Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Drive with Patrick Abboud
Topics: NAPLAN and Civics/Citizenship test results;

Patrick Abboud: But first, some other results are out today – NAPLAN – and the report card is pretty bleak. Literacy and numeracy standards among secondary students have either flatlined or gone backwards. Some of the worst performers are boys. Year 9 are struggling with reading skills; for year 7 lads, it’s writing. No surprise, regional and Indigenous kids continue to struggle more so than anyone else. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has labelled todays NAPLAN results as woeful and should be of serious concern. He joins us now.

Minister, you’ve said this is a wake-up call for educators. What are you going to do about it?

Simon Birmingham: Yes, well there are a couple of different lots of data out today. One relates to the usual annual assessment of reading, writing, literacy, numeracy skills in students. That shows there are areas of promise, it demonstrates that we are still a high performing country, but of course we’re not necessarily getting the gains that you would hope for out of our investment in education.

The other relates to the civics and citizenship survey of students, and that shows that we really have got a woeful performance in terms of students’ understanding of the systems of government, the way our democracy works, the way our support systems work and the like, and that less than 40 per cent of year 9 students were assessed as even having a minimum standard of knowledge there. So, that really is a cause for concern.

On the literacy and numeracy side, well what we need to keep doing is see through some of the reforms the Turnbull Government’s already implemented, such as changes to teacher training, which are ensuring that we have clear literacy and numeracy standards in teachers themselves, that we get more specialised primary school teachers out of universities and into the classrooms in the future; to bed down the national curriculum changes that have allowed a bit more time on the basics of literacy and numeracy; to hopefully see adoption of our earlier screening checks that we’re trying to get the states to apply to pick up on kids who might not be learning to read in their first year or two at school, that there can be early interventions for them. And, of course, then deliver on whatever recommendations the new Gonski panel hands down next year in terms of further evidence-based reforms needed in our schools.

Patrick Abboud: Minister, could I just get you to raise your phone to your mouth? It’s a little bit of a muffled line.

Simon Birmingham: Sure, sorry about that.

Patrick Abboud: Great. No problem. Now, why are high school boys scoring so poorly? I’m keen to hear your thoughts on that.

Simon Birmingham: That’s clearly an area of concern. The data shows around one in four high school boys are not meeting, or the year 9 boys, are not meeting the standard in literacy skills in particular, and that suggests that we need to have a look at what some of the specific strategies that can be deployed around boys are.

We’re seeing where greater effort is being made that we are getting some improvements in results. For example, Indigenous students, we’ve seen enhancements in some of their results today. But obviously those figures for boys are a problem, and we need to have a look at the way technology is impacting on their lives and their learning as to whether that is a feature or factor in that area, and really make sure though that right back at the early stages as well, boys are learning along with the girls in their classroom, that we have those early interventions for boys who may not be up to scratch the whole way through, which of course is a real problem in that if you don’t pick up problems until year 3 or beyond, it becomes that much harder to intervene and fix, and by the time you get to year 9 then you really have a chronic problem.

Patrick Abboud: And across the board, Minister, girls have way outperformed boys. Is there any rhyme or reason to that?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I will leave trying to get that level of assessment to the education experts out there who’ve done a number of different studies there. But as Minister, I’ll certainly be asking for further information about the gender differences and what can be done about that. It’s one of the reasons why, in terms of commissioning David Gonski to do this new body of work – which has got nothing to do with funding now, because we’re delivering record, growing needs-based funding across the system – but is instead about how we get best bang for our buck, how we take record funds and apply it in classrooms, the type of evidence that we make available to teachers and principals so that they can make wise choices to deploy different strategies to help students. That includes different strategies that might be necessary for boys in the classroom to learn effectively as distinct from girls.

Patrick Abboud: And what are your thoughts on, say, co-ed versus single sex schools and how this potentially impact results?

Simon Birmingham: Well there’s a mixed lot of evidence out there, and I think that does depend on individual circumstances. My view is that there’s a place for the types of choices that are available to Australian families, and that some children will excel well in a single sex environment, others will excel in a co-ed environment. But again, it’s about the way the teaching strategies are deployed, what type of programs are used, how the curriculum is implemented in those schools. They’re not easy answers, but we are determined as a government to make sure that, having put an extra $25 billion on the table in the last year for school funding in the future, that that money is used effectively, and that’s why we’ve commissioned this review. We hope and trust the states and territories will work with us on it.

New South Wales is one of the better performing education systems in the country, and that’s to the credit of the state government that there has been gains, and indeed gains across all the different factors at the year 7 and year 9 level over the last year, which I suspect is an indication that some of the changes to HSC prerequisites in terms of literacy and numeracy standards there might be having a flow on effect that these issues are being addressed a bit earlier in terms of student attainment.

Patrick Abboud: You touched on curriculum there for a moment, Minister. Indigenous kids continue to struggle more so than anyone else. Does this justify perhaps more targeted curriculum at some schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Indigenous kids do have a big gap to close, but one of the encouraging things out of this set of data is that it shows that some of the gains, some of the best gains we’re making at present are amongst Indigenous kids. So, that’s to the credit of many hardworking teachers and educationalists out there who are doing the right thing in terms of applying a different way to help bring those Indigenous kids up to a standard. There’s a lot of work still to be done in that regard, but targeted teaching strategies, where there are differentiated approaches for each child are important. [Indistinct] it’s about, as Professor John Hattie, one of the great education thinkers of our country argued, it’s about ensuring first and foremost that each child learns to the best of their ability for each year they’re in the classroom. It’s about progress as much as individual benchmarking, and I know there’s a lot of work happening across school systems, including in New South Wales, that focus on how we get that progress for each and every student, as well as hopefully then lifting the standard overall.

Patrick Abboud: And just to wrap on a positive note, Minister, the result showed children from migrant families are standout performers in spelling. That’s a win.

Simon Birmingham: Yes, it is. That’s very encouraging. Again, a credit to teachers, but I suspect also a credit to families. And there’s a message there for all of us, and that is that the extent to which a family environment values learning, respects school and teachers, engages at an early age in terms of reading to children when they’re little, with children as they get older, is very important. I think in some of those migrant communities we see a very high regard put in terms of educational outcomes and standards, and it’s important that we encourage everybody not just to think it can all be lumped on teachers or schools to get better outcomes in our school system, a lot has to happen in the home environment too.

Patrick Abboud: Thanks very much for your time, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, thank you.