Interview on ABC South West WA with Peter Barr
WA school results; report into sexual assaults at universities

Peter Barr: WA students have achieved their highest results in this year’s NAPLAN testing, breaking state records in 14 out of 20 assessments. That’s good, but the results aren’t all good. Nationally, 60 per cent of year nine students have fallen below the required levels in the writing exam; in reading, 46.5 per cent are below the required levels, while just over 40 per cent are below the level in numeracy.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is in the South West and with me. Welcome, Simon. Sorry about that, welcome to the program. Welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.

Peter Barr: Very sorry. What’s gone wrong with writing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we certainly see across the nation some concerning trends in writing, as your show rightly highlighted. Some steady improvements around the country in reading and numeracy, but not such good news with writing. Better results across the board in WA, and obviously one of the things that we need to get different states and territories to do is to have a look at some of the things in states like New South Wales, in Western Australia that have been working and see what it is that can be replicated elsewhere to really lift the performance there. I think there are obviously a range of different factors that might be impacting on writing over a period of time, be it technology or elsewhere, that we should be cognisant of. But really, our priority as the Federal Government, having now fixed issues around the delivery of needs-based school funding and locked that into the future, is to make sure the focus is on how that is used as effectively as possible to get the best student outcomes that we can.

Peter Barr: Do you see technology as a problem? Our kids can’t spell because they don’t need to online?

Simon Birmingham: It can be a distraction in some cases and it can be an influencer. We need to use technology as a core part of the skillset that students need when they leave school as to how they’re effectively applying technology, but it can’t be at the expense of basic skills such as being able to write properly, communicate properly, and they are essential attributes for the early years.

Peter Barr: Now, what are the basic skills they need to make that happen? What do you do to make that happen?

Simon Birmingham: One of the most important things is to start with reading, and one of the refreshing results in these NAPLAN scores is to see a really steady improvement right across the country really in terms of reading skills. And so that of course is providing the real foundational blocks for literacy making sure that children are literate in terms of their reading capabilities and skills by the age of eight. It’s an essential benchmark that the likes of Professor John Hattie have identified. Now we need to build on that in terms of their writing skills. We’ve implemented reforms around teacher training so that those at universities at present undergoing teacher training will take new benchmarks to demonstrate their own personal literacy and numeracy competencies so we can have confidence teachers going into classrooms can not only teach, but can do themselves what they [indistinct] teach.

Peter Barr: David Gonski’s leading a new panel to improve teacher training. When do you think there will be true results from this?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, so we’ve taken firstly those steps around the standards for teacher training at present, requiring new levels of teachers actually identifying specialisations in their university studies, which are all requirements the Turnbull Government has put in place. Now we’ve got David Gonski working with us on a second piece of work. His first one – having just been talked about for the last six years – around school funding, we’ve now acted on, delivered in a true and fair consistent way across the country.

The second piece is not about funding, but about how we make sure it is used as effectively and efficiently as possible. That will report early next year. We’ve put a panel of principals and educators around David to make sure that there’s real skills there to identify best practice, with strong evidence so that hopefully he can then really get the support of state and territory governments, and I imagine that things like the IPS model and school autonomy and independence here in WA, the minimum standards for school leavers that have been applied will be some of the measures that David and the panel will take a close look at.

Peter Barr: Meanwhile, some schools have performed very well around the country. What are the lessons for others from those results?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think one of the real tests, as we get NAPLAN now to its tenth year of operation, is how we more effectively take the findings from NAPLAN of schools of different demographic factors and backgrounds, where they are getting higher gains and showing strong success, and get an understanding of what it is that they are doing in their schools, what professional development or training have they put their teachers through, what particular programs and practices may apply into the classroom, and then identify those evidence-based best practices to replicate across the rest of the country.

Again, I hope that the second Gonski review can look at systems that we can better put in place across Australia so that, where we have high performance schools that are getting great gains in their standards, we can take the work of those outstanding principals and teachers and make sure that it is duplicated and replicated elsewhere.

Peter Barr: Are you happy with WA students’ results?

Simon Birmingham: Certainly WA has got a really positive set of statistics. That is a testament to work over a number of years in terms of policy settings. As I said before, I think the reforms like the Independent Public Schools initiative of the previous government, the type of standards that are being put of high expectations for school leaders definitely have some really strong attributes. Equally, further innovation that is taking place. I’ve just left the Cooinda Primary School in Bunbury, and some of the work that they’re undertaking now to take a look at additional support for next year with special targeted practices for students on the autism spectrum really shows that there’s work happening across the board with standards, as it should be.

Peter Barr: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham with me. We’ll just change tack slightly if you don’t mind, Minister. University students are concerned today about the results of yesterday’s sexual assault and harassment study. What do you take from that data?

Simon Birmingham: Look, it is concerning. Sexual harassment and assault is unacceptable in our universities, as it is anywhere around Australia. We expect universities – not just as a result of community expectations, but also under the legal frameworks and higher education standards the Government has – to provide safe learning environments for students. Yesterday, I wrote to all of the nation’s universities asking them to outline to the national tertiary education regulator the steps they’ll be taking in response to this survey, and to demonstrate exactly how they are going to guarantee safe learning environments, address some of these cultural issues in the institutions, and guarantee support for those who need it in relation to these abhorrent practices.

Peter Barr: Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. I appreciate your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure. Thanks so much.

Peter Barr: Thank you so much.