Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast with Robbie Buck
International reports on student performance; Discipline in classrooms; Improving student outcomes

Robbie Buck: A report card that is out this morning to do with Australian kids and their behaviour and it’s not particularly great for us. The report comes from Trends in International Mathematics and Society and another one from the Programme for International Student Assessment. And it found that Aussie kids were roughly a year and a half behind Singapore’s students in science and two years behind them in maths. And really it found that a lot of kids were not behaving very well in the classroom, that was causing a lot of this lag. 

The Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham has called for a zero tolerance policy. So what does that mean? Minister, good morning. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Robbie and good morning to your listeners. 

Robbie Buck: Yeah what does that mean?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it means that we really have to back our teachers and principals to ensure that within their skills they have the highest of standards, that they call out disrespect or disruption whenever it’s happening, that they have policies in place that will be backed and supported importantly by parents, by the school community, as well as by policymakers, to deal with disruption, to ensure that students who are not engaging in disruption don’t suffer the consequences of those who are. And that those who are learn how to better regulate their behaviour, learn how to make sure they ultimately are positive participants in the classroom environment. And none of that’s easy.

Robbie Buck: No, no, I was about to say that all sounds easy on paper, but of course in reality when you’re standing up the front of a class, where you’ve got a lot of kids who are being disruptive, then where does the onus fall? Are you saying that teachers have to change their approach to the classroom?

Simon Birmingham: Well this has to be a team approach. We as policymakers need to take this evidence and look to see whether there are better ways we can empower teachers to have greater control. Parents must be part of the solution. This cannot be something that rests on the shoulders of teachers and principals alone, because attitudes, respect and attitudes to school are of course formed as much in the home environment in the rest of life, as they are in the school community itself. So, this is something that is and will require a message to families and the whole school community as much as it does to policymakers and teachers that we all have to work on these particular issues of attitude, behaviour, and how it is we turn them around, as part of the efforts required to lift Australia’s performance. 

Robbie Buck: Okay, when you say zero tolerance though, what are you talking about? If somebody speaks out in class when they shouldn’t be, you’re saying they’re taken out of the class?

Simon Birmingham: Well of course your response has to be gradiated and relevant to the type of behaviour that’s there. So no, a single instance of somebody speaking up in class may not necessarily see them taken out of the class. But obviously that’s a circumstance where intervention in terms of the teacher talking to them might be appropriate. But making sure that teachers have the professional development, training, support, the policies that they know mean their principal will back them, the education departments and school systems will back them. All of that’s essential. 

I mean, as I say, I appreciate this is not easy. As a dad of two young children, I know how challenging it can be to regulate behaviour of two kids at any time, let alone a whole classroom of children. Which is why though, it has to be a team approach. This message cannot just be one for teachers.

Robbie Buck: So what are you proposing from the government side of things, though? For the teachers that are listening this morning – we have plenty of teachers who are heading into classrooms – they know the challenges they face, they deal with it on a daily basis. They know that some kids are really disruptive and it’s really problematic for them. They also know that some parents aren’t supportive in dealing with their kids being disruptive in class too. What are you suggesting that a government is going to be able to do to change any of that?

Simon Birmingham: And we do have, we should acknowledge, still a high performing education system by global standards and hardworking teachers who help deliver that. Now as Federal Minister, I’ll be taking this research which came to be yesterday and taking a hard look at it and talking to my state counterparts about whether we need better responses in the training and support given to teachers and the professional development. In the policy settings that school systems and departments have as to how they empower teachers to deal with disruption. Particularly new forms of disruption as well. Things like mobile phones, technology and devices in the classroom that can create other distractions, other forms of disruption. Whilst being very valuable learning tools, we have to recognise that they need to be carefully managed as well. 

But then the real challenge for all of us is to see, what are the more effective ways that we can get parents who may not have instilled those values of respect of the teacher, support for high ambition and good attitudes towards learning? How do we deal with those circumstances and really make sure that that is addressed to make life easier for our teachers and for everybody involved in the learning environment. 

Robbie Buck: Okay. Again, they’re fairly challenging areas to try and deal with. Just before I let you go Minister. The teaching in Singapore, or the education outcomes in Singapore, are constantly held up with these big international rankings and we’re being told that Australian kids are more than two years behind their counterparts in Singapore. What is Singapore actually doing that Australia isn’t?

Simon Birmingham: Look I think in terms of Singapore, there are dramatic differences in the- firstly attitude and ambition that applies right across the education system and in the home environment. In the way in which school days are structured, in elements of the learning environment. Not all of which are applicable or could be picked up and transferred to an Australian context. But clearly there are lessons that we perhaps can pick out of what Singapore does as a country. Especially in the way in which instruction occurs. So how it is we teach, how we ensure that at those earliest levels, basic skills of literacy and numeracy are effectively taught. And that’s one of the reasons why the Turnbull Government has a panel of experts at present, looking at how we develop an early years skills check that will be complemented by interventions that teach teachers to use identification of best practice programs that they can use to develop those core foundational skills in literacy and numeracy that kids need to be able to succeed in the rest of their education. 

Robbie Buck: Alright, Minister thanks very much for your time this morning. 

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Robbie. 

Robbie Buck: Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham.