Interview on ABC 891 Adelaide with Spence Denny
Programme for International Student Assessment report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms

Spence Denny: Well we've seen another fall in the standard of 15-year-old Australian school students. Now this is a test specifically done on that age group; it's data from the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, from 70 countries, from OECD countries, and it's a three-yearly survey done. And it does reveal that we are really falling away on a national basis, and while individual states might use that to portray their performance in the best possible way, the reality is that the declining performance is Australia-wide. The figures indicate that for instance that if you were a 15-year-old student in 2003, you would be a year in front of where you are now in the maths discipline.

Senator Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Spence and good morning to your listeners.

Spence Denny: Now we know we're going to talk about the amount of money that's tossed in to trying to address this problem, but the reality is you're a parent yourself and you want your children to have the best possible education. How do you respond to a situation like this, putting the politics aside?

Simon Birmingham: Well Spence, firstly I think we have to acknowledge that Australian schools and our education system does, according to this survey, still perform above the OECD average. So we have real problems that we have to honestly confront, but we shouldn't exaggerate those problems or pretend that there is a complete crisis in the system. Now we do better than most other countries in the OECD, most other developed countries. This data does show that we have slipped backwards, as you said, across reading, science and mathematics, that students today are not performing to the same standard as students did just a few years ago, a decade ago or so. And yes, as a dad that really concerns me, and as Education Minister that worries me deeply in terms of how it is that we reverse that trend and what the types of reforms are that we need the states and territories as the managers of our school system to apply to be able to turn this around and make sure that today's students and tomorrow's students are equipped for a world that is far more competitive in terms of knowledge and the role of knowledge in jobs of the future than has been the case in the past.

Spence Denny: The decline though is – as you say, we are still in the top ten of the world, but we're not keeping up – this is all from the report – and the decline is being described as significant. Do you accept that?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. The trend line is very, very clear, as you rightly indicated. Some 15-year-old students today are more than one year behind where similar 15-year-old students would have been in their learning outcomes just 12 years ago. And that really is an appalling situation, to think that in such a short period of time, the outcomes of Australian students have slipped by a year or more in terms of their learning. And so we really do have to put politics aside and make sure that states, territories and the Federal Government look very carefully at what the evidence measures are that we can implement in our schools – and in homes, because parents have a role to play in this too – to turn it around.

Spence Denny: We're also seeing the proportion of high achievers declining. Are we not addressing the needs of the lower performing students sufficiently?

Simon Birmingham: Spence, I think you rightly highlight there that the problems are – right across the board – our high achievers are not achieving at the same level they were in previous years. We've seen decline across all systems; independent, Catholic and government systems have all seen a drop-off in terms of their performance, so this is not something that can be isolated to one group of students, the disadvantaged. There's obviously yes, widespread differences that occur across the system, and students from lower socioeconomic areas continue to perform more poorly than students elsewhere in Australia, but the decline is right across the system, and that is something that requires a concerted effort.

Now we’ve already taken steps in the last couple of years, the Coalition Government has reformed teacher training so that future teacher graduates out of our universities will have to meet minimum standards in their own personal literacy and numeracy that they’ll be tested for before they can enter the profession. We’re reforming teacher training as well so that we get more specialist graduates, particularly in science, maths, English – not just into our high schools, but also into primary schools so that you have deeper subject knowledge at an earlier age in those schools. We went to the last election with around a dozen different priority areas for reform that I’ve put on the table with state and territory ministers to talk about: for earlier assessment and therefore earlier intervention where kids have problems, higher ambition in terms of setting minimum standards for literacy and numeracy for school leavers, and work to try and keep and reward our most competent capable teachers in the classrooms and to recognise them and ideally get them into some of our most disadvantaged schools to address their particular issues.

Spence Denny: We know that in South Australia there’s a strong focus on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in fact, we’ll speak with the state Education Minister Susan Close about that shortly and about South Australia’s performance – but you made the point before about students from lower socioeconomic areas performing, well their performance is not up to standard with what it might have been in the past, so they’re slipping even further back. So what we’re actually seeing is that by not addressing the needs of the low performing students, we’re accessing a greater proportion of lower performing students, aren’t we?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Spence, we’ve really seen the whole bell curve shift in the wrong direction. So our low performing students are doing worse, but our high performing students are doing worse, and overall the whole system is doing worse. So yes, of course, we want to see the gap between low performers and high achievers narrowed as best we can. We certainly want to make sure that our future growing record levels of funding are directed where they need to to recognise need and to support students who need greater assistance. But we also have to work to ensure those higher achievers actually return to the highest levels of achievement. We want to extend kids who are gifted and have the capacity to do more and clearly we’re failing to do that as well as we did in the past.

Spence Denny: Look, this is a really great question that’s come in: is it time to do something radical? Why is Singapore, for instance, constantly on top? What are they doing that we’re not?

Simon Birmingham: Well Singapore, of course, does constantly lead the benchmarks here. Now they have different approaches to learning and teaching and longer school hours, so there are debates that absolutely can be had there. Of course, as a Federal Minister I don’t run schools, states and territories run schools. We’ve put a suite of different reforms proposals on the table as I say to have earlier assessments for children so we can pick up problems and to lift ambition and the minimum standards for school leavers and to change the way we reward teachers so that those who are recognised by their peers as being the most capable teachers are financially rewarded rather than it just being based on time served. They’re all important reforms, but I am absolutely all ears to work cooperatively with states who might wish to consider more radical changes to the way that their school system operates to be able to really lift this from not just being above average, but to return us to being an exemplar for the rest of the world.

Spence Denny: Are we going to be having this same conversation in three years?

Simon Birmingham: Well anything we do in the school system takes time to wash through so I don’t think we should expect that there are any miracle turnarounds. But I hope that we can see real commitment to implementing evidence based reforms that can make a difference and will ensure that within at least a few years, and certainly in a decade’s time, that we are seeing an upward trajectory rather than the downward trajectory we’ve been on for more than a decade now.

Spence Denny: So you’re saying we are a decade away from being able to fix this?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, I wouldn’t say that. But I think we have to acknowledge that you don’t just wave a magic wand in terms of how it is that these things are addressed. The decline is clear, the trend line is definitely pointing down – that’s clear after a decade of data now – as I said at the outset, we’re still performing above the OECD average. But we need to act now to make sure that we don’t go from being a potential leader in terms of world education and become a laggard in the future.

Spence Denny: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Spence.