Interview on ABC TV News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli
NAPLAN National Report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms; Republican movement

Virginia Trioli: We’ll return to the latest NAPLAN data, which shows some very disappointing results in literacy and numeracy. For more, the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning. Thanks for making time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Virginia, great to speak with you.

Virginia Trioli: How disappointed are you?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, these results show a plateauing. They’re a confirmation, in a sense, of results that were released earlier this year around August. So there’s not necessarily – in the headline data at least – anything new. This is a report that provides greater statistical analysis, but it certainly confirms evidence we've had from a couple of international reports over the last couple of weeks that demonstrate that our performance as a country is not meeting the high standards we should expect, that with the growth in investment we've had in our schools in recent years, we’re not seeing a commensurate growth in performance, but of course in fact in some areas we’ve seen at best a plateauing and elsewhere measures are showing a decline in our performance.

Virginia Trioli: Minister, of course it’s a headline story today. I mean, if you’re not improving the standards in schools then by definition you’re failing. So do you take personal responsibility for that?

Simon Birmingham: Well Virginia, I take my share of responsibility. I’m the …

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] And what share is that?

Simon Birmingham: Well the Federal Government does not actually run Australian schools; states and territory run Australian schools. And so state and territory education ministers are of course the ones who set all of the standards that apply in those schools, teacher employment policies et cetera. But it’s in Federal Government's role to provide some national leadership in this space, and I will be going to the Education Council meeting with my state and territory counterparts on Friday this week with some comprehensive reform plans that I hope the states and territories will agree to, that really look at how we can better identify children in the earliest years who are struggling so that we can have effective interventions, how we can better support our most capable teachers to stay in the profession, to be rewarded and recognised, not just those who have been there longest. How we can lift our standard of ambition for student achievement in the final years, in terms of minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers, a range of different reforms that the Turnbull Government took to the last election that we now want to see, future federal school funding conditional upon the delivery of these types of reforms.

Virginia Trioli: Now we’re reading this morning that ACARA – the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority wants a proficiency level put in as part of the NAPLAN testing. They want to overhaul, really, the entire NAPLAN situation. I understand you are favourably disposed to that, is that right?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s right. We are already shifting the bulk of NAPLAN testing to an online format which will provide schools and teachers with faster reporting information in relation to their students, so it will be more relevant to schools and teachers in terms of the information it provides and able to be responsive in the classroom to the NAPLAN tests. But the discussion about putting in place a proficiency standard is about giving parents, schools and teachers information about where students ought to be performing and where we expect them to be against that year level, not just a minimum standard which NAPLAN currently measures.

So it’s about really raising that bar of ambition, and by lifting the bar of ambition we hope that of course that sends a clear message not just to schools but also to parents in the home environment that they need to be working really hard with their children to ensure they’re meeting and keeping at the types of standards we expect for each year level of accomplishment.

Virginia Trioli: I want to return to a comment that you made just a moment ago, Minister, about the Federal Government not being in charge of education issues; that being stated based, even though as you say you provide leadership. We had Professor Robyn Ewing, who- Professor of Teacher Education from the University of Sydney on this morning, and what she was pointing out in particular from these NAPLAN results is the unfairness in the system that you see from these results, those students that are doing very well and those that aren't. Isn’t it time to reconsider probably the most authoritative rethink that’s ever been done in this country on the funding of our educational institutions, the Gonski report? Isn't it time to rethink that and to rethink the application of Gonski funding to ensure that fairness exists in the system?

Simon Birmingham: Virginia, there are really two parts to the Gonski report. We often spend a lot of time talking about the quantum of money that’s available, but the bulk of the recommendations in the Gonski report go to how it’s distributed, to a needs-based approach to distribution, and there’s little debate about that. David Gonski himself has acknowledged that the Turnbull Government supports needs-based distribution, and that is exactly what we want to see occur. That we continue to support, as we do already, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, low socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous backgrounds, non-English speaking backgrounds, with additional support and funding into the school system to try to bridge those gaps. 

And if there is a glimmer of light in today's NAPLAN results, it is that we are seeing in some measures Indigenous students starting to close the gap, that that gap has shortened or narrowed in relation to year three reading skills for Indigenous students.

Virginia Trioli: Yes.

Simon Birmingham: So that’s good news. Similarly we are seeing, at least in some migrant groups or students with a background other than English, an improvement in their results, in fact in some cases outstripping other students. So there’s some positive indicators there that back the fact that we want to see funding distributed according to need. That’s a different question from how much funding you are investing in the system, which is already at record levels and which has grown by some 50 per cent in terms of Federal Government contributions in real terms, inflation adjusted, just since 2003.

Virginia Trioli: I just want to ask one other question on another issue before I let you go this morning, Minister. Yesterday there were reports around in the ABC about a backbench revolt over a Republican speech that Malcolm Turnbull is about to give. Here’s the quote of interest to me, and this is from backbenchers, quoted by Tom Iggulden there – we are always watching what our Prime Minister says, and we will voice that dissent if we have any. As we end the year, is that the suspicious judging nature of the relationship now between the Prime Minister and his party?

Simon Birmingham: No, not at all. Look, we are a party that has a range of views on the issue of the Republic. John Howard, when he was leader, accorded a conscience vote on that issue. The whole country well and truly knows …

Virginia Trioli: [Interrupts] I don’t think his backbench were being quoted in papers saying they were constantly watching him and waiting to voice their dissent at what he was doing.

Simon Birmingham: Well look, I … yeah, all I see is a government that is getting on with successfully having worked through the Parliament $21 billion worth of budget savings, significant industrial relations reforms that had stalled and failed multiple times in the previous parliament, successful reforms to our vocational education and training system that are incredibly important. I think we are getting on with the job and we are working constructively as a team to make those accomplishments. 

Virginia Trioli: Alright, thanks for joining us today, Minister. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Virginia, and all the best for Christmas.

Virginia Trioli: And to you.