Interview on ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Topics: Gonski 2.0; Education Council; NAPLAN; Schools funding; Higher education fee deregulation
Fran Kelly: State and territory education ministers will sit down with their federal counterpart, Simon Birmingham, today as the Federal Government tries to sell its latest school teaching overhaul. The Government has accepted all 23 recommendations of the review, the second review, chaired by businessman David Gonski. One of the review’s key recommendations is to introduce individual learning plans for all students. Labor’s Shadow Education Spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, told us earlier in the week there’s not much to object to in the report because it all looks a bit familiar.
Tanya Plibersek: A heap of this stuff was already underway when Labor was last in government. Really high quality professional development for our teachers throughout their lives – mentoring, collaboration. All of that was underway. Dumped by Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham as just so much red tape. It has taken us five years to get back to square one.
[End of excerpt]
Fran Kelly: Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek speaking to us on Breakfast earlier in the week. Labor says these reforms will mean teachers need more resources and that message has already been amplified by some state education ministers. Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Education and Training. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Fran. Great to be with you.
Fran Kelly: Can we start with the Gonski 2.0, the overhaul of our schools, it’s a 23-point plan. Labor says it was already making some of these changes five years ago. We’ve had teachers texting in to us here on Breakfast saying they’re already doing personalised teaching in the classroom, and David Gonski himself says these reforms are an evolution not a revolution. So is this really the shake-up the PM has been claiming?
Simon Birmingham: Well it absolutely is a shake-up, Fran. Now, Tanya Plibersek’s claims really are a bit of revisionist history in the sense that the Labor Party only ever got three states to sign onto an agreement, and even then that agreement, you could drive trucks through in terms of the fact that many states cut funding. It didn’t actually deliver on what was required and it certainly didn’t go to the level of detail of the recommendations in this review, which propose very clearly the way in which we should restructure the Australian Curriculum to make clear different steps in learning that students will undertake. It makes very clear that we should develop an assessment tool that puts teachers really in the driver’s seat of being able to track clearly how their students are progressing, how they’re learning and how that compares with other students across similar schools and across the nation. Now, I think this is a very significant reform that’s proposed by David. It’s been warmly welcomed by parent bodies, by principal bodies, by teacher bodies and I hope and trust that the states and territories hear those messages and that we can agree to use the record and growing funding available in Australian schools to implement those changes.
Fran Kelly: It has been welcomed, I agree, this notion of personalised teaching, but I think a lot of people listening probably still don’t actually know quite what it means what change it would mean at the classroom level. Can you explain how a student’s day at school would change if the Government went ahead with this personalised teaching?
Simon Birmingham: Sure, and your intro question absolutely did get one point right there, Fran, which is that …
Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Only one?
Simon Birmingham: Is that many teachers, many teachers are already doing these sorts of things. Great teachers in high performing schools are looking at ways and delivering ways in which they tailor and target their teaching. That they will have different groups within the classroom at different levels of literacy skills, for example, who are undertaking different reading programs to extend those literacy skills as far as they possibly can, to make sure those who are at the front of the class keep extending themselves and go as far as they can, to make sure those who are struggling are getting additional support to bring them up to standard as much as you can. That’s the point about monitoring progress – that to monitor progress, you have to also assess actual levels of achievement. And I’ve seen some commentary around this report and the recommendations that say it’s light on achievement. Well, it’s actually quite the contrary. What it’s trying to do is ensure that we assess achievement levels regularly. We can then measure exactly how much students are progressing. That you linked that to interventions to help the students who are struggling to do better. But ultimately, you extend the whole system so we not only have fewer underperformers, but we also have more high achievers.
Fran Kelly: That kind of individual level and looking at students individually. I mean, it sounds terrific, but it also does sound labour intensive, and there are others – Tanya Plibersek is one, the Queensland Education Minister, Grace Grace is another, and some schools say a reform like this will need to be supported with more funding. And we’ve had, I think, it was PLC in Perth say they already do this and they had to increase their budget by around $700,000 to bring in the resourcing to make it possible. Will schools get extra cash to cope with this change?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, because schools are getting extra cash. Across Australia, the average …
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] I think they’ve already budgeted that cash.
Simon Birmingham: Well, Fran, the whole point of this report was firstly to look at how we dealt with stagnation or decline in our education performance. But secondly, the question that was asked very clearly upfront: how do we make better use of the record and growing funding going into Australian schools? From federal taxpayers, from state and territory taxpayers and from Australian parents? Now, we’re putting in at the federal level, Australian taxpayers are contributing around $25 billion additional into the schooling system over the next decade. Many school systems are going to see at least, on average, around 5 per cent growth per student funding over the next few years. That’s quite significant growth. We’ve already seen huge growth over recent years. The key question now is how do we ensure that funding and the growing funding to come that is already baked into the system is used effectively.
Fran Kelly: And that is the key question and it is- it sort of beggars belief, with all the funding injection we’ve had in the last 15 years that our kids have gone backwards when measured against the world, other OECD countries, since 2001, fallen backwards, fallen backward in math, fallen backwards in science, with all this money going in. There’s been a number reviews – first Gonski, Gonski 2.0; we’ve had curriculum rewrites, we’ve had NAPLAN tests introduced. I notice that Glenn Savage, an academic in the Uni of WA, says the sector is suffering from, quote, “reform fatigue”. Do you think teachers and administrators are being sort of worn down by all these changes and they don’t seem to be giving us the results, the lift?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the first Gonski looked exclusively at issues of funding, and I have to say it…
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well, no, it had recommendations about teacher quality, how to lift teacher quality and teacher standing.
Simon Birmingham: The Gonski report, itself, was a report in relation to school funding. There were then other things added on by the government of the day in an attempt to say that it was also about school improvement. As I said at the outset, fairly vague references in the name. But I think we have spent, as a nation, far too much time over the last decade talking about school funding and focusing on dollars rather than focusing on how you get the best outcome from those dollars. And the critical point around this second Gonski report is it’s not about funding, it’s about how we use those dollars to get the best effect. Now, importantly it recognises that you can’t say to teachers: we want you to better target your teaching – without giving them the tools to make sure they can easily do so. So, the type of assessment tool that’s proposed is actually about ensuring that for teachers who are already targeting and tailoring their teaching it becomes easier for them, it will become timesaving for them in the sense to be able to undertake clear assessments using evidence based tools that they will be able to do more simply in the future. Teachers who aren’t doing so, it’s going to provide that support for them to step them through how to go about doing so.
Fran Kelly: Wasn’t one of the other overhauls that we’ve seen, the introduction of the NAPLAN test for literacy and numeracy that was meant to provide an evidence based tool too to lift standards, this national test. But now we’ve got the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes, he’ll come to the table today and call for NAPLAN to be scrapped urgently, he says the national test has been used dishonestly and he’s calling it to be replaced with a different test. He says teachers are teaching to the test rather than the curriculum. Do you agree we need to dump NAPLAN?
Simon Birmingham: No I don’t, I disagree with Rob. I think that NAPLAN serves a very important purpose for many Australian parents. Just the other week we had a joint statement from the Australian Parents Council, the Council of State School Organisations, and the Isolated Children’s Parents Association, all backing in their support for NAPLAN because parents make clear they want to see how their children are progressing. They want to know whether their children are learning very clearly the basics of literacy and numeracy that NAPLAN assess. Now, NAPLAN has been important not just in giving that information to parents but also in ensuring that we are able to undertake the types of assessments that have informed this recent Gonski report. It’s looking and using NAPLAN data that has allowed…
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well, why does a New South Wales minister think it’s not only no good, he thinks it’s a negative, he says it should be scrapped urgently?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s a question for Rob. And I think Rob is a very good minister, and we will absolutely talk through some of these issues. I know that there’s concern when I speak to principals, to teachers about some of the reporting that’s attached to NAPLAN, and these are issues that we’ve invited the states and territories to bring forward proposals for a review that could have a look at how some of that reporting could be done in a better way, open to doing that, think that really what we need to do today, though, is get on with implementing or agreeing to implement and to work out the implementation stages around this Gonski report, which ultimately will provide a far greater transformation in teaching practice and approach than NAPLAN ever could.
Fran Kelly: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. The Catholic schools in New South Wales have now joined with the Victorian Catholic schools – low-fee paying Catholic schools – to protest about the Government’s funding. They’ve sent you and the Prime Minister a letter, I understand, warning that the future of these schools is local Catholic schools are in danger. They just don’t believe all the assurances, all the measuring, all the data you’ve given them. They believe they’re going to be short-changed to the point where they might fold.
Simon Birmingham: Well, all of the modelling shows, and the Budget papers have made clear, that there’s a projected around $3.5 billion dollars of extra funding into Catholic education systems across the country…
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] You keep saying that, and these states keep saying that’s not true. And they’re going to go on the rampage in the election, aren’t they?
Simon Birmingham: But, Fran, we have absolutely heard the concerns they have about some of the data and some of the methodology that underpins those calculations, which is why we put in place a review, a new independent schools resourcing board as recommended by the first Gonski review, which has been having a look at how that data around socioeconomic status, how it’s calculated and the way the capacity to contribute mechanism works. That report will come to us in the next couple of months and the government will absolutely act on those findings. And I’ve been very, very pleased that many Catholic education authorities around the country have actively engaged with that review panel looking at that methodology…
Frank Kelly: [Interrupts] So, there could be some relief for some of these low fee paying Catholic schools, there could be some extra money?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we will be taking a look at this report, its recommendations, and acting upon them when we get them. That’ll be in the next couple of months. Now, what it says, I can’t prejudge, but I know they have been very thorough and rigorous in undertaking modelling, in taking a look at the arguments put forward by Catholic education. Our principle, in terms of funding non-government schools is that we want to give the greatest choice to Australian families in terms of their education, and that means providing greater support to those families who can least afford to access a non-government school education and indeed less support to those more affluent school communities who can more afford to access that already.
Fran Kelly: Minister, we’ve got to go but can I just ask you briefly, Tuesday budget night, are you going to have another go, a third go, at fee deregulation in the higher education sector?
Simon Birmingham: No. We took that off the table before the last election, and we certainly won’t be revisiting it.
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Fran.
Fran Kelly: Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister.