Interview on ABC Radio National with Fran Kelly
Australia’s declining maths and science results; Turnbull Government’s evidence-backed schools reforms; Future schools funding arrangements; Murray Darling Basin
30 November 2016

Fran Kelly: Education funding is in sharp focus as we’ve been hearing this morning the release overnight of this new report showing that Australian students are falling even further behind in maths and science than their global counterparts. This study compares pupils in up to 49 countries and it reveals that Australian years 4 and 8 students have dropped up to 20 places in the international rankings. These results have been described by education experts as dismal and as a major wakeup call. 

Our Education Minister Simon Birmingham is in our Parliament House studio. Minister, welcome to Breakfast. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Fran. Good to be with you.

Fran Kelly: So 10 places in new format, Australian kids have gone from 18th to 28th, that puts our schools behind countries like Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Lithuania. As our Education Minister are you embarrassed by that?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think they’re appalling results and yes, I guess in a sense I’m the one who has to carry it in 2016 and so I am embarrassed for Australia that we are not performing at the standard that we would expect our schools to perform and that we really do need to make sure we double down in terms of putting effort and focus on how it is we can improve that performance and what it is we need to do in terms of the quality of teachers, the performance of teachers, the support in the classroom, the performance of our schools where we focus the curriculum effort to make sure that we get far, far better results in the future.

Fran Kelly: This conversation will inevitably go to funding and I guess if you look at Kazakhstan with a GDP per capita of just $14,100 compared to the GDP per capita here in this country of 73,000 and above, in Kazakhstan they actually needed their school system bailed out by the World Bank five years ago, but they’ve overtaken us in maths and science, so it’s not all about dollars. What’s Kazakhstan doing right that we aren’t?

Simon Birmingham: Well these are things we have to look at Fran and indeed this conversation should not inevitably go to funding because we are funding our schools at record levels and it will continue to grow from those record levels into the future. So we can put record funding and put that to one side and say the conversation now should be about how are we going to use that record funding far more effectively in the future to get better outcomes for our children …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Okay but we can’t put it to one side completely and- I mean there are so…clear signs in these results too that funding does matter because of the- look at the clear links between disadvantaged and low scores in these results. Half of the students in remote areas, many of them Indigenous students ranked below the proficient target for Australia, so sub-standard by our standards in maths and science which does underscore the need to adequately fund the disadvantaged schools doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well Fran in many of those, particularly Indigenous disadvantaged schools are some of the highest funded schools in the country, especially the…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well many of them aren’t though.

Simon Birmingham: …Government funding that goes into them. So here we have to recognise…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Yeah but since when though Minister, I mean this is done in 2014. A lot of the school funding that’s what led us to the Gonski model in the first place was that there was a lot of inequity in terms of funding per capita and that’s what we’re trying to address here.

Simon Birmingham: And we are absolutely committed to addressing inequity, to keeping to and working on a fair needs-based funding model, and to making sure that that is fair in terms of the way the Commonwealth treats different states and territories as well. But let’s not pretend for a second that it hasn’t been firstly increased investment across the board, we’ve seen funding grow by around 50 per cent since 2003…

Fran Kelly: Yep.

Simon Birmingham: It will grow in federal dollar terms from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. We’ve seen that growth. There’s certainly been faster growth in recent years into government schools and into areas of disadvantage and we are seeing significant high funding in some of those very high areas of disadvantage…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Okay. Well, then you’re right, let’s put that aside for a moment…

Simon Birmingham: … But we have to get it right on how we spend it.

Fran Kelly: Let’s put that aside and look at how we spend it, as you say, because when it comes to maths and sciences what are other higher place countries doing, countries like Canada, Britain, Lithuania, South Korea, what are they doing in their schools? I’m sure you and those who work for you must have looked at the programs around the STEM subjects, particularly sciences and maths, that are running in other places that are working and why aren’t we doing them?

Simon Birmingham: And that’s why we took to the election and are trying to get endorsement from the states of a number of reforms Fran that are based on evidence and evidence from around the world about the preparation of teachers, making sure that teachers meet their own minimum literacy and numeracy standards in schools, that we have more specialist teachers, not just in secondary schools but also into our primary schools. That we ensure they’re proficient when they get into the classroom. We don’t just assume that a graduate is up to scratch. We have clear processes to test proficiency…

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Can I stop you there Minister for a second, because with respect all those things are really obvious and I reckon we have been suggesting these things now for a good 15 years that our student- that our teachers’ need to be better trained, that we need to have more specialist education for our teachers in maths and science. I mean I think everyone’s shocked at that statistic that you gave us this year that some of our teachers are coming out without adequate literacy and numeracy. Why in this country haven’t we been able to improve the base level of our teachers?

Simon Birmingham: Well Fran I think it’s because we haven’t had such a dedicated and disciplined focus before. And I just hope that the states and territories actually back us on this; that they are willing to stand up sometimes to resistance from teacher unions and other forces who want to keep things largely as they are, who think the solution is to divert more money into smaller class sizes despite the fact the evidence shows that that is not necessarily the solution. And that what you really need to focus on is how we better keep our most capable and competent teachers in the classroom, how we get them to their mentor, new teachers coming in to meet those proficiency skills, that we don’t reward teachers just for time served but based on high standards, peer recognised standards of reaching lead levels and highly capable levels.  

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: And these are some of the types of changes that have only really come about in the last couple of years and that we are trying to push the states and territories as hard as possible to implement.

Fran Kelly: Do you think something more has to go on in this country to shift? I’m noting the comment by the Fairfax papers of Janine McIntosh from the Australian Mathematical Science Institute; she says Australians need to stop teasing geeks. She says ‘I’m one of them’ and in Australia it’s become pretty cool to not be good at maths and that is the problem. Do you think we have a cultural issue here that we really need to focus on? And that’s not about teacher quality: that’s about kind of shifting the conversation really.

Simon Birmingham: Look I think that’s perhaps the case, Fran, and it’s certainly why we need to make sure that there are high expectations at the end of school, as well. And two of the things we put in our policy document and that we’ve asked the states for feedback on are about end of school standards. Firstly minimum numeracy and literacy standards for all students to obtain a high school certificate, a school leavers certificate as such, so that that actually means something when they go off to university or elsewhere but it also puts pressure right down the school system to then say everybody is expected if they’re going to finish school to meet certain minimum standards and requirements. The second thing is that if you’re going on to university, you should be looking at least maintaining one maths or science subject all the way through to year 12 and one English or humanities subject that we should expect people leaving school to be well-rounded enough and to have broad enough skills to maintain expertise in those areas which again then pushes pressure down the school system to say we expect and require more students to maintain their studies in maths and sciences and if everybody’s having to do that, you do change some of those cultural problems you talk about.

Fran Kelly: So are we going to mandate that because the maths and sciences, the STEM subjects, are key to the jobs of the future, we all know that and yet how do we hope to compete when we’ve got only 7 per cent of Australian students performing at the advanced level? This compares to 54 per cent in Singapore. Yesterday on the program we spoke to Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of the software giant Atlassian. He was urging the Government not to crack down too hard on 457 visas because he says in the tech industry they’re essential because of the lack of experienced and skilled IT workers coming out in this country and he says that’s driven by our education system which doesn’t prioritise maths and science teaching. Let’s have a listen.


Mike Cannon-Brookes: It’s nowhere near where we need to be, no. In terms of STEM education in high schools and through universities and don’t forget it’s not just to create software developers, every job, whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, a banker, technology expertise is going to be critical over the next 20, 25 years and beyond. We’re behind certainly other OECD countries in terms of training those skills.

[End of excerpt] 

Fran Kelly: That’s Mike Cannon-Brookes from Atlassian. Now I know you accept that argument but it’s how we’re going to mandate that change in this country and do you think business should be contributing more here in terms of, I don’t know, maybe funding scholarships or other kinds of support?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve been piloting a program to try to get business better engaged in schools, it’s called P-TECH, it sees IBM working with secondary students in Ballarat and a range of technology rich companies working similarly with secondary students in Geelong. And we’re going to roll that out across a number of other schools to try to provide a model that we hope can be picked up right across the country for that type of industry-school engagement in the STEM-rich areas which does indeed try to demonstrate the point that was being made there that there are a whole bevy of jobs that require STEM skills and to change some of the attitudes in schools that think well they only relate to technology-specific jobs when in fact they are requirements far more broadly. So that’s one thing that we certainly are trying to work on. But we do have to recognise more generally that those science and technology and maths skills are core in a range of areas which is why we need to lift the level of ambition for school leavers and in doing so, create an expectation then that at every year, you are progressing through maths and science and you are keeping it up as part of your school education …

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: … And not just have the option to ditch and flick at year nine or ten and then never think about it again.

Fran Kelly: Alright, Simon Birmingham, we are out of time, but can I just ask you very briefly on the water deal that Nick Xenophon has done with the Murray-Darling with the Prime Minister, as a South Australian do you share Nick Xenophon’s delight, really, that it will be the Prime Minister now overseeing the management of the Murray-Darling Plan and not the Water Minister and National Party Leader Barnaby Joyce, just briefly?

Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister’s a former water minister himself, he was the one who legislated the Water Act and put in place the process for the Murray-Darling Plan so he’s never lost interest, focus or leadership on it. I’m very pleased that he will be playing a role there but so absolutely will Barnaby, nothing has changed. We’re committed to seeing the plan implemented in full, on time, as we’ve said for many years.

Fran Kelly: Okay it’s just a small matter of those gigalitres of water. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran.