NAPLAN for a number of reasons. Firstly, to make sure that parents and teachers get accurate information at a nationally consistent level of whether our children are developing the basic skills. Literacy, reading, writing, numeracy skills that are essential as the foundation stones for the rest of their learning. So, NAPLAN doesn’t assess everything. It is not intended to. It’s just one form of assessment that happens four times during a child’s schooling life. But it does give a transparency of information back to parents in terms of whether children are meeting minimum standards of attainment in those areas, how they compare in terms of their achievement and it then provides a basis for discussions, if need be, with teachers and within schools. As well as then within schools for themselves to see how they are tracking and whether they are lifting and improving their performance over time.


Tom Elliott:     My daughter is a bit nervous about it. Should she be?


Simon Birmingham:    No, she shouldn’t be. NAPLAN is not something upon which her future in and of itself depends. It is one assessment. Of course, she would have had in her schooling life already many different assessments. I have two daughters, five and seven. I will face NAPLAN with one of my children for the first time next year, though I know that already they’ve had various different skills checks, little tests, mini-tests, assessments along the way. NAPLAN is something that is just like that, but it happens to be done at a consistent level across the country.


Tom Elliott:     You just heard some audio there of Victorian secondary school teacher, Lucy Honan, who was on our morning show today. She described NAPLAN as the rotten heart of testing. Do you find that a lot of teachers are against it?


Simon Birmingham:    Look, there are parts of the teaching profession who are against it. Now, Lucy Honan frankly is a bit of an activist and is an activist in a number of ways, including…


Tom Elliott:     So, you know her? Or know of her?


Simon Birmingham:    She, I think, was one of the key drivers of the Teachers for Refugees stunt that took t-shirts into classrooms last year, and those sorts of things. So, whilst I listen to everybody’s criticisms, I would say that with her there is a bit of a pattern of behaviour there that you have to question. But anyway, I certainly hear concerns elsewhere, and what I say to those teachers is, of course, you’ve got to keep it in perspective within the school as well. This is not something that should be seen as being high stakes for children. It’s not something where people should be teaching – or spending time teaching – specific to the NAPLAN test.  They should be developing the literacy skills, the numeracy skills, in children as part of the delivery of the curriculum and that that, in and of itself, prepares them for undertaking NAPLAN.


Tom Elliott:     But surely, I mean to say, oh well, don’t teach for the test, but you do teach to the test. I used to tutor students in the old days and what I used to say to them is, look, practice doing exams.

You’re not being asked – you’re not being assessed on all the knowledge you have in the world on a subject. You’re being asked a handful of questions and you’ve only got a limited amount of time to answer them. So, be very specific. Answer exactly the question that’s put to you. I used to advise people, learn to the test, and you’re saying, don’t learn to the test.


Simon Birmingham:    It should be one and the same. That we’re talking here not about assessing whether somebody can write an essay on a particular part of European history. We are talking about assessing basics of writing skills, basics of literacy skills, basics of numeracy skills. And whether…


Tom Elliott:     So, why are so many teachers against it? I mean, are they – do they just not think anybody should be tested? Or are they worried that really, it’s the teachers that are being tested, more so than the students?


Simon Birmingham:    There’s the separate component that you hear sometimes which relates to how the data at a school level is then presented on the My School website and then is sometimes is used not always in the best possible way by elements of the media. Now, I expect that we will see some proposals coming forward from the states who are developing terms of reference for a review of parts of NAPLAN that will particularly have a look at how that data is reported. And that addressing that may actually alleviate a lot of the concerns that are presented. But there is also a big change underway for NAPLAN at present, which is that hundreds of schools across Australia are trialling the delivery of NAPLAN online this year. That’s going to dramatically change the way in which we’re able to give teachers, schools, parents much faster results from NAPLAN that will be much more useful for them, as well as a richer spectrum of assessment. That it will be a more adaptive test to really assess just how much a student knows rather than whether they are just coming up to a minimum benchmark.


Tom Elliott:     Alright, we’ll take calls in a moment, 96900 693 13 13 32. Any teachers listening – of course, at quarter past four the kids will largely have been gone for an hour now, so you should be footloose and fancy-free, listening to the radio. Get on the dog and bone. Now, Lucy Honan, one of the things she’s recommended is for parents to boycott NAPLAN, so to not send their kids to school this week on the day of the test. Is she allowed to do that? And are parents allowed to not bring their kids to school for that reason?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, parents are allowed to decide that their child will not undertake NAPLAN.


Tom Elliott:     On what basis?


Simon Birmingham:    Look, parents can choose not to – and they can simply choose not to. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a firm hard and fast reason given by parents. However, schools are not meant to advocate for a boycott or discourage people from undertaking…


Tom Elliott:     But why – I understand, if it’s so important to assess kids and know where they are on these basic building blocks of education, numeracy and literacy and so forth, how can a parent just say, well I’m not – or my child is not sitting that exam? I mean, surely that just doesn’t make sense.


Simon Birmingham:    Well, Tom, in the main we don’t have a problem with parents deciding that they’re not going to. That is a more isolated aspect and ultimately, of course, NAPLAN provides transparency in information to parents. If those parents themselves choose that they don’t want that information in terms of how their child compares at a national level against others, and they want to rely just upon the classroom teachers’ assessment – which is of course what they rely upon for the vast majority of their child’s education – well, that’s a choice that those parents can make in an informed sense.           However, schools themselves are not meant to advocate for non-participation.


Tom Elliott:     Well, Lucy Honan is. Will you be having words with her?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, I think we’ll certainly be making our concerns known to the Victorian Department of Education about the approach that she is advocating. They’re her employer and they’re the ones who would rightly take steps in regards to her behaviour.


Tom Elliott:     Louis joins us. Louis, go ahead. Hello, Louis?


Caller Louis:    Hi.


Tom Elliott:     How old are you, Louis?


Caller Louis:    I’m 11.


Tom Elliott:     Eleven, so what year? You’re in Grade 5, are you?


Caller Louis:    Yeah, I’m in Grade 5.


Tom Elliott:     So, have you done this year’s NAPLAN test yet or are you doing it tomorrow?


Caller Louis:    Tomorrow. I did NAPLAN last year… two years ago.


Tom Elliott:     Were you scared by it?


Caller Louis:    Not really. It was just a test. Yeah.


Tom Elliott:     Alright, Louis. Sorry, we’re just struggling to hear you a bit on the phone there, but I think you said you weren’t too fazed by the Grade 3 NAPLAN.


Simon Birmingham:    Good on you Louis.


Tom Elliott:     Therese, hello.


Caller Therese: Hello. How are you, John?


Tom Elliott:     Good.


Caller Therese: Look, I’m a retired teacher but I taught Grade 5 and 6 for 20 years and I have administered the NAPLAN. Don’t tell me that teachers don’t have to teach to it because you spend the first three months of your year getting these kids ready for NAPLAN and the results don’t even come out until the September. So, how is that helping the parents see where the child is at?


Tom Elliott:     Senator.


Simon Birmingham:    Well, Therese, that’s one of the reasons why we’re shifting NAPLAN to the online format, so that teachers and schools get the results within weeks to make it much, much more useful in that sense.     As well, as I said, it will be a more adaptive test then. What I mean by an adaptive test, essentially, that the first third of questions that students face will be the same. If they’re getting them all right, then it will get progressively harder to stretch and test just how much does a student know.       If they’re getting them all wrong, it will get easier to work out just what it is that a student does in fact know.


Tom Elliott:     So, the test is adapted while they’re doing it?


Simon Birmingham:    That’s right. So, it’s the beauty of using a technology basis for applying the test.

Tom Elliott:     But then it sort of stops being objective then. I mean it’s like tilting the football field in favour of some players and not others.


Simon Birmingham:    Well no, as I say, it’s about ensuring that your high achievers in the classroom who might be able to get 100 per cent at present but 100 per cent tells you they know everything that’s there.  If you really want to know what they know you’ve got to stretch them to the point of seeing where they start to get some wrong.


Tom Elliott:     I must admit, I’m glad we didn’t have this when I was at school. I just figured out it was a test…


Simon Birmingham:    Yes.


Tom Elliott:     …you get 100 per cent, bang, you’ve got 100 per cent.


Simon Birmingham:    Equally those who really struggle if all they’re doing is getting answers wrong then you don’t actually know at what stage they’re at and what it is that they do in fact know.  So this is about providing a richer range of feedback. It will still tell you are they meeting the minimum standards, are they meeting the proficient levels?  But it will also give a much richer spectrum of information to those schools and to the school administrators and policy makers.


Tom Elliott:     It is twenty four after four.  Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister, is with us in the studio.  I want to talk about the Chaplaincy Program in schools as well in a moment, first though, Georgina, hello.


Caller Georgina:          Hi.


Tom Elliott:     How old are you Georgina?


Caller Georgina:          Eight years old.


Tom Elliott:     Eight years old, you’re the same age as my daughter, so you’re in Grade 3, are you?


Caller Georgina:          Yes.


Tom Elliott:     Okay and you’re doing the first NAPLAN test tomorrow.


Caller Georgina:          Yes.


Tom Elliott:     Okay, how do you feel about it?


Caller Georgina:          Kind of pretty nervous because it’s like my first NAPLAN test and I’m not very – I’m not sure about it.


Tom Elliott:     Right and tomorrow is writing isn’t it?


Caller Georgina:          Yes.


Tom Elliott:     Okay, have you done a practice one before today or before tomorrow?


Caller Georgina:          I’m not really sure.


Tom Elliott:     Okay.


Simon Birmingham:    Do you like writing Georgina?


Caller Georgina:          Yes, because I like to write narratives and local interview narratives.


Simon Birmingham:    Oh, that’s great. So you like to write a nice story and explain what’s happening.


Caller Georgina:          Yes.


Simon Birmingham:    Excellent, you’ll be fine.


Tom Elliott:     All right, there you go Georgina, the Federal Minister for Education has personally guaranteed that your NAPLAN test will be much easier than the others.  Good luck with it Georgina, thank you for calling us in.              Now the Chaplaincy Program, I understand what it is, and the idea is just to have a sort of an in-school counsellor for kids going through a tough time or just want someone to talk to who is not a teacher.  Labor’s Clare O’Neil has said that they don’t really agree with it.    I don’t understand why you have to have religious chaplains solely fulfilling this role.   Why couldn’t you just have – I don’t know anybody who was a qualified counsellor who was just interested in becoming a sort of a – well like a shoulder if you like within the school?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, Tom, the first thing whenever you’re talking about the Chaplaincy Program it’s important to kind of say what it’s not and that is that chaplains in schools are not allowed to preach.  They’re not allowed to proselytise.


Tom Elliott:     Well then why have ministers of religion in that role if specifically they’re not supposed to talk about religion?


Simon Birmingham:    Yeah, and so the school chaplains is a program that in essence has been proven to work and be really popular, and it’s worked perhaps because these individuals bring a slightly different perspective to the counselling, the care.     The parish work, if I can sort of use that term or borrow that term, that they provide to a school community and we’ve continued to support it because it works and has been very successful in the schools where it’s being delivered, and I’ve seen…


Tom Elliott:     Yes, but I mean state schools are just not supposed to be religious.  I mean I just…


Simon Birmingham:    The work is pastoral work, not religious work, and I’ve sat there with children whose parents have died, or parents whose children have cancer, and the care and compassion that those chaplains have brought to those families has been instrumental in them getting through tough times.


Tom Elliott:     So why not open it up though?  I mean I know people who have been social workers, for example, who offer care and compassion and are used to dealing with people going through some very tough situations.  Why wouldn’t someone like that be allowed to be part of the chaplaincy program?


Simon Birmingham:    It’s not to say that other people couldn’t provide the same degree of care, compassion, and support.  But as we’ve continued to back this program because as I say it seems to have worked and the evaluation on the ground…


Tom Elliott:     Yes, but you’re avoiding the issue.  Why can’t someone who is a well-qualified social worker, used to dealing with troubled youth, why couldn’t they be part of the chaplaincy program?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, there are many other counsellors and support services that exist through education systems, through schools, official school counsellors and the like that are engaged there.  There are many other programs that engage youth workers in different ways as well.     The Chaplaincy Program serves a similar purpose to a number of those programs as a kind of – you can absolutely mount the case of why not somebody else?  But we’d also point to the fact that evaluations done year after year now have shown that this program, in its current form, delivers real benefits in schools.


Tom Elliott:     Can any minister of religion do it?


Simon Birmingham:    They’re certainly non-denominational in that sense. People have to meet certain requirements in terms of…


Tom Elliott:     Can a rabbi do it?


Simon Birmingham:    Yes, absolutely.


Tom Elliott:     A sheikh.


Simon Birmingham:    Yes.


Tom Elliott:     An Imam.


Simon Birmingham:    Yes.


Tom Elliott:     Yes, right, so you’re simply – your only qualification is you have to be a minister of some sort or other.


Simon Birmingham:    No, you have to have further qualifications in terms of actually…


Tom Elliott:     Right, no, no, because you must be – you must at least be a minister of religion.


Simon Birmingham:    There’s got to be – you’ve got to come through one of those chaplaincy networks, if you like, or yes, have a – be ordained in that sense.  Of course, you also have to have other skill sets in terms of having undertaken certain training in relation to counselling.  One of the things that we’ve bolted on this year to the program, in terms of saying that we’ll support its continuation, is that they’ll all undertake training with the eSafety Commissioner around bullying and cyber bullying in particular.  Again, it helps to ensure that they’re able to respond outside of the traditional network of school support but to be able to provide that really critical pastoral care for kids or families going through it tough.


Tom Elliott:     But just so we’re clear, so I could get all the other qualifications – I’m an atheist by the way – but I could get all the other qualifications but because I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in a supreme deity, I’d be excluded from applying for this position?


Simon Birmingham:    Well Tom, you wouldn’t meet the criteria to be a chaplain, that’s correct.  The school chaplains though are proven, based on all the analysis that’s been undertaken, to deliver what is a really valuable – value-add in the role.  We’ve had thousands of people contact us as this program was coming to an end urging us to renew it.  Many of them principals, chairpeople of state government schools from around the country, who argued they saw the particular value in it and they wanted to see it to continue to support people in those positions to deliver that service.


Tom Elliott:     We’ll leave it there, Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education in the Federal Government. Thank you for your time.


Simon Birmingham:    Thanks Tom, pleasure.