Interview on ABC News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli
Topics: Year 1 numeracy and literacy checks; same-sex marriage

Virginia Trioli: Now as we just heard, children as young as five could soon be tested in a national rollout of literacy and numeracy tests for Grade 1 students.

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister, and he joins us now from Adelaide. Minister, good morning and thanks for joining us.

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

Virginia Trioli: So why Grade 1 testing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we know that by Year 3, around one in 20 students are not meeting the minimum standards in terms of their literacy skills. Many, many more are not meeting the proficient standards, and that it’s more challenging to try to catch kids up if they’re falling behind at that stage. So an earlier, but very light touch skills check is a great opportunity to ensure that every student in every classroom across the country has an opportunity to be able to be assessed in a common way, where if they need extra targeted teaching and intervention and assistance, that can be delivered to ensure they don’t slip through the cracks and fall behind.

Virginia Trioli: Well, on that point of targeted and real assistance, the Opposition has made what I think is a pretty valid point, which is, well yes of course if you find gaps you want to do something about it, but they want to know the detail – and so do I – of what the Government then has in its armoury and in its reserves to actually deal with those gaps, and often that is going to come down to resources. So is the Government planning to, and do you have the money to, put into the state system in particular, if you find those gaps?

Simon Birmingham: Well as we discussed on numerous occasions earlier this year, we’ve put in place new school funding arrangements that are truly needs-based, that will deliver an extra $23 billion dollars over the next 10 years; that’s around $2300 extra on average per student, with the greatest rates of growth going into the neediest schools, particularly in the government sector. So the resourcing is there. The question now is how do we make sure we get best bang for our buck? How do we ensure that with record and growing levels of investment in our schools, it’s put to most effective use?

Now this is one way that’s been shown overseas and in cases around Australia, to potentially be a tool, a resource that can be used for earlier identification and assistance. And even here in my home state of South Australia, the State Labor Government is testing and trialling something essentially along these lines to see whether it can work – as has occurred overseas – to help provide that earlier intervention, particularly for kids around their learning of phonics as part of their literacy and structure.

Virginia Trioli: I want to get to phonics in just a moment, but I don’t want us to get bogged down too much in what you and I have gone around a number of times on the issue of funding – and of course the figures are out there over what both the Government and the Opposition says about funding – but just following your logic. Yes you put this money in. But if now – and let’s assume that our teachers and our schools are doing the best they can – if now you still find those gaps as a result of Year 1 testing, it logically follows then that you’re going to need to put more into the system in order to make up those gaps. So I guess what I’m after from you today is a solid and a clear explanation on whether you’re prepared to do that or not.

Simon Birmingham: Well we are putting more in, that’s the point. And that increases each and every…

Virginia Trioli: [Talks over] No, no, more as a result of the testing that finds this new gap. The more’s already been put in – you see what I mean? If you find a new shortfall, you got the next one.

Simon Birmingham: No, but Virginia, it’s growing, each and every one of the next few years. So if we were to deliver this skills check next year, there’s extra funding happening in each of the years following that. But I think taxpayers and parents right around Australia want to know that the funding we’re putting into our schools – which is already at record levels and has grown significantly – is being applied as effectively as possible.

Now there will be extra support there coming into the systems in the next few years, for more targeted and tailored interventions, for greater assistance, for more speech pathology assistance. All of those types of things, schools and systems are free to use the extra dollars they’re getting to deploy in helping their children. This would be a good tool and resource for them to have an idea of which kids to provide those resources to, how to make sure those resources are used as effectively as possible to actually lift our performance and reverse the decline.

Virginia Trioli: I want to talk about the phonics issue, because I know that’s actually, I think, almost generally used in your state of South Australia. You want phonics as a reading method to be mandatory. Does this have to be an either-or debate? Because it seems to many of us who have followed this debate, that the problem for building consensus within the sector, is that reading itself has fallen victim to the Australian plague of partisanship. Phonics is seen as right-wing, whole language is left-wing, which seems silly to many. Does it have to be either-or? Are you also going to walk down that ideological line?

Simon Birmingham: No I’m not, and I think that’s a really good point you make there, Virginia, that phonics instruction should be occurring in our schools, but it’s not the only part of literacy that children need to understand and develop. It’s a part, though, that can help to ensure that children – especially children with dyslexia as many experts and researchers will identify – are more easily identified, and it’s a key part of their toolkit for how they help to decode words and understand reading. But of course you want to make sure that there are other parts of literacy instruction as well that help children to be able to develop a more rounded vocabulary, and to develop the skills for more advanced reading and writing throughout their schooling. So phonics is but one part of the instruction toolkit. It is already in the national curriculum.

You do indeed have examples like the Labor Government in SA saying that they are going to apply and trial this type of skills check already. It should not be a partisan issue. It should not be a divisive debate. We should simply be able to say, phonics is a proven component of literacy instruction, it should be deployed across the country. We should check to make sure children are developing those skills, but of course we need to deploy other critical parts of literacy instruction too.

Virginia Trioli: I know that many of our viewers will have views on this this morning and you’re welcome to email us and contact us with those thoughts on, often this battle, this war between those different ways of teaching.

But I just want to switch to another topic if I can quickly, because we’ve noted this morning, I think we might be able to bring up here, that full page ad that’s running in The Australian and other papers today, ‘Libs and Nats for Yes: Say Yes for Australia’. You are already on the record as someone who’s voting yes and you’re featured prominently there in that advertisement. We all saw the No campaign being launched yesterday, what did you make of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, this is a campaign in which everybody’s free to express their view. I’ve been on the record for seven or eight years now, advocating support for marriage equality. A number of Liberals and Nationals, former Howard Government ministers, former premiers from around the country, have put their names to an advocacy for the Yes cause today. And we do that together as Liberals and Nationals to send a clear message to, yes, our supporters and the wider community that we’re voting yes, but also to explain why. And part of the reason why is because we believe that extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen their relationships and strengthen our society. That you actually create stronger relationships through marriage, because people become less reliant on the welfare state, more reliant upon each other, have stronger family structures and that overall that is much, much better for those couples, those individuals, but for our country as a whole.

Virginia Trioli: As someone who wants to see that institution strong and people within it safe and sound as well, have you noticed the story in Fairfax today showing the spike in calls and contacts to mental health services since this debate started? I’m just wondering if in looking at a story like that, is there a part of you that’s regretful that the responsibility for this wasn’t taken by Parliament?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t think we should believe that if it had purely been a parliamentary vote, there wouldn’t have been very significant public advocacy associated with that. There would have been. There would have been public campaigns and rallies and all of those sorts of things around a parliamentary vote, just as there is around the public survey process that’s being undertaken. Look, we are where we are. I think this can still be an incredibly positive change for Australia. I encourage people to vote. Yes, I encourage people to vote yes and I hope that with a really strong yes vote, this will be seen as something like the Indigenous changes of 1967 in the Constitution that were a really positive affirmation of support and respect and equality in Australia.

Virginia Trioli: We’ll leave it there, Minister. Thanks for joining us today.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much.