Interview on 6PR Perth Live with Oliver Peterson
Topics: NAPLAN and Civics/Citizenship test results

Oliver Peterson: But staying with the schools theme, we have seen the NAPLAN tests results released today. We’ve also seen the new Civics and Citizenship Report. Now this has revealed that most Australian students don’t understand the Australian Parliament and how it works – which surely is somewhat of a concern. That our students aren’t understanding the basic civics and citizenship requirements that we all have learnt.

Let’s talk to the federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham who I’m pleased to say joins me on Perth Live this afternoon. Senator, welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Ollie, great to be with you.

Oliver Peterson: I really appreciate your time today. We hear the NAPLAN results time and time and time again, let’s start there first this afternoon, Minister. How do you look at today’s performance on the new NAPLAN figures?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the assessment of the basics in literacy and numeracy. We see over in the west some really positive signs. WA has shown the most improvement over time of all jurisdictions and also shows some key improvements in the secondary years as well – which I think is a credit to some of the changes in recent years in school education in Western Australia. And I suspect one of the driving factors there was the decision of Peter Collier and the Barnett Government to put in place some of the minimum standards for school leavers around literacy and numeracy skills and which has obviously had a flow down effect through years of schooling and you’re seeing higher rates of accomplishment now being achieved in those secondary school, year seven, year nine NAPLAN tests which is very pleasing.

Oliver Peterson: Okay. How does WA school results compare to the rest of the country?

Simon Birmingham: Overall, WA still has some ground to gain in comparison with other states and territories but, as I say, it is showing improvement and in that sense improvement stands out for some who have declined in other areas. Overall, we have pockets of positive views such as around Indigenous students performing better, but still a big gap there to be closed of course. Other areas, such as for boys, where we see that there is a gap – and indeed, across the country, around one in four boys still failing to meet the minimum literacy standards at that final year nine level and that’s a sign that more effort clearly needs to be put in earlier and consistently – and particularly I think about identifying, at the earliest possible stage, children who are going to need extra help or targeted interventions to help them succeed.

Oliver Peterson: Okay, why do you think it is that there are one in four boys – in particular, 25 per cent of boys in grade nine – are not meeting the literacy standards that you would expect? That seems to be quite a high number, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it is a concern and it may be that some of the different impacts that we face nowadays around technology or the like have a disproportionate impact on boys’ learning compared with girls’ and this is one of the issues that I hope we will really get some further information on and evidence on as we week to undertake some of the reforms we’ve put in place.

As a Federal Government we don’t run schools but we do provide national leadership in elements of the school systems. So we’ve made changes to teacher training across the country to put greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy skills to make sure that there are more specialist teachers going into primary schools. We made changes to the national curriculum to allow for a clearer focus on teaching the basics, particularly in the early years. We’re encouraging states to look at early screening in that first year or two to better identify kids who aren’t [indistinct] properly. And we’ve asked David Gonski to get together with a panel of education experts to, not look at funding again, but instead look at the record and growing funding we’re investing in schools and see how it is that we can best make sure that that is used in the most effective way in schools, what does the evidence demonstrate and make sure that evidence for the best possible programs and targeted strategy is in the hands of principals and teachers.

Oliver Peterson: My guest this afternoon is the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. And I ask you today – 922 11 882 – what do you think we’re doing wrong in our schools? Let me know – 922 11 882 – what do you think we are doing wrong in our schools? Because Minister, what you’re outlining to me this afternoon – it does appear on the surface anyway – that those who advise you and those who are working on the curriculum and the standards and implementing the curriculum at the schools and the teachers are doing everything in their power to try and empower and teach their students.

Simon Birmingham: Well Ollie, we have wonderful hard working teachers and school leaders across the country and there are a couple of things that I’d love to see happen. One, which we’re working on very directly, which is through this second Gonski review is we’re looking at evidence based practices in schools, how it is we can better arm, as I say, teachers and school leaders with clear, proven strategies to make sure that they are teaching as effectively as possible, rolling out the best possible programs.

The other is, of course, a trickier one and that relates to the home environment and the culture of learning in different homes and there really is a message that must be made through all of this, particularly in the early years and that that is reading to your children is critical when they’re very young, reading with them remains critical as they get older and being engaged in their school education is very important. Parental engagement is such a key factor in terms of school success and it’s something that is, of course, much harder for schools, governments, policy makers to shift. It’s about societies, cultures and values and that’s the message we need to drive home again and again and again.

Oliver Peterson: And Simon Birmingham, do you think there’s- anecdotally, we hear from time to time parents love to kick and scream and complain about the fact that their son or daughter hasn’t been taught this or hasn’t been taught that, but it has to, as you say, be a holistic approach, it’s not just in the classroom or what the teacher is instructing their students to learn while they’re at school between 8.30 and three o’clock or whatever time it may be, but that education continues each and every day in the home and mum and dad are responsible too.

Simon Birmingham: Parents and caregivers have a huge responsibility there and there has been a trend over the years to see more and more loaded onto the school curriculum as people demand that schools teach different things. Some of them are things that traditionally would have been taught in the home environment; certain social values and the like, others are an awareness that we want to make sure kids are taught other broader aspects in terms of the curriculum that touches on modern society. It’s a balancing act for schools and policy makers as to how much you can fit in to the curriculum and one of the things the Coalition Government did in our first few years was to look at that national curriculum and ensure there was a bit more space in the early years for the basics of literacy and numeracy, but as well as balancing the finite time within schools, we do need to make sure it’s complemented by as much help outside school hours as possible and that’s where parents and caregivers can play the leading role.

Oliver Peterson: Yeah, indeed they can. Now, how about this civics and citizenship report revealing that most Australian students don’t understand how the Australian Parliament operates and works. I would have thought that was basic almost, Minister, and it was taught at a younger age as well, probably in primary school.

Simon Birmingham: Well indeed. And so whilst I’m fairly tempered in my remarks about the literacy and numeracy, critical though they are, I think they’re making gains in different places and we just have to keep redoubling our efforts there. I think in terms of the results on this civics and citizenship test, we can bluntly say that they are woeful. The idea that less than 40 per cent of year nine students in Australia understand the way our democracy works, our parliament works, our court systems work, the basics for engaging and these are individuals who are just two or three years away from voting in most instances and that suggests that we need to spend much more time in the classroom ensuring that people do understand it. Because of course our free, fair, democratic processes are a core part of what makes us a successful free country and helps to deliver us with the standard of living that is the envy of much of the rest of the world and it’s important that young people understand it and appreciate it.

Oliver Peterson: Absolutely, it is. And it is confusing I suppose, the concepts originally, but it is really something that we should all have an understanding of, particularly by the time that you’ve reached high school level and to see that 75 per cent of Australian students lack the basic knowledge, basically, to be informed citizens is a major concern.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, and there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that more time is being spent in classrooms learning about social issues, issues that impact upon the rest of the world in a range of different ways. But, of course, it’s pointless understanding all of those different worldly issues or social issues if you also don’t understand how to act upon them and act upon motivations in areas of concerns that you may have and that’s where understanding how our democracy works, how voting patterns work is very, very essential.

Oliver Peterson: It certainly is. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, really appreciate you being available and talking to us on Perth Live this afternoon. Thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure, Ollie, thank you.

Oliver Peterson: There you go. That is the federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham.