Michael Brissenden: The numeracy and literacy skills of Australian school students have plateaued despite an increase in Federal Government funding. Results from the 2016 NAPLAN tests released today show a slight improvement in reading and numeracy and a decline in writing. The Government says schools and parents need to focus on evidence-based measures to lift the results; the Opposition says the Government needs to commit to funding the full Gonski model. 

Well for more on this I’m joined here in our Parliament House studio by the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Michael.

Michael Brissenden:
So why are the results plateauing?

Simon Birmingham:
Well Michael this is a concern. We’ve seen growth of more than 23 per cent in funding, federal funding for schools since 2013, yet there’s plateauing of performance under NAPLAN. Now the Turnbull Government released at the last election a range of policy reforms that we think need to be implemented to help address some of these concerns about performance in reading, writing, in numeracy, which NAPLAN measures, starting from the very earliest years. And we want to work constructively with the states and territories to ensure those types of measures are implemented, that ensure early intervention from year one level and identification of students who might be struggling right through to higher ambition and minimum standards for literacy and numeracy at year 12.

Michael Brissenden:
Now you say as part of your argument that this increase in funding isn’t translating necessarily to better results, and that it’s not really about the funding model. That’s essentially been your argument up to this point. But are we expecting too much too fast?

Simon Birmingham:
No Michael, we should be seeing continued improvements, and certainly when we’re seeing the scale of additional investment that is being put into our school system, as I say more than 23 per cent growth in federal funding since 2013. And look that will continue under the Turnbull Government; we will keep growing funding for our schools from around $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020, which will be distributed according to need. But surely now is the time where we need to shift the conversation from just being about how much money is spent, as the Labor Party seems fixated on, to one on how best it is invested to actually get the real results for our students and what they need in the future.

Michael Brissenden:
Okay, but you’re not committing to the big spend in the outlying Gonski years, which is the years five and six …

Simon Birmingham:
[Interrupts] I think a 23 per cent growth to date is a pretty big spend over the last three years.

Michael Brissenden: Sure, but it’s- but many say this, many of the experts and educators say you need to wait a while to see this all flow through and that the Gonski model is about boosting the funding model in the last years, which will have a bigger impact. Don’t …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] But the most …

Michael Brissenden: Don’t they have a point there? I mean, you are expecting these things to lift pretty quickly.

Simon Birmingham: Well we expect to see continued improvements. And we did see improvements through many of the early years of NAPLAN testing. We’ve seen a plateauing as the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has indicated, that is a concern that we’re seeing that plateauing. The most important principle that’s often missed in the Gonski model and report is the principle of ensuring funding is distributed according to the need. And the Turnbull Government is absolutely committed to making sure that the growing funding that we will provide, from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020, is distributed according to need. But importantly …

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts] So but has the disparity between the wealthy schools and the poorer regions, I mean has that evened out at all in the last three years?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely Michael. The direction of funding growth has been far greater into the government system, and we will continue to see strong growth in funding into the Government system under the Turnbull Government to make sure that we do give that needs-based approach to funding. But surely, surely we have to reach a point in this discussion where it’s not just about how much money is spent, and is about the types of reforms that we need to get the best outcomes for our students. And we want to make sure that our hard-working high-performing teachers are rewarded and encouraged to stay in schools, that they’re encouraged and incentivised to go to some of our most challenging schools so that the students who need it most can get the best teachers. These are some of the discussions that I want to be having with the states and territories to turn this type of plateau around into gain.

Michael Brissenden: But you seem to be arguing for more time too for the results. Because clearly things are plateauing but you say you’ve put more money in, you’ve tried to even out the playing field, but it hasn’t had a big impact yet.

Simon Birmingham:
Well we do have to recognise that plateauing results from record growing investment is not good enough, and therefore the conversation does need to change. And that’s why we went to the election outlining proposals for year one assessment of phonics, reading and numeracy skills so that we can identify from the very earliest age students who need early intervention. It’s why we proposed changes to reward our most high-performing and high-capable teachers and to keep them in the system and to get them into the schools where they’re needed most.

Michael Brissenden: But again, isn’t the single most important factor in improving those NAPLAN scores is putting more money and more resources into poorer schools?

Simon Birmingham: Michael, the single most important factor is actually the quality of the teaching and what is taught in those schools. Now, money is important: we’re putting record funding in and it will keep growing into the future. But we’ve seen this level of growth in funding of 23 per cent over the last few years, and yet we’re talking about plateauing results. So really, we have to draw a line in the sand and change …

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts] But teacher quality is the other factor there, or a variation in teacher quality?

Simon Birmingham: Well most of our teachers do an exceptional job, and so I don’t want this to in any way be interpreted as talking about poor-performing teachers. What we have to do is support the teachers with the direction, and the resources, and the tools to make a difference in the classroom. Now yes, we’ve focused on ensuring that in our universities we have a higher standard in relation to teacher graduates, that we put minimum literacy and numeracy requirements in place for those who are studying teaching out of university so we can have confidence in future teaching graduates. We want to encourage more teachers to be recognised as high-performing, highly-capable leading teachers under the standards for teachers that have been developed, and then through that have those teachers rewarded and incentivised to stay in the system and to go to the schools where they can make the greatest difference. So there are things we can do to back the teaching profession, and I want to back our most high-performing teachers with the type of rewards they deserve to do even better and to teach the students who need it most.

Michael Brissenden: Just quickly on higher education. This morning universities are urging you again to abandon the 20 per cent funding cut, you couldn’t get that through the Senate last time, you’re unlikely to get it through this one – are you going to abandon that?

Simon Birmingham: Well Michael we’re going through a consultation process, we released a position paper in the Budget this year on higher education, we’ve seen phenomenal growth in higher education funding since 2005, growing at twice the rate of the economy, it will keep growing from around $16 billion to about $18 billion under the Turnbull Government across research, and teaching, and learning. I’ll listen to … 

Michael Brissenden: [Interrupts] But the 20 per cent cuts are still there. How do the universities pick up the shortfall? Because you’ve ruled out full deregulation, so they’re struggling to find how they can actually make up this money.

Simon Birmingham: Well universities are making a mix of submissions: some are suggesting that there is a possibility to see students through the generous loan scheme make a slightly greater contribution, some are proposing other ways to realise savings by making that loan scheme more sustainable in the future. I welcome the fact that a number of universities and their representative bodies are seeing opportunities to help us with the real task of budget repair. It’s not easy, it will never be easy, but it is one that is important to the future of those students that we don’t leave them with massive government debt levels that ultimately undermine the quality of services in the future.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, we’ll leave it there. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Michael.

Michael Brissenden: Education Minister Simon Birmingham.