Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with David Bevan
Topics: NAPLAN results; same sex marriage
David Bevan: Nick Champion joins us in our studio. He’s the Labor member for Wakefield and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Manufacturing. Good morning, Nick Champion.
Nick Champion: Good morning.
David Bevan: Now the offer is always there for all of our guests to come into the studio, but Simon Birmingham wasn’t able to make it today. He’s on the phone. Good morning, Simon Birmingham, the Federal Minister for Education.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David and listeners. Yes it’s a long way from Bunbury where I am this morning to the studio, so I couldn’t quite make it there.
David Bevan: We appreciate the effort. And Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens Senator from South Australia, good morning, Senator Young.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
David Bevan: Now Simon Birmingham, let’s start with you. You’re the Federal Education Minister. South Australia is doing particularly bad at the NAPLAN tests and has been consistently for many, many years. Will you single out South Australia for special treatment? Will you ask the South Australian Education Department what’s going on and place requirements on their performance as a result of this?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, firstly yes, it is concerning that, if we look across the country there’s been some pretty steady improvements in terms of numeracy and reading skills. A bit of a concern in terms of national figures around writing skills. But in SA across almost every performance benchmark the gains that are made are either lowest in South Australia or the declines are amongst the worst and so that is really a worry. Now how do we address that? Obviously it’s a state-specific problem in terms of the number of those concerns. I’m really keen to work with Susan Close, or if there’s a change in March next year, the new government, around what it is we can learn from the other states that they’ve done better and to be able to improve in SA and we want to make sure that with needs based funding flowing through …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well I know it’s your style, Minister, to just calm everything down, just talk everything down, you know, it’s alright, we’re all just going to have a conversation …
Simon Birmingham: No, no, this is a worry, David. I mean it is a worry. But we’ve put in action …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, but it’s been consistently bad. I mean are you as the Federal Minister going to grab them by the scruff of the neck saying look I’m sorry something is seriously wrong with South Australia, you should not be consistently at the bottom and I want some answers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we do want to get answers from the State Government as to what they think the problem is. What they’re going to learn from other states who’ve put in place minimum standards for school leavers that I think are probably having a flow down effect through all of their school performance, who have taken action in terms of the way in which they teach literacy skills and writing skills to some of their early younger students. Now these are some of the things that we can take from states like New South Wales, Western Australia, where they’ve really driven a leading national agenda in terms of autonomy, of principals to lift the standards in their schools and to take charge of employment around teachers. There’s a lot of lessons that can be learnt from the rest of the country.
Now each of the states reminds me regularly that they have constitutional responsibility for actually running their schools; but they also like to get what is a record and growing level of federal funding and the recent reforms we put through for the first time will give the Federal Ministers some power to actually say to the states; are you applying the reforms we talked about before around teacher quality thoroughly and if you’re not perhaps some funding should be put on the line around that.
David Bevan: Well, would you put it on the line? Are we getting to the point where you would say, look I’m just not going to hand over money until South Australia shows me how it’s going to get better results?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I am the Education Minister who has just put through the Parliament reforms in terms of the way school funding flows; that means we can make it conditional upon agreed reforms being implemented and being delivered. So, that’s what we’ll do over the next few years
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Because the irony there is the states not performing well gets less money because it’s not performing well as a punishment and the kids will be the ones who end up suffering.
Simon Birmingham: Well that’s obviously not what we want to see. We want to see that the state gets on and truly and thoroughly implements reforms to teacher training that have been agreed upon around the country at the national level we have driven and of course we need the states now to make sure they are thoroughly implemented in terms of registration of new teachers. We’ll build on that around …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, Nick Champion. Now you’re a member of the Labor Right. The Labor Right – and it’s not hard to find somebody in the Labor Right who is very suspicious of the Australian Education Union and all of the grief that they say they have caused education policy in terms of handing over power to teachers, not giving power to principals and really tying the hands of education policy, particularly in this state.
Nick Champion: Well I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you should divide up the Labor Party like that. I’ve always had pretty good …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Well, your party’s divided itself up.
Nick Champion: Well, particularly on things like education, we’re pretty united. I’ve always had a good relationship with the AEU, and one of their former presidents was my English teacher at Kapunda High in year 9, and 10, 11 and 12. So I guess I was …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] One of their vice presidents was my modern history teacher and an excellent teacher he was too.
Nick Champion: There you go. So I guess we’re all influenced by teachers. They’re an important part of all communities, particularly rural communities. I guess we’ll probably end up back in the same space about having an argument about the funding, ultimately, Simon and I. But I do think the fact that he’s taking a measured approach shouldn’t be sort of pilloried. That’s welcome in our body politic and I think the mere fact that we’ve got the NAPLAN system – which was set in place by Julia Gillard – means that we know what’s going on in schools and we can make steps to improve it. Now, some of those steps are going to be about how you run schools and part of those steps are going to be funding and I guess that’s why we’re having such a passionate debate about funding at the federal level. The Labor Party’s got a pretty clear position that we didn’t want to see cuts to Gonski because we want to make sure that local schools have the resources they need to lift these schools.
David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, are you on the bandwagon that says look, we need more money? And that seems to be it, whereas there’d be a lot of parents in South Australia who were saying well I’m seeing lots of money but I’m not seeing the results.
Sarah Hanson-Young: Look I think obviously for schools that are well and truly under funded – and we know that many of our poorer public schools are – that funding is a big problem. But it isn’t the silver bullet to all of this. And I think we can often be, particularly in the body politic, forced to jump into one side or the other, money or no money. Well, money is obviously part of the solution because you need resources.
But I think the elephant in the room here is actually teacher quality. It’s about how we teach our teachers to teach. It’s about ensuring that we have a profession that is respected and valued so that we put our best and brightest minds into our classrooms. The statistic that I find the most shocking actually, despite all of these NAPLAN results, is that half of all teachers, new teachers, leave the profession within five years. How on earth are we going to get well-trained, quality teachers in our classrooms if we can’t keep people in the profession? Let alone get them to put their hand up and say yep, you know what, I want to be a teacher because it’s a good profession.
David Bevan: That is a powerful point. I mean, if you’ve got a churn in your workforce of five years, I mean really, how can you get good teachers in front of students? Michael Coghlan has been out and about this morning as our roving reporter. He went to one school and asked parents- this is what one parent had to say about the NAPLAN scores and how to improve the results.
Vox Pop: I don’t know. Maybe it’s time they go back to old-school schooling, you know. Get back to basics and concentrate on those things, rather than all these weird things they’re doing these days, perhaps.
David Bevan: Nick Champion, he’s right isn’t he? I mean, really, the subject selection at schools is mind-boggling now. You turn up, you can get all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff instead of just basic- because I have a theory that it doesn’t actually matter so much that you have all these different topics. The skillset that you learnt from, I don’t know, history, is going to be the same that you would get- whether you call it social studies or social environment, or- you know, all the weird and wonderful different topics that we’ve had over the last few years, generating- turning up on the syllabus.
Nick Champion: Well, I think you have to be a bit careful about this, nostalgia always kind of tends to present itself in your experience. And we need to talk to teachers and education experts about this, because it has moved on a lot since – I remember the old textbook Let’s Make English Live …
Nick Champion: … which has disappeared, I think, from school curriculums everywhere. I think grammar is important, I think history is important. But if you’re going to school graduations now, a lot of when they ask graduates from year 12 what are they doing. Well, they’re going off to study health sciences, they’re going- a lot of the health profession is represented the way it wasn’t when I graduated from year 12.
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Simon Birmingham …
Nick Champion: So I think that’s, you know, the world’s moved on a bit.
David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, do you remember Let’s Make English Live? I do.
Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Nick must have been a much better student than I, because I can’t remember the name of the textbook …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] I think you’re younger than Nick and me, but there we are.
Simon Birmingham: Hopefully I learned the content, not the title.
David Bevan: Alright, moving onto another topic: same-sex marriage. Is this going to tear your party apart next week, Simon Birmingham? Will you cross the floor if a private members bill is put up to have same-sex marriage?
Simon Birmingham: Well, David – and I’ll deal with your question – I do just want to say quickly in response to the vox pop you had before; the important thing about the NAPLAN test is it gives us a chance to look at the basics, and to talk about reading, writing, numeracy, making sure those skills are achieved. And that really does help to focus the minds of education policy experts. So that’s dealing with that.
In terms of same-sex marriage, look, it’s an important issue to a small number of Australians on both sides of the debate. The Government’s priorities are getting the economy going, growing jobs, national security – all of those things. In terms of same-sex marriage, we’ve got a clear policy to give the Australian people a say, which they would like to see that delivered. And we’d love to see the Labor Party, the Senate, get it out of the way. Let us actually do what we promised at the last election and that is give us…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yeah, but that’s been blocked in the Senate, and now some people within your own party are saying: we gave that a go, we tried to deliver on our election promise, we were foiled by the Senate. It’s an important issue, we want to clear it up, get it out of the way. There’s talk of a private members bill being put up next week. If it is put up, will you cross the floor, Simon Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, I stand by our policy commitment at present, and that is to give the Australian people a say. And that’s what we’re putting first and foremost. …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] An important caveat there at present.
Simon Birmingham: Well, that is our policy. That is our policy at present, it will remain our policy, I imagine, and we will keep working to try to find a way to ensure that if this change happens, it happens with the endorsement of the Australian people and as such, is then a positive change that is actually one that is owned by all Australians.
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Are you expecting members of the Coalition to cross the floor next week?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the Liberal Party has always had a rule, as you well know, allowing individuals to cross the floor from the backbench…
David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yeah, yeah. I know that. Yes, I know that. I didn’t ask you what your rule was, I was asking do you think they’ll cross the floor?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that is a matter for each individual in those circumstances. And, unlike the Labor Party, we don’t expel people or toss people out when they have a difference of opinion.
David Bevan: Alright. So you wouldn’t toss them out if they did?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely not.
David Bevan: Okay, alright. Sarah Hanson-Young?
Sarah Hanson-Young: It would be a disgrace, of course, if the Liberal Party did move against any of the individuals who were willing to put their hand up and speak out and cross the floor on marriage equality and I think it would be an absolute disgrace to see retribution for those individuals. And I just want to say, good on them and congratulations to a bunch of those Liberal backbenchers who are starting to say, actually, we’ve got to get this dealt with. The Parliament can vote, we can get it dealt with and get it done. And it makes good political sense, because it’s an issue that has been hanging around the neck of Malcolm Turnbull for the last two years, the Liberal Party for longer. Get it done, achieve marriage equality. And they’re standing up, it’d be timely now for the Prime Minister to follow suit.
David Bevan: Alright. Now, we’ve only got one minute to go. Nick Champion, last word to you on same-sex marriage.
Nick Champion: Well, if we could get this matter sorted very quickly in Parliament over the next two weeks, and then it would be done with and done with via parliamentary democracy, which the conservatives in this country tell us is very important, and, you know, they’re followers of Edmund Burke – about time they …
David Bevan: [Interrupts] So, if a bill is put up next week, same-sex marriage; you’ll support it?
Nick Champion: I supported it in 2013, and that’s the way we dealt with it in 2013 and 2004.
David Bevan: Thank you for coming on. Nick Champion, Labor Member for Wakefield. Before, that Simon Birmingham down the phone line from Bunbury, he’s the Federal Minister for Education, and Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia.