Interview on ABC Illawarra Mornings with Nick Rheinberger
Linkage Projects funding to encourage research with practical outcomes; Collaboration between researchers and industry; Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check

Nick Rheinberger: We started with education, we’re going to continue in this hour with a couple of significant announcements from the Minister for Education and Training at both ends of the spectrum. One is with the universities and the other is with your year one kids. Simon Birmingham is the Minister and joins us now. Good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Nick, and good morning to your listeners.

Nick Rheinberger: First of all, let’s look at this project funding for industry and research collaboration. This involves the University of Wollongong and rail. What’s the story there?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the first of the Turnbull Government’s new Linkage Project Grants, which is a really important way of better linking universities with industry and external bodies so that research undertakings have a pointier focus to them in terms of helping get real outcomes.

In this case a grant to the University of Wollongong is one of the first four grants that are being made under the new program. It’s $675,000, a program looking at rail track stability. We’re working with a number of other companies and entities and the university will be having a look at what they say are the causes of mud pumping and effectiveness of drainage, all of which is about trying to improve the longevity of rail tracks and that of course can save everybody money, boost productivity and particularly ensure that we have a more effective rail network in the future.

Nick Rheinberger: Well, neither of us are engineers, but what do you know about mud pumping? Why is this a problem? What does that mean?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I don’t know much about mud pumping, to be honest. But I do know that, of course, with every piece of critical infrastructure whether it’s road, rail,  airports or the like, the longer we can extended their life span the less cost that can be applied to maintenance, then of course the cheaper it is to shift freight, to move passengers, to operate those systems. All of which is good news for the economy and the operation of those services.

Nick Rheinberger: I have read that this is something that occasionally interrupts rail systems, particularly after very heavy rain, that the mud sort of starts getting dilute and comes out of the rocks, the ballast underneath the rails. So we’re trying to prevent that and get greater stability and better life out of our rail systems by the look of it.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s absolutely the ambition here, and of course it’s part of a much bigger ambition in terms of the linkage program that we’ve set up, which sees across the four projects we’re announcing today, $5.2 million of investment from universities, businesses and Government. Which is a great mix of co-contribution. Government support is around- $1 invested from the Government generates an investment by industry of about $1.64 in these projects. So it’s really leveraging private investment in research. And it’s research that of course, if successful, can have an impact right across the whole nation. 

Up in Queensland a number of projects supporting the mining industry and the changes we’ve made in creating this Linkages Projects Scheme, are about providing year round opportunities for grants with a faster evaluation process,. All of which make it more attractive for industry and business to partner with our universities and great institutions like the University of Wollongong.

Nick Rheinberger: Okay, where do the private companies, private industry come in to this?

Simon Birmingham: So, they form collaborative partnerships with the universities. In this case its companies like Infra Tech, the Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation, the Geoharbour Group, Coffey Geotechnics, and SMEC Australia. So a range of different partners, a number of for profit, a couple of other centres involved there, working with the university. They put both cash and in kind contribution behind the research and of course they help to make sure that what the researchers at the university are doing really is focussing on the problem at hand and solutions that are practical for rail operators. 

Nick Rheinberger: Alright, lets go to the other end of the spectrum as far as education is concerned, which is literacy and numeracy checks for six-year-olds. Now they’ve hardly been at school a year in some cases, what can we actually achieve with kids of that age?

Simon Birmingham: So, of course, what we announced yesterday is a panel that will be appointed to develop an appropriate skills check for six-year-olds, year one students, across phonics, literacy and numeracy. That panel comprises a principal, a teacher, some dyslexia skilled advocates, speech pathologists, maths experts, so a really good, broad mix. And clearly we want something that is age appropriate. It will not be another NAPLAN style test of kids sitting at a desk doing a written test. This is about a soft touch, one-on-one engagement between the teacher and the student, a verbal engagement where they’re- where a skills check occurs where they look at different words and try to sound those words out to the teacher. 

There’s a model that’s been applied in the United Kingdom, in England, already, that we’re going to take a close look at in terms of phonics skills. And it’s really about making sure that in that first year or two, they’re getting the foundational elements right in terms of how to construct words, how to understand the different phonetic sounds that aren’t just the alphabet but all of those that are constructed, which is really important to them, establish sound literacy skills for further development.

Nick Rheinberger: So how will the testing be done? A one-on-one test between the teacher and the child sort of showing various letters or words and seeing how they’re matched up with the child’s pronunciation?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. If you imagine a teacher sitting there with a slide deck of words and sounds and showing those to the child and getting them to read them back to the teacher. So very gentle in that sense but really, really important that those phonetic skills that make up all of the different sounds in our words are learnt and a really critical way of particularly identifying children who may have learning difficulties, may have dyslexia might be falling behind in helping to make sure that they get the help that’s required, which is why dyslexia advocates have long called for this type of assessment. It was recommended as early as 2005 in a major national report into literacy and the Turnbull Government wants to see it now brought into reality.

Nick Rheinberger: Okay. Now I understand this has been taking place in England for some years. What does the research show there?

Simon Birmingham: The research has shown that a really strong and steady trend of improving patterns of children getting this right in the classroom. So clearly it has impacted on the teaching of phonics in the schools and teachers are making sure that they’re helping to better prepare children in terms of those foundational elements of literacy. We’re suggesting that we should have a look at this in a broader context so it’s not just about phonics. The panel that we’ve appointed will look at all of the elements of literacy skills that are required in those early years as well as basic numeracy skills. So basic counting, basic awareness of shapes or money or the like that you would expect children to be starting to develop after their first year or two at school.

Nick Rheinberger: Okay how has the testing in England affected the way children are taught?

Simon Birmingham: Well as I say, we have seen and there’s data clearly in England that shows the number of children succeeding when their skills check is applied has grown over the years, which clearly indicates that gradually they’re getting improved teaching and learning outcomes which is a very positive thing because if you can guess, of course more children developing those foundational skills, then you don’t need to have the types of intervention later in life that might be necessary. So we have, I think a good model to build upon there, and it is a good thing if teachers’ practices are being enhanced because they’re getting not just the skills check that they know they’ll apply but also references to appropriate material and appropriate support to help them do the right thing.

Nick Rheinberger: Alright so how is this – will we be likely to see this in place for the start of say the next school year? 2018?

Simon Birmingham: The panel will report back to me in a few months time and then I’ll work it through with state and territory ministers because many, many schools do already do similar things so we won’t just be looking at the UK example. We’ll be looking at what some of the best practice in Australian schools is already, but we want to make sure that every child in every school is getting the basic literacy and numeracy instruction they need to succeed later on in school and so I hope that we can see it implemented as soon as possible and at the very least we might be moving into the pilot phase next year.

Nick Rheinberger: If kids are identified as not being up to standard or below average, will there be resources dedicated to helping them?

Simon Birmingham: Nearly every – or I’m sure in fact, every different schooling system has resources identified and dedicated already for children who need additional assistance and support but clearly we will be looking at what the best practice is in terms of the different types of interventions that could be applied and making sure that those recommendations are available to individual teachers in schools to be picked up and rolled out for those kids who need it.

Nick Rheinberger: Alright, Simon Birmingham, good to talk to you this morning. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, pleasure Nick.

Nick Rheinberger: That’s the Minister for Education and Training with us at ABC Illawarra.