Interview on 891 ABC Adelaide with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms; Future schools funding arrangements

David Bevan: Now we’re continuing to get texts on this. Some people saying: oh leftie conspiracy, please, give me a break. Most principals in our schools are male. Somebody else says the problem with these complaining parents is that they expect the state to bring up their kids. It’s always somebody else’s problem or a leftie conspiracy. 

We’re talking about this latest research which stretches back over 20 years looking at Australian schools and how they compare the results for our kids in key areas like mathematics and science with other countries. And apparently we’re treading water while a lot of other countries, countries that perhaps you wouldn’t expect, places like Kazakhstan are racing ahead. 

The Federal Education Minister is Senator Simon Birmingham for South Australia and he joins us now, good morning Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. 

David Bevan: Well what do you make of these results?

Simon Birmingham: Well these are disappointing results. There’s no hiding that and these results show that Australia is slipping further behind other nations in terms of the maths and science skills in our schools and that’s just not good enough in an age and an era when maths and science is becoming ever more critical to more and more jobs.

Matthew Abraham: Now South Australia doesn’t appear to fair very well in these results but one of the authors of the report, Dr Sue Thomson from ACER, said look that can be a little misleading, South Australia’s probably about middle range. Would you agree with that?

Simon Birmingham: Look it’s probably a fair analysis that South Australia appears to have had some mild improvement in its scores but comes off a bit of a low base relative to some of the other states, so that puts in amongst the states SA kind of middle of the pack at best, but of course the big story out of this is that compared with other nations we’re not keeping up and that’s a real problem.

Matthew Abraham: Would you describe this as a national disgrace given that- you could understand this if we didn’t spend a lot of money on education, but according to the information we have on this, we have the fifth highest level of spending in the OECD on education. The fifth highest amount of education in the OECD but we’ve been leapfrogged by Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Hungary and others, the Czech Republic, Lithuania. These are not backward countries by the way, but they’re going gangbusters in this area. So is it a national disgrace?

Simon Birmingham: Well Matthew it’s a big, big wakeup call that rather than having endless debates about how much money we spend, we need to start focusing a whole lot more on how we best spend and invest that money to get better outcomes.

Matthew Abraham: Alright well Dr Sue Thomson says the answer’s pretty simple; stop spending in well-off areas and start spending it in poorer areas.

Simon Birmingham: Well we don’t spend a lot in well-off areas. We have to be very honest here that students in rich private schools receive much less government funding than students in disadvantaged government schools do. That’s as it should be. We’re driving towards even more needs-based funding arrangements over time and we’re seeing strong growth in funding in terms of actually providing funding that will grow from around $16 billion this year federally to more than $20 billion by 2020. The average for a government school student is they get about $16,000 of funding per student, a non-government school student gets about $9000 of government funding per student. So the money’s there. The focus on spending more in areas of greatest need is already there…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well it’s not working is it?

Simon Birmingham: …and that’s why…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well it’s not working. It’s broken. 

Simon Birmingham: …it’s not about money, it’s got to be about how we use it. How we ensure teachers are proficient…

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, it is, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: … how we ensure that we’re actually getting outcomes in the classroom. And we’ve proposed – and I’ve written to the states and territories seeking their feedback – on a range of specific school reforms to ensure our teachers are proficient when they get into the classroom, to back up the changes we’ve already made to test teacher trainees in universities for their own numeracy and literacy skills to make sure that we actually increase ambition at the end of schooling until there are minimum numeracy standards that are applied. And in doing so then increase the pressure right through the school system to ensure kids meet those standards.

Matthew Abraham: Do you need though, Simon Birmingham Federal Education Minister, do we now need something radical here? In other words, the states can’t be trusted to deliver education. They get the money, you give them the money, they … their not delivering the results are they? So why should they be left running it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not proposing we try …

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] You wouldn’t keep giving your car to a mechanic who couldn’t fix it? Would you?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] No you wouldn’t, Matthew.

Matthew Abraham: So why not just take control of it?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think the nation needs a constitutional referendum for us to try to take control of education because it is enshrined in the constitution: that’s the state’s job.

Matthew Abraham: So what? We have referendums on lots of other things that are in the constitution.

Simon Birmingham: But – well we don’t actually [laughs] not very often and …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Well we do.

Simon Birmingham: … they’re usually very divisive. What we are proposing is that rather than the Federal Government, who is now giving record levels of money for schools, doing it as a blank cheque; that we actually want to make sure our cheque is conditional, that we propose and agree on real reforms to lift behaviour and outcome in schools and that that is conditional- or the funding is conditional upon those reforms being delivered upon. And so we’ll be a much more engaged player in this than we have been previously.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Between one-quarter and one-third of students are not proficient enough to apply the basic maths and science knowledge they need to navigate everyday life and are in danger of being left behind in the global race for jobs of the future: that’s how Stefanie Balogh, educational correspondent for The Australian interprets these results.

Simon Birmingham: Yep which emphatically is not good enough. So we expect the states to sign on to a new funding deal where they agree to commit to deliver certain reforms, those reforms will focus on areas of teacher quality and proficiency; on making sure we better reward our most capable teachers to keep them in the classroom, not just rewarding teachers based on time served in the system; that we actually do put in place minimum standards for school-leavers, putting pressure right through the rest of the school system; that we have earlier assessments in terms of literacy and numeracy skills so there can be earlier interventions for kids who are falling behind. Now these are some of the things that we think we can do. Ultimately we also want more specialist teachers and getting the states to commit to processes to employ more specialist maths and science teachers, not just in secondary schools, but in primary schools as well.

Matthew Abraham: To return to Sue Thomson’s- Dr Sue Thomson’s comments that is: instead of spending money where the kids are well off, spend it where they’re not. Here’s a practical example: instead of spending, what is it $100, $150 million more, on a second campus for Adelaide High School students who will be fed in from some of Adelaide’s best, most well-off suburbs; could you spend that $150 million on say Gilles Plains? Seventy million of that may be on creating jobs for the parents. Would that be a way to make real strides in literacy, numeracy, the sorts of things that are coming up in this report.

Simon Birmingham: Well my understanding is the Adelaide High School debate is one of the fact that there is demand and pressure for extra school places within that catchment area. And so obviously you’ve got to have enough places in the geographical areas where there is demand for places at schools. So that’s a separate matter in a sense.

Matthew Abraham: [Interrupts] Well that’s demand. I’m talking about need.

Simon Birmingham: Well every … where there’s demand actually for school places, that is of course where those school places are needed. Every child needs a school to go to in the first place, and needs a school that is geographically convenient …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Yeah. But, but, how much greater would the need be in our poorer suburbs to the north and south?

Simon Birmingham: Look, the need absolutely aligns in many ways with levels of disadvantage. The, of course, big challenge is that the first and most significant factor in a kid’s educational attainment is indeed home influences and how much learning occurs in the home, reading to children when they’re young, all those parental engagement measures. So doing more to actually get better outcomes in the home to start with to support hard-working teachers and ensure that they’re actually getting more back-up is something we’ve got to spend a lot more time and effort focusing on. And making sure that parents understand they have responsibilities in this process as well, it’s not just about what happens with teachers and in schools.

Matthew Abraham: We’re going to bump into the clock. All kids should be able to read that. Senator Simon Birmingham, Education Minister, thank you, we’ll pick this up in Super Wednesday at 8:30am.