Interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane
Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check; Australia’s renewable energy target

Sabra Lane:                              Across the country this morning, parents are driving their kids to school for the first time this year. The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, will be one of those parents meeting those teachers for the first time and he’s taking a big announcement with him: plans to beef up the year one curriculum, including a test for all year one students for phonics. Phonics is the ability to use letter sounds to figure out how to pronounce words. It’s been a controversial ideological battle for years.

Simon Birmingham has stopped in at our Adelaide studio on his way to school and he joins us this morning. Minister thanks for joining AM this morning. Will testing phonics improve kids’ ability to read?

Simon Birmingham:     Well good morning Sabra, and congratulations on your first program. Yes, phonics is an essential part of children understanding how to decode words, to construct basically the sounds that are necessary to put a word together. It’s not the only aspect or attribute required for successful reading and literacy skills but it is a very important one. And it’s one that we should make sure all children in their first couple of years of schooling are understanding, are meeting, so that we can be guaranteed they will get those literacy foundations that enable them to succeed right through their education.

Sabra Lane:                              But will those tests actually improve their ability to read? Sounding out letters doesn’t necessarily mean that children actually know what those words mean. 

Simon Birmingham:     As I say, it’s not the only aspect but it is a very important one. It’s one that has long been recommended. You can go back as far as 2005 to find expert reports arguing that Australia should do something like this. Other countries have moved forward, such as the United Kingdom. What we’re proposing, or the Turnbull Government’s proposing, as one of more than 12 different policy reforms we took to the last election is to see a national approach that looks at literacy issues generally including phonics, numeracy skills as well. Not in another NAPLAN test where students sit down in a test format with pen and paper, but in a ‘soft touch’ assessment where an individual teacher works one-on-one with those children in terms of going through key sounds, key words et cetera. And yesterday we announced an expert panel that has teachers, principals, as well as experts from the dyslexia advocacy organisations, speech pathologists, maths experts all coming together to work out what will be the optimal arrangement to support teachers and students in getting the best possible start to their education.

Sabra Lane:                              Now in that long answer, you talked about the UK model for this. Will it be a model for the Australian test? The Heads of the Independent Schools Association says Australia shouldn’t automatically adopt that UK model, pointing out that in the UK, the test results have actually added little to teacher’s knowledge of their students’ reading skills. Is there really any evidence that this will work?

Simon Birmingham:     Well a couple of things there, Sabra, if you look at the history since the phonics check was put in place in the UK, you can see that there have been significant improvements in terms of students successfully passing that and indeed that there is research that indicates improvements in their latter reading and literacy skills, even though this has only been in place for a few years over there. But secondly I emphasise that…

Sabra Lane:                              [Talks over] The Heads of the Independent Schools Association – they’re hardly flag waving lefties.

Simon Birmingham:     No, no, indeed and if you look at the full release as I’m sure you have, the Independent Schools Association welcomed the panel that we announced yesterday, welcomed the fact that we’re looking at something broader than just a phonics check, that can have a look at overall literacy skills as well as important numeracy skills. But we cannot ignore the fact that multiple different international reports last year showed Australia was at best stagnating and at worst declining in terms of our education performance. I get reports from universities, employers and others concerned about the literacy skills of students who have completed school. Around 200,000 students are estimated to be unable to read satisfactorily in terms of their school education. So this is the type of step in the earliest years to identify those who are not getting the skills, so clear, consistent, national interventions can take place to help those kids and to make sure that we’re getting the best possible result from our record investments in Australian schools.

Sabra Lane:                              Okay you’ve talked about interventions, will schools that do poorly in these results be given more money, new programs, better teachers or all three?

Simon Birmingham:     I would absolutely expect that the school systems, the state and territory school systems should use results such as these to help inform their funding allocations and where they’d direct special programs in future. At a federal level, we’re providing record growing levels of investment into Australian schools. The Turnbull Government invested around $16 billion last year which will grow to more than $20 billion by 2020. We are committed to applying formulas for distribution that are based on need, but of course it’s ultimately a matter for states and territories as to how they carve up funds that go into individual schools, where they send teachers to and the like. And I would expect that they should do so on the basis of need, which clearly includes where it is identified that there are high proportions of students who are struggling to develop core literacy or numeracy skills.

Sabra Lane:                              What happens to the states and schools that don’t comply and include this test? Already there’s been some push back. Will this be tied to future funding arrangements for the states?

Simon Birmingham:     Well we don’t believe that the states and territories should be able to just take billions of dollars of Commonwealth money and continue a business as usual approach when evidence shows, as I said before, that Australia’s performance in terms of our school education is stagnating at best and slipping behind many other nations.

Sabra Lane:                              So will it be tied?

Simon Birmingham:     So we do expect to form as part of our agreements with the states and territories, reforms that ought to be delivered. Now I’m willing and wanting to work cooperatively with the states and territories around the exact nature of those reforms. This is why we’ve put an expert panel involving teachers, principals, dyslexia advocates and others together to help form a real credible basis for what this skills check would look like. And we’ll sit down with that evidence base to talk through with the states and territories over the coming months.

Sabra Lane:                              You’ve promised to come up with that new funding formula for schools this year to start next year. The Grattan Institute came up with a model last year and it pointed out some schools are overfunded. Are you courageous enough to stop that overfunding and divert the money to schools in need?

Simon Birmingham:     Sabra, I absolutely want a school funding model for the future that is consistent and fair which means doing away with the 20 different- 27 different special deals that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party left in place. It means having something that is consistently applied and yes, that means that if some schools under formulas that have been grandfathered for years and years are getting more than their fair share, then we ought to have a look at an adjustment process. Equally, of course, there are schools, including in the non-government sector, who are getting less than what formulas would say their fair share is and that should equally be applied to, they’ll have an adjustment process.

Sabra Lane:                             Minister, just one more question. Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, has intervened again this morning to warn that Government’s losing touch with voters and that you’re mugs if you don’t scrap the renewable energy target. What’s your response?

Simon Birmingham:     The renewable energy target was only settled and amended around 18 months ago under the Abbott Government. We have no plans to change it and the real focus of debate around the renewable energy target shouldn’t be our 23 per cent target by 2020 – which as I say, has only been in place for around 18 months – but it should be how Bill Shorten is going to actually address the 50 per cent the Labor Party has announced; what on earth that will cost, how on earth it will be implemented. None of those sorts of details have been outlined by Bill Shorten.

Sabra Lane:                             But again, he’s said that the major parties – parties plural and pointing to the government – are out of touch with voters. Do you accept that criticism?

Simon Birmingham:     I emphatically deny that criticism. But, Sabra, the important point here is we have a renewable energy target in place, that was put in place 18 months ago, clear arrangement as to how that will be met. And the opposite’s political sphere, in the Labor Party, they have a 50 per cent target – as indeed do a number of the states and territories – with no clarity as to how they’ll be met, that’s what’s creating uncertainty in the electricity markets. That is what may well lead to price spikes if they ever came about to being implemented and that is of course what can lead to a lack of reliability if it’s not integrated in the systems. And the Chief Scientist himself has indicated there are real problems to those ad hoc approaches which is why the calm and consistent approach that Josh Frydenberg and our government is bringing to working on energy policy is of course important. And that means not changing something that was only settled just 18 months ago.

Sabra Lane:                             It’s another intervention from Mr Abbott, he also said on the weekend that there should be changes in regard to the Senate. What does this do for good governing for the Turnbull Government? Does it make it any easier to have these constant interventions and suggestions from the sideline?

Simon Birmingham:     We’re well and truly able to get on with the important jobs. I’m here talking about literacy and numeracy for Australian school children, Scott Morrison’s been working on policies and emphasising them in relation to housing affordability. Of course, in the last few months of last year we managed to get through significant pieces of legislation that had been stalled or delayed in the previous Parliament: the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the Registered Organisations Commission, tax cuts for hard-working middle income Australians, changes to support volunteer firefighters, significant budget savings through our Omnibus Savings Bill. I think the Turnbull Government’s getting a lot done. We have a lot on our agenda and we’re going to keep working hard at implementing it.

Sabra Lane:                             Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham:     A pleasure, Sabra.