Interview on 4BC Drive with Ben Davis
Topics: New Gonski recommendations for schools

Ben Davis: School pick up happened in the last 20 minutes or so, if you’ve got the kids or the grandkids in the car you’ll need to listen up because depending on their age, they’re headed for big changes as far as their education is concerned with school as we know it is set for a seismic shift here in Australia. The current one-size fits all approach is set for the scrap heap, to be replaced with a tale of individual teaching based learning – sorry, teaching based learned on a- I’ll start that again. Individual teaching based on learning ability rather than age. David Gonski’s second review of Australian education was released today. It’s been given the pass mark by the Turnbull Government. They’ve given this a big tick.

Now remember, his first review, it dealt with funding. Now Gonski 2.0 looks at performance and Australia’s performance is sliding down the international scale on a range of measures. But he’s put out 23 recommendations to stop that slide and get us back up the top of the charts. They are light years away from the education system that you and I went through and one I’m pretty sure fairly different to the one federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham grew up with.

Minister, good afternoon, good to talk again.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Ben, great to be with you.

Ben Davis: The jury’s still out on me quite obviously, but it seems you’ve done alright out of the old system, what’s wrong with it?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well look, what we can see in the data is very clear in this report, is that over the last couple of decades Australia’s educational performance really has at best plateaued and in a number of ways gone backwards in terms of the literacy and numeracy, scientific knowledge of our children, not just compared to other countries, but indeed compared to kids of 2005 versus kids of 2016 in terms of some of the assessments that have been undertaken. So, it shows that things in our system are failing us. There’s also of course great new opportunities that come with technology and the capacity to get information to schools in a more consistent manner and to use assessments and other processes around the curriculum in a more consistent manner across schools. And what this report has looked at is how we do take a step change in the way our schools operate so that we shift very much from a process that is purely focused on teaching the same thing to everybody in the classroom at the same time, to how we really put the curriculum in place and the resources and tools in place for teachers to be able to ensure that each child is extended and stretched to the maximum of their capability through the course of the year.

Ben Davis: Alright, it seems like I might need to have to go back to school when it comes to explaining it. But what I was trying to say is, it’s not about age anymore at least what this report recommends, it’s about learning ability – individualised learning. How would this work as far as students and teachers are concerned?

Simon Birmingham: So take an outstanding student, taken an A-grade student who’s done it for years, quite possibly already knowing most of the content. They’re going into Year 5 and there were an A-grade Year 4 student, they may well already know much of the Year 5 content. What we’re proposing here is there should be some clear steps in the curriculum of learning progression, as they’re called. The different steps to be taken in terms of what a child knows and indeed then, if that child has already accomplished most of the steps for Year 5 they are able move on in their learning and the teaching assessment that is undertaken to extend themselves through that year level.

Not to say that they skip a year and go and sit with a whole bunch of older kids. It is absolutely to try to ensure that nobody coasts or cruises along in their education. That children are extended and stretched as much as they can be and the whole ambition of that is to not only stop us having so many underachievers in terms of the school system but also to create more high achievers in our school system to really lift the performance of everybody.

Ben Davis: Minister what would that look like then, as far as a class is concerned? Do you stay with your peers as in age group or do you- will we have that example you used, someone who would be in Year 5 which is what, a 10-year-old, would they be going up a class to be sitting with 12 or 13-year-olds?

Simon Birmingham: In general students would continue to stay with their peers. But what would be happening is that because you’ve got a better structure to the curriculum, because you’ve got better tools available to teachers, they’re able to spend more time targeting what it is they do with each child in the classroom. Now that’s not always going to be possible but we absolutely believe that through application of better curriculum, application of better technology and tools in terms of student assessments, that the teachers will be able to be guided through a process where they can extend more children further through the course of the year. The same is equally applicable of a child who might be struggling in terms of their reading capability but if they’re not identified and we don’t have targeted interventions and systems, they just fall further and further behind.

Ben Davis: And Minister, sorry, I just want to- I’m just trying to get a picture here of what it’s going to look like. I mean if you’ve got a student that’s excelling that maybe 10 years of age, will they be then in a class with older students or different age students or will the one teacher have to look after the different levels of progression? Where they could be teaching grade 6 material but also then teaching grade 3 material in the one classroom?

Simon Birmingham: The expectation is that you would still keep broadly age cohorts together and indeed the evidence shows that having a spectrum of learning across classrooms is not necessarily a bad thing, that in fact, as long as you’ve got a curriculum that accommodates and the resources available to the teachers do it effectively that actually that can lift the tide overall, and then you actually do improve everybody’s performance as a result of that type of targeted teaching program but also a recognition that different kids doing different things, all of them though hopefully getting greater satisfaction because they’re actually succeeding in balancing progressing as a result of that.

Ben Davis: There’s already been some critics of this. I know Kevin Donnelly who was the co-chair of the National Curriculum Review back, what was that 2014. He’s had this to say about that style of learning.

Kevin Donnelly: Frankly it’s just making it impossible for teachers to work in school because you cannot monitor, evaluate and record every student, every day in terms of their progress.

[End of excerpt]

Ben Davis: And Minister, this is- that was my first thought. Teachers have a big enough job trying to do one lesson plan for 26 kids. Now they’d have to do 26 individual lesson plans. Surely class sizes have got to come right down if this was to work?

Simon Birmingham: No, look, teachers do have a big job and nobody underestimates that. But I’ve been pleased at some of the reactions today from the teacher unions and others who sometimes are not always that friendly in their commentary, have been very positive about being open to working through these sorts of issues. Because they recognise that many hardworking teachers are already doing these sorts of things that differentiated teaching practices in a classroom is not something new or unheard of at present. It is quite commonplace for teachers to have different students at different levels in terms of the reading progress they’re undertaking or the maths skills they’ve got or in other subject areas [indistinct]…

Ben Davis: But isn’t that…

Simon Birmingham: … its about putting a stronger system around that that supports teachers and hopefully makes it easier for them to keep doing that by giving them more time, by giving them better resources in terms of the way in which they target their teaching and the support they have to do so.

Ben Davis: What do those resources look like? Is that more manpower? Does that mean having more teacher aides in the classroom then, to look after students who may be, I guess in a word, struggling because then the ones that are excelling are left behind because you have to pay more attention I would have thought to those who were struggling to …

Simon Birmingham: … in some ways we’ve done aspects of that already, that- the shift towards needs-based funding for schools and record and growing investment…

Ben Davis: But it’s not working. I mean we just started this interview by saying we were sliding down the scale and the ladder’s getting slipperier. So, whatever’s in play now isn’t working.

Simon Birmingham: Sure, but those sorts of changes and those funding changes only took effect last year. So, we’re seeing those changes in terms of the way funding is delivered in schools and record and additional funding that will flow over the coming years that will enable extra resourcing to be put around students who need it.

And indeed, teacher aides being a type of option that’s available there but also the way you achieve this is as I say teachers frequently differentiate their teaching classrooms already. How you support them to do that more effectively and have more time to do it effectively, it is nowadays through building the types of online tools that can be available to teachers so that rather than having to invent the wheel themselves each time they’re able to access assessment tools, test if you like, that they can deploy in the classroom to better identify where their children are at. But linked to those will then also be the clear progressions of what’s the next step for those children. What else do you need to do in terms of the programs that are rolled out? [Audio skip] …technology and modern communications do allow you to take a big step change in the way some of these things are delivered.

Ben Davis: And this goes all the way through to high school, through to senior?

Simon Birmingham: Ultimately yes, the report is very clear that we should make the first ambition about how we roll these differentiated elements out in the early years around basics of literacy and numeracy to make sure that those skills are in place for students by the age of eight.

Ben Davis: All right then so let’s talk timetable then timeframe. Kids in school right now: if this is implemented would they be affected by it?

Simon Birmingham: Ultimately yes, if the whole program is implemented over the course of the next few years kids will start to see some of those changes. But I think they will see them quite gradually in terms of the way in which teachers who undertake differentiated practices already shift, use different assessment tools, use a different curriculum. It would be unlikely that existing students would see radical change. They’re far more likely to just see graduated changes in the way that teachers and schools adapt to these sorts of practices. But what we would hope is that over a course of a number of years if you compare today with a number of years’ time that we would have a much richer basis of data to follow the individual progress of each student. And from that we were able to keep improving practices then for what’s in the curriculum and how teachers teach it.

Ben Davis: Alright Minister, I know you’ve got a COAG with your state counterparts on Friday. You’ve got to convince them now. That’s the job at hand. Appreciate your time this afternoon. The federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.