Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms; Minimum ATAR standards; Future schools funding arrangements

Virginia Trioli:  Now, as we mentioned this morning, Australia's year four and eight students have received a very poor report card for their international performance in maths and science. The Australian Council for Educational Research says we have now slipped behind countries including Bulgaria, Hungary and Kazakhstan.

Michael Rowland:         To discuss the report, we are joined now from Canberra by the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning to you. 

Simon Birmingham:     Good morning Michael.

Michael Rowland:         If Australia was a student, the teacher would scrawl across the report card: not good enough. What do you take from these figures?

Simon Birmingham:     Well it’s not good enough, Michael, you’re dead right. And as educational researchers have overnight said, this must be used as a wake-up call. It comes on top of a raft of evidence from NAPLAN tests, from other international assessments that show we are not doing as well as we should in terms of performance in maths and science, that's also the case in many ways in literacy and reading skills. So the basics that we expect to be attained through our education system are going backwards, we are slipping behind other countries in relative terms, but our actual performance, our real performance has also been slipping in a number of areas.

Michael Rowland:         Let's look at other countries, particular those in our region that are getting straight As: the South Koreas, the Singapores, what are they doing right that we are doing so horribly wrong?

Simon Birmingham:     Well I think we know that in those countries there are particular focuses in terms of the way the teaching style occurs, as well as a focus on the quality of teacher in the classroom and these are some of the things we have to really focus in on. We’ve adopted changes as a Federal Government that we've pushed the states to accept to make sure there are some minimum literacy and numeracy competencies for graduate teachers in the future to try to get guaranteed specialists in maths and science and other areas of specialisation into primary schools, not just into high schools. But there’s absolutely more that we need to do which we've outlined in policies but we have to make sure the discussion now is on how we actually change practices in schools to lift performance, not just continual debates as we have had over the years about how much money is spent.

Michael Rowland:         Because that exactly is where the Opposition and the Greens are coming at you this morning. They say this shows the Federal Government isn’t spending enough money on the school system: how do you respond to that?

Simon Birmingham:     Well since 1998, investment in Australian schools has doubled in real terms, since 2003, it has gone up by 50 per cent. Over the period from 2016 – this year – to 2020, we will grow funding from the Federal Government from $16 billion of investment this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. That's growth of around 25 per cent; it’s above inflation, above enrolment. It is of course fundamentally an investment in our schools, but we have to actually now talk about how we get the best bang for our buck, because despite all the extra dollars that have gone in over the years, these results show we are not getting the right outcomes and we need to do much, much better across those basics of maths and science, as well as literacy and numeracy.

Michael Rowland:         A lot of our viewers are saying that a teacher should be given more time to teach and have some of the administrative tasks taken off them and also it’s another debate we've had for quite a while now; there should be more time in the day, time in the week allocated for mentoring of teachers. Why can't that happen overnight? I mean that’s something that is not funding-related?

Simon Birmingham:     Well I think those are the types of changes that I really welcome state governments engaging with us on; that if the Labor Party and the Greens and the states and territories could put aside continued squabbles about money, we can have proper discussions about how we ensure proficiency standards for new teachers. That is something that the Turnbull Government put in our election policy, that we want to make a condition of future funding with the states, to actually ensure you don't just take a graduate and drop them in a classroom; you take a graduate and support them to become proficient. Just like across other professions, there are standards expected beyond the exiting of university and graduation, to demonstrate that you are actually up to the type of skills, and learn the skills on the job to actually get the best out of your students in a classroom environment. 

Michael Rowland:         Looking at teaching as a profession, we tossed this around last week, when, as you know, the Victorian Government raised the ATAR level, the entry level for teaching courses in that state. It will go some way to making teaching a more attractive profession, not as far as lots of people want. How do we go about making teaching a profession year 12 students not in Victoria, right around the country really want to go into and make a career out of?

Simon Birmingham:     Michael, I think we really need to support the idea that people go and become subject specialists; that we encourage those who are very bright in maths and science in their high school years to go and actually pursue maths and science degrees; to become specialists in those areas and then to supplement and complement that and build on that with a teaching qualification to get into the classroom. We need to actually though make sure that the reward for teachers recognises competency, not just time served, and that's again something we've put on the table to discuss with the states and territories: to back those teachers who are peer-reviewed, increase their recognition in terms of being lead teachers or highly accomplished teachers, recognised by their peers, are the ones who get the reward and take on the leadership roles in the classroom.

Michael Rowland:         Okay where to next? You seem to be at this continued impasse: the Federal Government on one side, some of the states and territories on the other. Parents watching you this morning, Minister, would be shaking their heads saying you should all get together. These are our kids we are talking about. It is in the national interest to put differences aside, partisan differences aside and reach an agreement.

Simon Birmingham:     And that's absolutely what I want to see occur. I want to see the states and territories, preferably all parties federally as well, agree that we need to support real reforms in our classrooms. And that’s why I’ve taken to the state and territories a suite of reforms, from those type of teacher training reforms, better support for highly accomplished and lead teachers, as well as earlier intervention measures, to pick up children who have literacy or numeracy problems at an earlier stage, higher ambition for year 12 and the latter years. These are the types of reforms I've invited the states to talk to us about, to tell us what they think they can get on board with as quickly as possible and I really hope that that is what they do over the coming months as we settle our new arrangements.

Michael Rowland:         Okay Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning.  Thank you.

Simon Birmingham:     Thank you, Michael.