Interview on ABC AM with Kim Landers
Programme for International Student Assessment; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes; Energy security
7 December 2016

Kim Landers: Well Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training and he joins me from Melbourne. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Kim. Good to be with you. 

Kim Landers: What’s going wrong in our schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Kim, clearly there is something going wrong and we really need to make sure that we reverse these declines that are seeing Australian schoolchildren in 2015, when this test was undertaken, performing at lower levels of accomplishment and achievement than previous generations of Australian schoolchildren have. Now as a Government we have already taken action to address the training of teachers so that new graduates coming out of our universities will have to pass a test to demonstrate their minimum personal competencies in literacy and numeracy, so that we’ll have more specialist teachers, particularly new specialist primary teachers across maths, science, English – key capabilities. But we also went to the election outlining a range of other reforms, 12 different priority areas for reform, from interventions in the earliest years of earlier assessment though to higher ambition in terms of minimum standards for school leavers, as well as more support to keep our most capable teachers in the classroom.

Kim Landers: Alright and if we look at some of these results: an Australian science student is now seven months behind where they were in 2006, a maths student is a year of schooling behind where they were in 2003, reading ability has declined by a year since 2000. So tell parents, what do you think is the number one thing that could be done, out of everything you’ve just mentioned, to prevent students from sliding further down the ladder.

Simon Birmingham: Well our number one focus has to always be teacher quality and ensuring that our hardworking teachers are given the skills in their training in the early years and then the support through ongoing professional development to be their best because the single greatest in-school factor in terms of student accomplishment is absolutely the teacher. Now parents themselves have a role to play too, the greatest factor outside of the school system is the home environment, are parents. And as a parent myself, I would urge everybody to take their responsibilities in the early years of establishing sound foundations in terms of reading skills very, very seriously but of course …

Kim Landers: [Interrupts] … Let me ask you something about teacher quality there that you have mentioned that there has been criticism that we don’t have enough qualified maths and science teachers and changing this is a bit of a medium to long term project. So do we need for example special visas to recruit qualified teachers from overseas in the meantime?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kim, we certainly put that on the table in our policy document at the election in relation to foreign language teachers. Now ultimately if we do need to get more specialist maths and science teachers into the classroom, that’s a discussion I am very open to having. I hope that state and territory ministers who of course directly administer our school systems will actually engage in constructive conversations with me about how we can work cooperatively to address this very serious decline in Australia’s real performance across these key benchmark areas.

Kim Landers: This is the second set of independent international test results to show a slide in Australian results. The data is telling us that performance isn’t good enough, it’s been happening over a long period of time, since the Howard Government in fact, so do you acknowledge that this means successive governments have been getting it wrong?

Simon Birmingham: Well we certainly have to acknowledge that this is a trend, not just one set of statistics but backed up by the TIMSS report last week, by NAPLAN data and indeed by previous occasions in terms of this PISA data and that does mean that the things we have been doing are not working. Now since 2003, funding going into Australian schools from the Federal Government has lifted by 50 per cent so we’ve seen big growth in terms of the dollars going into our education system but that’s not..

Kim Landers: [Talks over] So you’re saying that more money is not the answer?

Simon Birmingham: Well more money certainly in and of itself is not the answer, the Turnbull Government is providing record and growing levels of funding that will grow from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020, above inflation, above projected enrolment growth but we must now focus on how we most effectively use that funding because clearly the way we’ve been using record funding to date has not been working in the best interests of our school children.

Kim Landers: I’ll talk about how you use the funding in a minute, but Labor would argue that for example, the Government needs to restore the tens of billions of dollars that were cut from projected school funding growth in the 2014 Budget.

Simon Birmingham: Well Labor’s argument is for more of the same: more business as usual because we’ve consistently tipped more money into our school system over recent years. It’s doubled in real terms since 1988, 50 per cent real growth in the federal funding since 2003. This is significant extra funding in our schools. Now is the time to focus on why it is we are not getting value for money in terms of our results; why it is that despite 50 per cent growth in federal funding since 2003, Australian school children in 2015 are doing worse than Australian school children were in 2003. That is obviously unacceptable.

Kim Landers: So late next week you’ll meet your state and territory counterparts to talk about a new federal-state school funding agreement. Could you agree, for example, to put the politics aside and focus on what’s best to improve student performance?

Simon Birmingham: I really and sincerely hope that is the case, Kim. I want us to talk through the areas of reform that we took to the election as well as any other areas of reform that the states and territories believe we ought to be pursuing. We should be making our decisions based on evidence, based on practice of what’s working. They all have experience in running their school systems, some are doing good innovative things at present. We must make sure the areas where our NAPLAN results are showing improvement in certain schools are getting picked up and utilised right across our school system.

Kim Landers: Okay Minister, just on one other matter: two days ago your colleague Josh Frydenberg told this program that the Government would look at an emissions intensity scheme for electricity, yesterday he said that the Government wouldn’t be doing that. So which is it?

Simon Birmingham: Well back in August when the Prime Minister announced the targets that …

Kim Landers: [Talks over] I’m asking which is it?

Simon Birmingham: No, no, Kim. I’m explaining for real clarity here. The Prime Minister was very clear that our Government would not be pursuing any form of carbon tax or trading scheme and that remains clearly our Government’s policy. The only party interested in carbon taxes or trading scheme is the Labor Party who want to impose a carbon tax back on Australia.

Kim Landers: [Talks over] So you’re saying that he got it wrong, did you? Is that what you’re saying: he got it wrong, he made a mistake?

Simon Birmingham: Kim, our position has been crystal clear, the Prime Minister has been very clear all along …

Kim Landers: [Talks over] It didn’t seem to be very clear to him if he told that to this program on Monday.

Simon Birmingham: Well I- every time I hear Josh Frydenberg talk he puts great emphasis on energy security, energy reliability, energy affordability – all of which are the reasons why we don’t want to see new carbon taxes or trading schemes brought back into Australia as the Labor Party proposes which will only drive the price of electricity up and risk affordability, risk our competitiveness as a nation. And ultimately, as a South Australian, I’ve of course seen from the blackouts we’ve occurred, the problems that can come for industry and job creation when you threaten reliability through ill-thought through policy measures.

Kim Landers: Okay. Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Kim, thank you.

Kim Landers: And that is Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training.