Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Topics: Year 1 numeracy and literacy checks; Higher education reforms; Same-sex marriage

Sabra Lane: All grade one students face mandatory testing for literacy and numeracy if the Federal Government adopts the recommendations from a report it commissioned earlier this year. The report released today suggests a national rollout of a light touch test in the form of a one-on-one interview with students during term three. The report authors believe the assessment will give schools a much better understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses, but that the results should not be published to allow school comparisons.

The federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Adelaide. Minister, good morning and welcome to AM.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra. Great to be with you.

Sabra Lane: You met with your state and territory counterparts last Friday. Did you discuss this report with them and are they in agreement that this test should be rolled out?

Simon Birmingham: We provided all of the states and territories with a copy of the report last week and briefly discussed it on Friday. We agreed that we would have authors of the report come and brief state and territory ministers when we all meet together later this year, and also importantly that we get some updates on some of the other things states are doing, such here in South Australia, where the state Labor Government is trailing a version of this sort of skills check so that we can get some better appreciation of practical on-the-ground actions that are already happening.

Sabra Lane: So South Australia’s testing it. Are other states testing this before you want to see this rolled out nationally?

Simon Birmingham: The different states all say they’re doing certain elements of this, and of course this report takes a look at that and assesses the successfulness or otherwise of some of those measures. But ultimately what the report recommends and what we’d like to see states do is that there is a common skills check applied at year one across the country.

This is, it’s important for listeners to appreciate, not another NAPLAN. It is a teacher who is known to the student sitting down at a personal one-on-one level, going through some words or numbers that the student reads back to the teacher, really just to check that they are developing the type of basic literacy and numeracy skills that are essential as the building blocks for success through the rest of their school education, and particularly developing in the literacy parts, the phonics skills that are necessary to be able to decode the letters on a page that form part of a word to ensure that they can structure and understand exactly how words are put together as part of their reading skillset.

Sabra Lane: When do you want to see it rolled out, by 2019? And if the test results show some schools clearly have a problem, will there be more money and resources for them?

Simon Birmingham: We’re already putting an extra $23 billion into schools over the next 10 years. That’s about $2300 extra per child. So what we really want to see here is now how do we make sure that we get best bang for our buck out of that investment. This is one way of addressing a problem, which is that too many young children are falling through the cracks in terms of their early literacy and numeracy development. We know that around one in 20 are not meeting the minimum standard when they reach the year three NAPLAN; many, many more are not reaching the proficient standard. So how do we ensure at an earlier stage teachers have a warning signal, something that enables them to be able to provide the additional targeted, tailored support for each student?

Now, many teachers, many schools do that very well already, and many use a variety of different techniques already. This would be but one additional tool for them, but it would be a way of us ensuring that in every classroom, in every school across the country, every child is guaranteed of having that skills check done, and if there is a problem, having it identified so that assistance can be delivered.

Sabra Lane: Again, by when do you want it rolled out?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, 2019 would be great, but we will work cooperatively with the states and territories. I hope that we can put all politics aside for this. As I said, it’s being trialled by a state Labor Government in one way at present, so this is something that both sides of politics are looking at in different ways. I want to see it developed successfully with the state and territories so that we can give that confidence to teachers and schools and parents that every child has that check and therefore if help is required it can be delivered.

Sabra Lane: Will future funding to the states and territories be contingent on them implementing this new test?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope that it doesn’t come to those types of considerations, that we actually have a positive discussion late this year with the states and territories about how this can be embedded as part of the National Assessment Program, but as a very different and distinct part, appropriately tailored to year one students so that they are getting that light touch skills check, as I say, from a teacher known to them in a personalised, individual, verbal way, but something that guarantees that no child falls through the cracks.

Sabra Lane: Parliament’s risen for four weeks. There are only four sitting weeks left this year. The university package that you wanted through Parliament isn’t yet, it’s stuck in the Senate. Universities Australia has asked that there be a moratorium on changes for next year, saying it’s not fair on students. Are you considering that?

Simon Birmingham: No, Sabra. We’ll consider the legislation that is now in the Senate and hopefully be able to do so when we’re back in four weeks’ time. The changes are all relatively light touch in that sense. The adjustments to student fees next year are 1.8 per cent. There clearly is the likes of Professor Bruce Chapman, who designed the HECS-HELP Scheme and is world-acclaimed for his expertise in this field has identified, they’re not going to have an impact in terms of student demand or student choices for next year.

Sabra Lane: Just on that though, I mean, Parliament doesn’t see this as a light touch change; Labor and the Greens are opposed; the crossbench is opposed to it as well. The Xenophon Team is far from agreeing with this; it says it can’t accept the reform that’s needed. Are you possibly looking at using your ministerial powers to put a funding freeze in place to bring about the changes that you want?

Simon Birmingham: Well, no. What we’re looking at doing is legislating what we announced in the Budget, which was the result of 12 months of consultation with the universities sector and elsewhere. Universities in Australia have seen some 71 per cent growth in their funding since around 2009. They’ve seen their per student funding grow by about 15 per cent, while their per student costs have only grown by about 9 per cent. So yes, we’re asking for a recalibration in terms of some return back to help us deal with fixing the Budget. But we think these measures will absolutely still enable our universities to be world-class, students to be able to access a university education with no upfront fees, with one of the most generous student loan systems in the world, and these are the types of things we’re trying to preserve for university education in the future.

Sabra Lane: To the same-sex marriage ballot. You’re in favour of change, appearing in a list of other current and former Liberal MP in a newspaper ad today. Who’s going to be persuaded by that ad?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, we’re sending a clear message out there that, as Liberals and Nationals, there are a large number of us who are voting yes and that we encourage our fellow Australians, including fellow Liberal and Nationals voters, to vote yes, and to vote yes in particular for good conservative principles, that marriage strengthens the relationships that individuals have, and in doing so, it ensures that they reduce their dependence upon the state or the welfare system because of that support that comes from strong, long-lasting, committed relationships. In doing so, that strengthens our society overall, so we see this as a reform that can absolutely strengthen the institution of marriage and deliver real benefits in terms of stronger, more stable relationships in the future.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thank you very much for talking to AM.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Sabra.