Interview on ABC Radio Brisbane Drive with Emma Griffiths
Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check
04:15 PM

Emma Griffiths: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. I spoke to him a little earlier and I asked him how the results of any of these tests would be used.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the results first and foremost I hope will be used in schools and by school systems to ensure that children who aren’t developing their phonetic skills or other literacy and numeracy skills that they should have by age six get the assistance that they need to ensure that they’re successful in developing those foundational skills which are so essential to the rest of their lives.

Emma Griffiths: So, Minister, how do schools ensure they get that assistance? Will their- I mean, could these results lead to extra federal funding?

Simon Birmingham: We already have record and growing levels of funding and we’re committed to make sure that funding continues to grow into the future. It’s really though the case of needing to focus on how we use out current record and growing levels of funding in the future most effectively. And systems in schools already have a range of different policies for intervention and assistance for children and part of what the panel I’ve appointed will be doing to look at is what type of support is necessary where interventions are required, what are perhaps the best practice programs or tools that are resources that teachers can use, and really making sure that in those classrooms, those teachers are armed with the best possible resources that evidence shows can help children develop those skills.

Emma Griffiths: [Talks over] I know from our state Education Minister there’s a call for more funding to help with, for example, additional teacher aid hours. Is that one of the resources you think that could assist?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Queensland Government is getting more funding each and every year from the Federal Government. Right across Australia, the Turnbull Government’s school funding grows from $16 billion last year to more than $20 billion by 2020. That’s ahead of inflation, ahead of projected enrolment growth. So, it’s real growth in funding which Queensland will benefit from.

Emma Griffiths: [Talks over] No, Minister, I know even … even in my kids’ school – they’re in prep and grade one – teachers are constantly asking for parents to help in the classroom doing teacher aid work, like prepping for activities. So, if parents are being asked, there’s obviously a shortage there.

Simon Birmingham: Well, and Emma, if I can finish there, how that funding that then goes into the Queensland Government bureaucracy is allocated out into individual schools is of course something that Kate Jones and the Queensland Government are responsible for. Now, other ministers, including Labor ministers around the country, have been quite constructive in their response to the announcement yesterday. They want to engage sensibly with us on these types of reforms to improve what happens in schools. Sadly, Kate seems to have used this as just another opportunity for yet more debate about how much money is going into the system.

Emma Griffiths: Okay, Minister …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] We can have those debates, they’re valid debates to have, but let’s not cloud the issue here …

Emma Griffiths: Sure, so …

Simon Birmingham: … on whether this is a valuable proposal to focus on literacy and numeracy skills in our children.

Emma Griffiths: [Talks over] Another question then on that, you’ve described it as a light touch assessment, Minister, but there are concerns that having that assessment for five and six-year-olds will lead to more pressure on schools which will flow down to teachers and then ultimately to students. So, is that a concern that you share?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the criticism that I get from many, many people sometimes is that this type of thing already happens in schools and you can’t really have it both ways. We’re not in any way proposing here a NAPLAN-style assessment. What we’re proposing is that there is a nationally-consistent, well based in evidence type approach of similar checking of skills for children after their first 18 months or thereabouts of formal education in the school system. Which is simply going to be a resource that teachers can pick up, apply in a one-on-one setting with individual children as they read different sounds and words to them to ensure that they’re developing the skills that are necessary. A similar type of approach in relation to their numeracy skills with basic counting, basic shapes, the types of things that you’d expect children to be developing once they’re entering that year one type level and progressing through it.

Emma Griffiths: But Minister, I guess the concern is that having something nationally collated gives yourself and other ministers, other people in the bureaucracy or in authority, a tool to put more pressure on educators. 

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s a different question there as to what is done with data at a more aggregated level. I would hope that school systems would effectively use data to identify which schools needed additional resources going to them, and each state has its own school system that makes those decisions of allocation. And there may be data that, at an aggregate level, can help inform policymaking across the country, but I’m not proposing, and we’re certainly not suggesting, that this is something that will lead to league tables, rankings, public scores being released for individual schools, or anything that applies that type of pressure.

Emma Griffiths: So will these results be published at all, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Well they will be matters to discuss with the states and territories, but I wouldn’t expect that there’ll be much enthusiasm for publishing school-by-school type results. That’s not what I’m looking for out of this. I’m looking for an effective resource that teachers can use, that is world’s best practice, that can then also inform the type of interventions that might be necessary both in classrooms and in schools to make sure children are developing those foundational skills of literacy and numeracy upon which so much of the rest of their education relies.

Emma Griffiths: I note that one of the members of the inquiry group that you’ve set up is from SPELD, the group that helps families dealing with issues like dyslexia. Is that something that you are hoping this light touch assessment would pick up earlier?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Many dyslexia advocates have long called for this type of assessment and tool to be used, and in fact you can go back through reports as far back as 2005, the national assessment of our literacy training and approaches that recommended for something of this nature as well. I would hope that it absolutely can pick up problems, learning difficulties such as dyslexia at an earlier stage, as well as ensure that teaching practices, with a focus on phonics, the construction of words, the 42 different letter sounds that you have, actually helps children learn how to manage to decode words, to get those skills effectively. It’s just one part of effective reading and effective literacy skills, but it’s one that many experts suggest has been neglected for too long, and which we want to make sure that there is a strong focus on in the future. 

Emma Griffiths: And Minister, I mean, there have been headlines in recent months saying Australia’s falling behind countries like Kazakhstan in maths and science, for instance. Do you question those statistics at all?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think the statistics should never be looked at in isolation, but there is a trend there, and consistently across a number of different assessments and reports. Australia is at best shown as stagnating, and at worst shown as having a declining level of performance across literacy, numeracy and overall skills performance in our schools. That clearly is not acceptable. Our very future wellbeing as a nation really does depend on ensuring that we have high quality outcomes from our schools that provide the type of skills that are necessary to function in the workplace, to go on to further study, to succeed as individuals. 

Emma Griffiths: Minister, thanks very much for your time. 

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Emma.

Emma Griffiths: Simon Birmingham there, the federal Education Minister. 

[End of excerpt]