Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne Drive with Rafael Epstein   
Topics: New child care system; NAPLAN; Liberal pre-selections




Raf Epstein:     It’s about nine and a half minutes past five o’clock on ABC Radio Melbourne. It is NAPLAN week. I think there’s more than a million students doing NAPLAN across the country. Some of them doing it online. The Education Minister is Senator Simon Birmingham, good afternoon.


Simon Birmingham:    G’day Raf, good to be with you.


Raf Epstein:     Just those childcare changes that are actually active and ongoing, what do people need to know?


Simon Birmingham:    Well what people need to know is that there’s additional support for Victorian – about 209,000 families but people do need to update their details by going through the education.gov.au/childcare to register for the new childcare subsidy. We’re providing more support to reach more families. We’re axing the $7500 cap on the childcare rebate if any family at this time of year in particular would be or would have hit up against and ensuring that there’s a greater level of subsidy for the hardest working low income families.

But you need to register for it so please take those steps. People would have already received communications through MyGov and the like encouraging them to do so and we urge people to get on with that task and make sure they’re ready to get the benefits of the new childcare subsidy.


Raf Epstein:     It’s been a while since I was anywhere near qualifying, but filling in that form someone said they were asked how long they’d been in their job. Is that a new question or a regular question?


Simon Birmingham:    Look, that how long you’ve been in your job is a question I’m not sure that I understand why that would be there in the form. But I’m trying to think, I went through it for my household a couple of weeks ago and later I filled it all out myself and I don’t recall that being a question there. Certainly it asks you in terms of the number of hours that you spend working, studying, volunteering.


Raf Epstein:     Yes.


Simon Birmingham:    Because one of the things we put in place…


Raf Epstein:     That’s the same.


Simon Birmingham:    …is the activity test there to make sure that the greatest number of hours of support for childcare go to people who are working the longest hours.


Raf Epstein:     Look if I can ask you about NAPLAN, I mentioned people are sitting – or kids are sitting NAPLAN this week. The unions are clearly very unhappy with it. They’ve had their own international experts reviewing it. But do you think parents stay away from schools that have poor NAPLAN results?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, we certainly know that lots of parents like to see the NAPLAN results. That they might look at the My Schools website for overall school results but more importantly they like to engage with individual teachers about the results of their child and what that means in terms of how they’re developing their basic reading, writing, numeracy skills. How that compares with other children across the school system, across the country overall and whether they’re meeting the benchmarks.            So NAPLAN is of course just one assessment undertaken four times during the entire life of a school student. But it is something that provides useful comparisons in terms of how our children stack up because it’s done consistently across the country.


Raf Epstein:     I know it can be useful, but that question again, do parents stay away from schools with lower NAPLAN results?


Simon Birmingham:    Look in the main I don’t think that is the case. I think parents make a number of judgments about schools in terms of the academic performance of a school yes, but also obviously the locality and convenience but also the overall culture and feel that they get when they visit schools to decide where their child might go if they’re able to have that [indistinct].


Raf Epstein:     So you don’t think it’s a big factor?


Simon Birmingham:    I don’t think it’s a huge factor. I wouldn’t say that isn’t sometimes. But I think people [indistinct].


Raf Epstein      Do you try measure it? I don’t know if the Department can measure it but do you try to measure it?


Simon Birmingham:    No and I’m not sure it is possible to measure something like that outside of sort of the ‘taking survey’ type processes. What I’d say to parents is that it’s just one assessment tool. It’s an important one in terms of giving some comparison but most importantly some information about the progress that their child is undertaking. As you said in the intro though, we’re making some big changes to NAPLAN and we’ve widespread use of NAPLAN online being trialled for the first time this year and it’s a really encouraging development. Because what it’s going to do is make sure that NAPLAN results get back to teachers and schools and parents faster and they also get more information- more analytical information about how individual children are progressing and how they get there.


Raf Epstein:     I know that NAPLAN can be useful but you hear continuously firstly about what I just asked you about, do people stay away when a school’s got a low NAPLAN result. So I guess the related question, do schools encourage the poor performing kids to stay away on NAPLAN days? Because we hear that a lot anecdotally. Do you think that happens substantially?


Simon Birmingham:    Again, I think it is a rare occurrence but of course- and there reports of instances occasionally and there are instances where the Department or ACARA, the Curriculums Assessment Reporting Authority look into whether a school has- or systematically sought to steer some children away from undertaking NAPLAN. It is an expectation that schools will not discourage participation [indistinct].


Raf Epstein:     Senator I’m just going to interrupt, only because the reception’s not fantastic. I’m just going to ask you to step- if you can step three or four paces in any direction and it might improve the reception.


Simon Birmingham:    I will attempt to do so Raf.


Raf Epstein:     I guess what I’m asking as well, what I’m leading up to is, are there any significant changes planned for NAPLAN? Because there’s quite a few of the state education ministers who really want to either downgrade NAPLAN or substantially change it, is that going to happen?


Simon Birmingham:    We’ve got a dramatic change happening at present which is that shift to NAPLAN online. That is going to ensure not just faster delivery of results back to schools and parents but also that it becomes an adaptive test for children.           What do I mean by that, well it’s that children will undertake initially- the first one third of it being the same but then if the child is flying through the test the questions will adapt to get progressively tougher. Equally, if they’re really struggling the questions will adapt to get somewhat easier and that will provide a much richer spectrum of what the achievement levels of children are.


Raf Epstein:     I don’t Minister- I don’t think that will address any of the concerns form the state governments though.


Simon Birmingham:    Well no, state governments have been a strong part of this process and indeed some of these changes were warmly welcomed years ago when they were first flagged even by teachers’ unions. The other factor that I expect we will have a look at later this year is that the states can bring forward a proposal to have a look at how some of the NAPLAN data is reported. That seems to be where a lot of the heat and concern comes from. That there’s the usefulness of it as an assessment tool in schools, the usefulness as an assessment tool where information’s provided to parents directly and there’s of course how it’s reflected on My Schools and whether that is open to some misuse or manipulation.


Raf Epstein:     But you’re always going to have the NAPLAN results up there on the My Schools website aren’t you? That’s not going to change and some of the states would like you to change that.


Simon Birmingham:    Well I think that’s an important part of the overall transparency. But if there’s a better way to reflect how schools are actually delivering progress and achievement of their students in terms of the way NAPLAN is assessed, well that’s something that we can absolutely have a look at. I’m all for continually working to improve the usefulness of NAPLAN and that’s exactly what we are doing by having this online format that will increase the usefulness a great deal.


Raf Epstein:     The Chief Scientist did a big review of the ATAR, the score people get at the end of high school. He says- and he told us on the show- that the ATAR is steering students away from more academically- what do I call them- rigorous subjects if I can call them that. STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering, maths. Do you agree with him that the ATAR discourages students from taking up STEM subjects?


Simon Birmingham:    Yeah, we had Alan Finkel the Chief Scientist, come and speak to all state and territory education ministers quite recently. I do agree that there’s a concern that the drop off in terms of advanced maths being undertaken as a subject is a real concern. Dr Finkel used a fabulous term, which is to say that if maths is the language of science, just as you need English and literacy skills to succeed in so many ways, you need maths skills to succeed in science and in technology and engineering disciplines as well. He highlighted that you could have a look at the ATAR scores as part of that. He suggested that there was a real need for universities to have a look at the pre-requisites they set for entry into courses that do require maths skills. That it’s quite clearly a ridiculous undertaking where we seem to have large numbers of students having to do top-up maths programs when they start at uni because they weren’t doing the right maths subjects while they’re at school. There are certainly changes that I hope we can talk to states and territories about in a positive way for a new education reform agreement we’re working to strike by the end of this year.


Raf Epstein:     Look Minister, the phone line’s not improved much but I’m going to try once more. You’ve got a significant Coalition MP knocked out of her pre-selection in Queensland, so you’ve now got one less woman running in a gettable seat. In fact, you’ve got fewer female MPs than John Howard had in his first term. Why’s the coalition going backwards with female representation?


Simon Birmingham:    Oh look, I encourage lots of people and particularly women, to put their hands forward to participate in the political process, join the Liberal party and to put their hand up to be pre-selected at some stage in their lives. We have a completely open and democratic process across most parts of the Liberal party where local party members choose who’s going to run and the [indistinct]…


Raf Epstein:     So do you think it’s a problem you’ve got fewer female MPs than John Howard’s first term?


Simon Birmingham:    Look I would love to see more women pre-selected, more women in Parliament, more women on the Liberal party benches and I certainly work hard in my home state to try to encourage women and especially young women to be involved and to consider a career in politics.


Raf Epstein:     Look thanks for your time, I’ll leave it there Simon Birmingham, that’s not the world’s best phone line but nobody’s fault. The Federal Education Minister there at the airport.