Interview on ABC Radio Brisbane Breakfast with Steve Austin
Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; ATAR consistency; NAPLAN online

Steve Austin: Well, Queensland schools will receive an additional $2.7 billion over the next decade as part of the Federal Government’s schools reforms. It was announced in the Federal Budget. But where does the money go? 

As you’ll hear in just a moment, Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has admitted that Queensland has been underfunded in the past. He’s in Brisbane for a post-Budget sell of his funding reforms. And I spoke to him before coming to air and asked him about not only the money but also the plan for year one students to test for signs of learning difficulties. 


Simon Birmingham: The plan there – which Malcolm Turnbull and I released prior to the last Election – is to encourage states and territories to have a skills check of year one students. It’s not a NAPLAN style test or a test in the sense of what people might normally associate it. It’s a teacher sitting down one-on-one, doing a light touch assessment with a year one child particularly around their reading skills, their phonics skills, whether they’re developing the ability to decode words and to pick up the letter sounds in those different words. And it’s really important that at that earliest possible stage that we see identification of any learning difficulties and intervention to make sure then that children who need that extra help to particularly learn to read, but also develop basic numeracy skills, receive that assistance. Because that becomes the foundation stone upon which all the rest of their learning and school life depends. 

Steve Austin: So, this happens, when?

Simon Birmingham: We already have some support from some states to implement a trial next year. We have just a received a report back from an expert panel about how this should look and work. So, at the next Education Council meeting I anticipate taking the work of that expert panel, discussing with all the state ministers. And I hope they will support the rollout of something that some schools already do very well but we want to make sure that every school across Australia does it to the best possible standard.

Steve Austin: So, is Queensland’s Education Minister Kate Jones, on board yet?

Simon Birmingham: I wouldn’t say that Kate is on board yet. But I hope that she will follow the lead of her Labor counterpart in South Australia and others around the country who have said this is a sensible step to have a look at a standard approach – particularly for the assessment of phonics at a year one level – to make sure that children are developing those skills. And yes, Kate no doubt will say; many schools are doing it already. And that’s right but we want to make sure that everyone is doing it in the optimal way to identify kids who need extra assistance.

Steve Austin: So a trial next year. And assuming you find there’s an issue, what will happen?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I would hope that eventually we see all states and territories undertaking a common assessment that can enable everyone to have confidence that it’s got scientific rigour behind that assessment, that there are then common approaches to support the teaching of phonics in schools, the development of reading skills and numeracy skills, as well. And that there are common standards to identify what type of interventions are necessary to help children who might be behind. And the UK has been doing this for a number of years now. And we have seen that the application of this type of assessment at year one, not only helps with identification but it has help to really drive teaching practice to identify the best possible resources that can be used in a classroom to ensure more children excel when they get to the point of this assessment. As I say, it’s a light touch assessment – it’s a verbal check undertaken between pupil and teacher – so it’s not a test in the sense of anything scary for the kids. It’s about making sure it’s age appropriate but it does provide that early sense of whether reading skills, phonetic skills are developing to the extent that’s required.

Steve Austin: So, if you find something, does that mean that there will be more money for students with things like Dyslexia, or Asperger’s or Autism? If the screening picks up these issues?

Simon Birmingham: So, part of our school funding reforms – and this is a good segue there – is to make sure that we apply funding in future based on the level of adjustment assistance required for any student with a disability or a particular need for learning assistance. And so at present students with disabilities funding is provided at a very flat level right across the country. What we want to do is transition to a three step payment that ensures those with the highest needs receive the greatest additional support, those who only need moderate additional assistance receive that moderate additional assistance in the classroom. So yes, in terms of our funding changes we’re really trying to gear them to need at every level, including full implementation ultimately of a nationally consistent approach to identification of students with disabilities and funding them against the level of extra assistance or extra adjustment that they require. 

Steve Austin: I’m speaking with the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister Birmingham is in Brisbane today as part of the post-Budget information sell on education funding for Queensland. This is ABC Radio Brisbane.

I just want to be- the Budget announced what $2.7 billion over the next years- next 10 years, for Queensland as part of your schools program. 

Simon Birmingham: That’s right.

Steve Austin: That’s a lot of money, for the years 2014 to 2017 – in other words the last sort of four year, three year period – Queensland’s share of funding from the Commonwealth grew 47- over 47 per cent for the calendar year. Which, I understand is the highest growth of all the states and territories. Why is Queensland chewing or needing so much extra money, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: We’re seeing that firstly, there’s probably been a historical tendency for Queensland not to be funded as well as some other jurisdictions, and so there’s been an effort to catch that up. 

Steve Austin: Now is this an admission that Queensland has been underfunded?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think we absolutely recognise that, which is why the Turnbull Government has been delivering the extra money in to Queensland schools and will keep delivering extra money in to Queensland schools. And a core part of the reforms that Malcolm Turnbull and I, with David Gonski, two weeks ago, is to treat every state and territory equally. At present I can visit different schools around the country that are of identical student numbers, identical need, same families, same types of background, same number of students with disability, and the Federal Government provides different levels of funding to them from one state to another, just because of a different deal that was historically done between different Federal and Commonwealth Governments. We want to phase all of that out and ensure that over the course of the next ten years we get to a point where we are paying 20 per cent of the Gonski based needs base standards for schools in every state and territory. So that means that yes we pay ultimately more per student in a state like Queensland than we would in a state like Victoria because there are more rural and regional schools in Queensland, more Indigenous students, range of different factors that drive a higher level of need in Queensland. We’re proposing to pay the same share of that needs based formula in every state and territory so that we’re actually – for the first time ever in terms of school funding – will be treating states equally and consistently. 

Steve Austin: Over the next four years, the period of the Budget forward estimates, Queensland will get, what, another $826 million?

Simon Birmingham: Look, based on my figures its closer to $1.04 billion extra going in to Queensland schools. So that’s very strong- very strong growth in Queensland. On a per student basis, so people can sort of boil it down to what that means in a slightly more tangible sense. Across Queensland it’s an average of 4.4 per cent growth per student, but in the Government school sector where there are higher levels of need, it’s a 4.9 per cent growth. Sorry, that was 4.1 per cent across all schools in Queensland…

Steve Austin: I don’t want to…

Simon Birmingham: …4.9 per cent growth per student in the Government sector where there is a higher level of need.

Steve Austin I don’t want to sort of bamboozle my listener with sort of figures and data, but the breakdown for schools is, what, Government schools getting a 38 per cent increase, independent and Catholic, what?

Simon Birmingham: So across the non-Government sector we are seeing growth per student at 3.8 per cent compared with 4.9 per cent in the Government sector per student basis…

Steve Austin: Alright, now how does this improve things over the previous model? I’m reading this as that this is your Government adopting Labor’s education philosophy. And this means that the Labor Party was absolutely right, that there was not proper funding of students in Queensland and schools in Queensland and your actions are an admission that they were right.

Simon Birmingham: Well no I dispute that Steve, because there are a couple of core differences here. Firstly unlike the Labor Party we’re actually fixing the funding models and arrangements. So David Gonski delivered quite a worthwhile report, but rather than do the hard yards of implementing that to ensure funding is distributed based on a consistent needs based approach around the country, the Labor party just did 27 different deals with different states, different schooling sectors, that imbedded inconsistency into the future. We’re proposing, and it’s the reason why David Gonski stood alongside Malcolm Turnbull and I as we announced our $18.6 billion of extra investment a couple of weeks ago. We’re proposing to fix all of that and to actually apply the needs based approach that was recommended and to it in a fair and consistent way across states, territories, in a manner that is blind to different schooling sectors whether they be Government or in the non-Government side, whether they be an independent school a Catholic school or part of any other type of system.

Steve Austin: So you adopted the Labor Party’s funding philosophy haven’t you?

Simon Birmingham: No we’re investing more in schools but we are actually doing the hard yards to fix the school funding model that Labor just ignored. They pumped a lot of extra money in, they’re still calling for us to spend a lot more money yet they are opposing our efforts to fix the inconsistencies in school funding around the country. Now I find that quite remarkable. We also though, have asked David Gonski to do a second piece of work. And that is to focus on how to truly achieve excellence in Australian schools, how to best use the extra funding that has gone in and that will go in under the Turnbull Government’s proposals to make sure we raise standards to turnaround areas of declining performance. And I hope that given State ministers, teacher unions and others, have lauded David Gonski so heavily for the last six years, so when he hands down a report recommending how it is we need to actually spend the money in schools so we need to make sure that it does lift effort and outcome, that they will be as supportive of those recommendations as they claim to have been with the funding recommendations previously.

Steve Austin: I’m speaking with Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, this is ABC Radio Brisbane. Simon Birmingham. Kate Jones, Queensland State Education Minister, says yes this is a better funding arrangement than the cuts that were delivered in previous year’s Budget but it still goes nowhere near the rate we are funded now. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well in part it’s because what the Labor party had proposed and Kate’s contrasting this with a policy that Labor never funded and took to a 2013 Election and lost and took to a 2016 Election and lost. But in part, it’s because that policy was one that treated people inconsistently that didn’t do the hard yards of working out how it is you reply to schooling resource standard consistently across Government schools and consistently across non-Government schools which is what the Turnbull Government is proposing to do. But yes we’re also doing it in a fiscally responsible way. The Federal Budget is still on track to come back to surplus in 2020 2021. We haven’t gone and blown the bank in any way, we’re actually making sure that we implement what we can afford but we’re fixing problems in terms of inconsistencies in school funding, delivering on the Gonski report, and achieving a new focus in terms of how the money is spent and excellency in investment and outcomes in schools and that was not part of the original Labor model. And look, I find it astounding that Bill Shorten is running around the country now saying he will oppose the Turnbull Government’s reform. And he’s welcome to go to the next election promising to spend as much money as wildly as he wants to but right now he should be at least acknowledging that what we’re doing is truer and more accurate and more consistent with the Gonski report than anything that has been proposed previously.

Steve Austin: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is my guest. Before I let you go Minister, just want to ask you a couple of other issues relating to Queensland and education. But Queensland has pushed back our move from our OP Marking System to the ATAR Marking System till 2020. Now this would bring us into line with the rest of the country. Are you concerned at all about that delay to the ATAR Marking System to four years from now, three years from now?

Simon Birmingham: While this is largely a matter for Queensland, it worries me to the extent that it goes to how committed states and territories are to doing the hard yards to achieve educational excellence to making sure that they’re putting in every possible effort to lift performance outcomes in their schools. And this change, which would have seen Queensland firstly catch up with the rest of the country and shifting to an ATAR type model, and secondly brings in more external assessment as I understand it in to the calculation of year 12 scores for tertiary admission is the type of change that can help to give greater confidence, lift standards, lift ambition, and that’s the type of thing we should be focusing on across our schooling sector and particularly for the states and territories who actually run our school systems, and the Commonwealth plays a policy leadership role and a core funding role as they’ve been discussing. But the States and territories run our school systems and they ought to be doing everything possible to lift standards and achieve reform as quickly as they can, not just kicking the can down the road.

Steve Austin: Well similarly for NAPLAN online marking in Queensland has been pushed back till 2018 for our NAPLAN scores. Do you have the same concerns about that?

Simon Birmingham: Look I’m concerned on a couple of front there. One is that there were technology concerns about the shift to NAPLAN online, and they were shared across jurisdictions. So I understand why the trial didn’t go ahead this year, but it is important there be a strong commitment to making this work and be getting that transition occur because the shift to NAPLAN online can make the data much richer and get it much faster into the hands of teachers in our schools and parents and to ensure that they actually then are able to use NAPLAN effectively and more effectively than they can right now.

Steve Austin: So are you concerned about Queensland’s Education Minister’s commitment to this?

Simon Birmingham: Well I really hope that Kate is a clear cut commitment that Queensland will support this transition, not look for every excuse in the future to duck out of it or to raise concerns or scare tactics. And I also hope that Kate and Queensland will look to support further reforms around NAPLAN that lift the level of standard that isn’t set, so that we have a clearer picture not just of whether students are meeting a minimum standard but whether they’re actually meeting the proficient standard for their year level. And I hope that that’s something that we can achieve to ensure that again, teachers and parents have far greater information to know whether their child is succeeding and if they’re not what steps need to be taken to give them assistance to succeed in the future.

Steve Austin: Minister, thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Steve.

[End of excerpt]

Steve Austin Australia’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham. He’s in Brisbane today going to a number of schools, and no doubt you’ll see details or hear details on ABC Radio throughout the day and then ABC TV tonight.