Rafael Epstein: Let’s speak first to Senator Simon Birmingham. He is part of Malcolm Turnbull’s Federal Government. He’s also the Minister for Education and Training. Senator, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Raf, good to speak with you.

Rafael Epstein: How good’s your handwriting?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] My wife and staff would tell you that it’s probably appalling and resembles that of a doctor. 

Rafael Epstein: How come?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, yes, maybe I don’t put enough effort in there or otherwise [indistinct].

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] But were you taught? Did you get the gold plate education at school?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think I got a good education at school, and I think it’s important to appreciate that when we talk about writing in NAPLAN, in terms of the assessment of writing, we’re not actually assessing the quality in terms of the legibility of handwriting. Although it has to actually be legible, of course, to be assessed. We’re talking about the structure of the sentences, the ability to engage in creative writing, those sorts of things. So it’s actually the construction of the written word that is being assessed there, not actually whether or not it’s beautifully presented, handwriting or otherwise.

Rafael Epstein: Sure. So as the population rises, we spend more money on everything. We are spending, I think it’s 16 billion on education at the moment. If we’re spending more and more, is it actually a problem with those NAPLAN results not improving markedly?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we are spending more per student as well, so it’s not just that additional funding going into the education system is only keeping up with enrolments or inflation. We have grown funding by some 23 per cent at a federal level into schools over the last years, and that is significantly above both enrolment growth and inflation during that period of time. So there’s real extra money going into the system, and of course, what we would hope to see from that are real improvements in terms of student outcomes. Plateauing therefore is a concern in that sense.

We have a good education system. We’ve got many wonderful teachers who do a great job, schools that are equipping the vast majority of students to succeed in life. But we want to make sure that we keep up with the rest of the world in terms of our standards, and importantly, those who are missing out, we are applying policies that help them and that’s really the focus of a number of the types of policies that Malcolm Turnbull and I announced before the Budget, before the election that we want to see implemented alongside of future school funding growth in the future.

Rafael Epstein: But maybe the money is not being spent in the right places. Many private schools already in Victoria, especially independent and Catholic, sorry, especially Catholic schools, they already get more money per student than government schools, and the private schools have had a much bigger increase in their funding than government schools. So maybe the issue is the money is not going to the right places.

Simon Birmingham: Raf, neither of those statements are entirely correct. Firstly, private schools on average receive far less Government funding per student than do government or public schools. So yes, if you take into account parental contributions that are made – so fees that people pay to a private school – the total funding per student might be higher, but the Government funding on average is about $6000 less from the taxpayer for a student in a non-government school relative to a student in a government school.

Rafael Epstein: But the private schools got the lion’s share of the increase, and I should say that was under Labor, 2009 to 2014. They got the lion’s share of the increase, and if we don’t change the formula, that’s going to increase, isn’t it? 

Simon Birmingham: In the period since 2013, that also is not accurate. The significant growth we’ve had in funding that has come under the so-called Gonski reforms over the last few years has seen greater growth going to the government school sector, and what we are absolutely committed to is that new school funding formulas that we want to strike from 2018 will be needs-based. So schools of lower socioeconomic status will receive greater funding, additional loadings, and funding will keep growing in the future. 

So yes, making sure funding goes where it is needed most is important, but we equally want to make sure and most importantly make sure that then it is used as effectively as possible. And that is the real call I’m making out of this, that funding’s at record levels. It’s going to keep growing from about $16 billion – as you said before – this year to more than $20 billion from the Federal Government by 2020. It will be distributed according to need. Let’s change the debate now to actually talk about the things that we can ensure it is most effectively used on for student benefit.

Rafael Epstein: But isn’t there an issue if, I think almost 100 per cent of private schools get more in government grants than they spend on teachers’ salaries. So they’re getting all of the teachers’ fees paid for by the Government. That’s 95 per cent of the schools. That still shows there’s an imbalance, doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said before, the average differential between taxpayer contributions to a government school and a non-government school …

Rafael Epstein: [Talks over] Yeah, but averages can be, averages can be misleading, can’t they?

Simon Birmingham: …is about $6000 per student. I would think that it would be remarkable – I don’t know where the statistic you just cited came from or the claim it comes from – but I would be gobsmacked if, with a $6000 differential, that was, they were managing to pay for all of the teacher salaries out of government funding, if they’re getting $6000 per student less.

Rafael Epstein: Look, 1300 222 774 is the phone number. You’re listening to Senator Simon Birmingham. He is Malcolm Turnbull’s Education and Training Minister. Minister, you mentioned some of the policies you took to the election which you’ll try and enact, obviously. The debate around school autonomy, I know some people who study these things say listen, school autonomy can be a problem. It’s better to have rigorous standards that go across the board. Is school autonomy necessarily the right path to go down?

Simon Birmingham:
It’s a mixed approach. I don’t think you have school autonomy at the expense of having high universal standards that you expect to be met. Look, Victoria is a system that has a greater level of autonomy for schools than many other systems around Australia. It has had since the Kennett Government days, and of course, Victoria is one of our highest performing jurisdictions in terms of the NAPLAN results and overall levels of educational attainment. So a lot of areas there in Victoria are of note. Victoria also spends less per student than pretty much any other state in Australia. So you get better educational outcomes, you’re spending less per student, and you’ve got relatively high levels of school autonomy. 

So Victoria is a good, high-performing education system as it is. That’s not to say that we can’t manage to make improvements in Victoria, but certainly elsewhere around the country as well. And that’s why the types of conversations that we want to have with the state and territory governments are focused on how we make sure that phonics and reading are being taught appropriately at the earliest possible ages, and that we’re getting early assessment then of children so there can be early intervention where there are problems; how we put in place at the other end of the schooling system clear minimum standards for literacy and numeracy so that employers, unis, TAFEs can have confidence that students who leave school have the literacy and numeracy skills to succeed and participate in those post-school environments; how we back our most capable teachers to stay in the teaching profession, be rewarded as the high- as highly capable and leading teachers within their school environments, and then being incentivised to go and teach in some of our most difficult schools where they can give the best benefit to students.

Rafael Epstein:
Senator, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure, Raf. Thank you.

Rafael Epstein:
Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training, so he is part of Malcolm Turnbull’s Federal Cabinet, part of the Federal Government.