David Penberthy: Well the big education story this week was the release of the very depressing NAPLAN figures yesterday morning, where across the entire country there’d been no significant improvement across the board in the literacy standards of our kids, and in South Australia it was a particularly bleak result where improvement was only registered in one category, persuasive writing, and in the other 19 categories it was either flat or going backwards, and yet again we had the worst results in the country.

Now it raises questions, it raises a whole lot of questions, one of which is if you keep throwing money at the school system does it necessarily follow that the results that students are getting will improve? It’s also raised some questions – and this is not some generalised slur on teachers at all, because overwhelmingly teachers do a terrific job and get paid less than a lot of other people in the community – but the question has to be asked: are all the teachers necessarily equipped to be maintaining or imposing the standards that the community has come to accept? Or some of them are they even perhaps a victim of the faddish sort of modern culture where older fashioned quaint concepts such as knowing how to actually spell properly have fallen by the wayside?

Simon Birmingham is the Education Minister, he is still the Education Minister in the Turnbull Government, he was returned as a Senator for the Liberals for South Australia a couple of days ago, and he joins us on the line now. Minister good morning, and thanks very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning guys, good to be with you.

David Penberthy: Now look, before we get into NAPLAN, because be really interested to get your thoughts on what we can read from those results, what’s this plan you’ve come up with the impose higher sort of literacy standards, higher academic standards on people in the teaching profession?

Simon Birmingham: Well look a few years ago back in 2011 all of the state and territory ministers, with the Federal Government, agreed that there should be a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy for those who graduate from universities who have been trained as teachers. And the standard was set that they should be within the top 30 per cent of all Australians for their own personal literacy and numeracy skills. Now a couple of years ago we reached agreement with the states and territories that we would seek to have that standard enforced through a test that all uni students would sit who are studying teaching, and it would be a requirement for them to pass that test before they can graduate and be registered to teach as teachers. And that’s really important, because it can give parents, principles, the community generally confidence that those who are entering the teaching profession have high personal standards of literacy and numeracy. So this test is now being rolled out, but disappointingly the rollout is not going as effectively in South Australia as it is in other states around the country. And that’s a real concern which I’ve written to state Minister Susan Close and the vice chancellors of our three universities about, because it does mean that there’s a greater risk in SA that people may finish their university course, not have good literacy or numeracy skills, and still get into the classroom.

Will Goodings: Senator, does the fact that 95-odd per cent of people pass the literacy component and 93 I think per cent pass the numeracy component even in these early days of doing this sort of extra level of testing show that perhaps the incumbent system wasn’t all that bad, that we were generally getting it pretty right?

Simon Birmingham: Will it is encouraging. Those figures are a little higher than initial trialling had, which showed about one in 10 students were failing; that’s now come down to sort of closer to a one in 15 type scenario. So it’s encouraging to see that even those small failure rates are being closed, because it’s not acceptable really that anybody after all those years of secondary school, all those years at university, shouldn’t be up to such a standard in their own literacy and numeracy skills. We would expect really that these problems ought to have been picked up earlier, but because it’s the teaching profession, because it’s so important to parents and the community that teachers can demonstrate to their students high personal standards, we think the application of the test is important to give that absolute guarantee that students are up to a universal minimum standard.

David Penberthy: Minister on NAPLAN, what was your assessment of the results? What do you think we can take out of the results? We had Chris Pyne on the show yesterday, and he was talking about how proud he was that the Coalition had presided over a record level of spending on education, but if we do have a record level of spending on education why are the results so bad?

Simon Birmingham: Well David I think we have spent too much time over the two years have public debate, particularly at the political level, about how much money is spent in education and not enough focus on how well it is spent. And we’ve got to really sort of shift that discussion. The Turnbull Government is investing a record sum into our schools, and will keep doing so and that will grow over the next few years. But we are absolutely determined and we released at the election a range of policy reforms that we wanted to see the states and territories and non-government schools implement so that we have a guaranteed and set level of assessment for year one students to assess their phonic skills, that key instrument in how children learn to read, and so that there can be consistent intervention for those children who need it at that absolute earliest age group. [Indistinct] …

David Penberthy: [Interrupts] Can I ask you, can I ask you Birmo, sorry to jump in, but just this might sound like a bit of a micro question, but I can remember a couple of years ago a whole bunch of schools here in South Australia – and I think part of this stemmed from a bit of an industrial sort of niggle involving the AEU about the fact that teachers had to spend at least one hour a week sort of monitoring the kids while they were eating their lunches. And I know from personal experience that there were schools that came to the conclusion that because the teachers would have to spend an hour doing that the school day, instead of school finishing at 3:15 it would finish at 3:05, which meant less class time as result of that. Then you hear a lot of other stories about the amount of time that students are spending on maybe like, and not disparaging the value of some of these subjects, but you might have a health and wellness class for example, and that might come at the expense of a traditional maths class, or a traditional English class. Has school – has teaching itself become less rigorous, and has the school day become too short and too cluttered with other stuff that isn’t core learning?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think the school day absolutely faces a lot of pressures, and the cluttering of the national curriculum is something that we were very concerned about, reviewed, and did make some changes to that national curriculum in the previous term of government to try to make sure there was sufficient time for the teaching of the basics – literacy and numeracy skills being fundamental to that. And one of those additional policy areas that we took to the last election, we said we want to see the states supply a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy sills for school leavers, so that whether you’re going to a university, to a TAFE, into the workforce, there can be confidence that people leaving school have obtained some minimum standard of literacy and numeracy if they’re waving around a Year 12 school leaver’s certification.

And that of course has flow-on effects down the school levels, because people then know exactly what they have to work towards to obtain that minimum standard, and look I think we really do need to get that focus on those basics absolutely right, because it's from those basics that so many of the other skills are obtained. If kids in reception in year one and two aren't learning to read effectively, then they're of course going to fail in so many other aspects of their schooling, because that's the foundation stone upon which so much of their learning is built.

Will Goodings: Senator, could I ask you a couple of funding related questions? One I put to Christopher Pyne yesterday, that I was confused by the argument in the press release you put out yesterday regarding NAPLAN results, where you made the point that the plateau we've experienced across Australia is not good enough, and contrasted plateauing NAPLAN scores against the fact that we've had almost a 25 per cent increase in funding to schools from the Commonwealth between 2013 and 2016, and then shortly thereafter you talk about the fact that over the period of 2000 … up to 2020, another 25 per cent will be plugged in again to the system, from 16 billion to 20 billion dollars. Is perhaps money not the answer here?

Simon Birmingham: Well Will, money in and of itself is not necessarily the answer, but it is important, and of course we have to keep up with costs within the schooling system. Teacher wages, enrolment numbers, new technology, new infrastructure, all of those different factors. Now, your listeners would recall that at the election we just had, there were striking differences between the funding promises made in relation to education by the two major parties. We promised growth and funding from that $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020, which we believe is affordable, and it's sustainable, and it's fully funded within our budget. But the Labor Party were promising to spend even more.

The bigger contrast though was we also outlined more than a dozen areas of specific reforms that we wanted to see that funding leveraged to achieve. As Federal Education Minister, I don't actually run any schools or employ any teachers, so I have to use funding as a leverage with the states and territories to make sure that they actually then implement some of the evidence-based reforms we want to see, and that's where the minimum standards come in. You know better arrangements in terms of rewarding our most competent teachers and the like.

David Penberthy: Sure. Just lastly then on funding, why is it that over a period of your term of government then, South Australia has actually received the smallest percentage change in Commonwealth funding of all states and territories, given our flagging NAPLAN results?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah well that's – that is because over the previous term we did as we had promised at the 2013 election and implemented, for the first four years of the Budget, exactly what the Gillard Government had put in place. So we stuck with that school funding deal that the South Australian State Labor Government had signed on to. It was a dud deal for South Australian schools, to be honest, but we had said before 2013 we would implement those arrangements; that's what we've done. But from 2018 onwards, I've given the commitment that we will be working to ensure all states are treated equitably, which will be good news for South Australia under those future school funding models.

David Penberthy: Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you guys, pleasure.