Interview on 4BC Drive with Ben Davis
Topics: Year 1 literacy and numeracy checks

Ben Davis: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. Simon, afternoon, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: G’day.

Ben Davis: The report that was released today, what’s it show us about Year 1s?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah g’day Ben, and thanks for having us on. This is a report the Turnbull Government commissioned a while ago when we brought together academics, school principals, experts in dyslexia and otherwise to have a look at whether there was a better way for us to identify kids who may not be getting the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to provide the building blocks for the rest of their success at school and what is recommended is that we should have a fairly common and consistent across the country skills check.

And your introduction is absolutely right. This is not another NAPLAN test, not a test or an exam at all, but is about having a common check up or diagnostic tool that each school uses where one-on-one, a Year 1 child sits down with a teacher who’s known to them in their school and goes through a common list of words and sounds and demonstrates whether they can decode those words, pronounce those words and does some similar things in terms of very basic numeracy skills. That’s really all we’re looking at here is can we put in place a better regime to make sure that children don’t fall through the cracks, that they do actually get the type of support they need to be able to be successful in the future.

Ben Davis: Are these tests not happening now?

Simon Birmingham: Well in some schools very similar things to this are happening. So this is not a problem that exists in every school but we want to make sure that the solution does apply in every school and every classroom of Year 1 students across the country so that we can end what is a pattern where we see around one in 20 children when they get to that Year 3 NAPLAN, aren’t even meeting the minimum standard in terms of their literacy skills; many, many more than that aren’t meeting the proficient standard. That all too often problems like dyslexia aren’t diagnosed until later on in school life and checks like this, diagnostic tools like this can provide a circuit breaker in a sense at an earlier stage to pick up problems and allow teachers and schools and parents to target and tailor assistance where it’s required.

Ben Davis: Alright and that’s why I like the sound of this, the fact that we’re getting early intervention. Now when I spoke about it back in January I was worried about the testing and that word and how we should call them check-ups. You’ve just explained how the check-ups work. So it’s a one-on-one with a teacher and what, it goes for how long?

Simon Birmingham: It really only lasts for, you know, sort of five, 10 minutes at the most. It’s designed to all be contained within the length of time that a six-year-old’s attention span can cope with – a relatively short and simple list of words – you do the numeracy check quite separate from the literacy check and indeed what the recommendation of the panel is is that the UK already does a literacy check of this nature which we could largely pick up off the shelf and roll out in Australia. In a numeracy sense we’d need to actually still develop the appropriate tools so that may take a little longer.

Ben Davis: Alright. What happens to those results? Because- let’s allay some of parents’ fears here, because if we’re getting results back and we see what happens with NAPLAN, they’re put up on the My School website, it’s almost like a league table of results.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. There is absolutely no intention for either the testing approach to be anything at all like NAPLAN, as I said that’s very different but also for the results. They’re not about to be published or become any type of thing that people can compare one school or another with. And they obviously would be shared and known first with the classroom teacher, also with the principal, ideally to the school administrators – so if it’s a government school, the state education department – so that if need be they can deploy some additional support or resources into that school, but that’s as far as it goes. We are in no way, shape or mean supposing that they come through either to federal authorities or indeed to certainly not to be published.

Ben Davis: Alright then Senator. If we’ve got problems identified, if we’ve got children identified – and here’s the clincher for me – what happens next? How do we fix this solution – sorry, what is the solution to fix this problem?

Simon Birmingham: Yep. So, again, many schools of course do an outstanding job of this already, and we need to acknowledge that and respect the work of those principals and teachers. We are, at a federal level, deploying our record resources into our schools: some $23 billion of additional funding over the next decade, which equates to about $2300 extra per student as part of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski school funding reforms. And so there is growing resources there; what we want to make sure is that they’re used as effectively as possible. So, you’ve put in place appropriate skills checks, diagnostic tools, you’ve got the extra resources there that then can empower the schools to be able to apply additional personalised tailored teaching assistance programs specific to the difficulties that a child may have.

Ben Davis: What does that look like? Is that a specialist coming in to the classroom? Is it a permanent fulltime position at a school? What does that look like?

Simon Birmingham: It may be that it’s as simple as sometimes different teaching practices and styles by the individual teacher, that they spend a bit more time in terms of the direct instruction of phonics as part of their teaching skills with some of the students. It may be though that it does requires some specialist expertise, particularly if as a result you’ve identified dyslexia or other challenges that a child may have as a problem, then you want to make sure that you give the expert skills to the teacher but also possibly additional specialist support, and that’s where we have to again back the expertise of principals and school leaders to work with classroom teachers to make those correct judgement calls.

Ben Davis: So what, it comes down to a school-by-school basis? What they need they can apply for, and they’ll have the money there, the resources there to tap into?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we are as I say putting in record and growing sums of funding, and we expect that states and territories in applying that will ensure that their schools can access the resources.

Ben Davis: Yeah, but Minister, from a parent’s point of view, they want to know what the end game is here. If their child is identified, what will they get?

Simon Birmingham: Yep, indeed. And look as a dad of two young children myself that’s always the number one concern. And so they should have confidence to talk to their classroom teachers, their school principal. Even today, without this check-in place if they have concerns about what extra can be done to help their student, there are significant resources there. Schools already deploy additional specialist expertise in a range of circumstances nowadays, and that is something that we would expect to see more of as a result of extra funding and as a result of better diagnosis of problems.

Ben Davis: Alright. But I still don’t know what it looks like. If I’m a parent, what am I going to see different for my child if they are needing help?

Simon Birmingham: Well, that does depend on the individual circumstances of the child. For some, it will be getting a specialist additional teaching resource in there to help them. For others, it will be as simple as their existing classroom teacher simply deploying different teaching techniques for that child. Each one, if they have a problem, will often be different, so what we’ve seen in the UK with the application of this type of skills check has been that teachers have responded in the way they teach reading and phonics, and they’ve responded in a way which [indistinct] are passing it first time around today than were just a few years ago. So, you’ve seen already that it has an impact in terms of classroom practice, preparedness, of those teachers and those schools to make sure that they are actually filling in those basics like reading and literacy.

Ben Davis: Senator, before I let you go, you’re not getting any love from the states on this. They don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, all of them have said we don’t want this: too much red tape, too much bureaucracy.

Simon Birmingham: So, Kate Jones has been quite misleading in that regard, because in fact in my home state of South Australia, the State Labor Government is already trialling this. And what we’ve agreed at the Education Ministers’ Council on Friday last week was the authors of this report would come to the next meeting to present on its findings, that South Australia would provide an update on its trial of the skills check. So in fact we’re seeing Labor Governments looking at it, trialling it. We’ve seen all the education ministers – including Kate Jones – agree to hear from the authors and consider it. And I really do hope that we can put politics aside in this – whether it’s Labor or Liberal or the teachers’ unions or others – that we actually put kids first and work out what’s going to be in their best interest.

Ben Davis: Alright. When are you looking at rolling this out?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll have that briefing with the state and territories later this year, so practically speaking 2019 but hopefully there might be able to be further testing or trialling of it during the course of next year.

Ben Davis: Alright, Senator. Appreciate your time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham, he’s the Federal Education Minister.