Interview on Channel 10, The Project
Topics: Year 1 numeracy and literacy checks

Carrie Bickmore: Well, Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us now to talk letters and numbers.

Simon, is this test needed? Like, I’ve had a child go through Year One and I just assumed that they were going to be tested on their literacy and numeracy. Is this not happening now?

Simon Birmingham: Well this is about making sure that we can have confidence in every classroom in every school across the country that kids aren’t falling through the cracks. So if we can do more, earlier, but in a far less confrontive way, in a way that is just a light-touch skills check administered in the classroom, then that can help to make sure the extra assistance goes to those kids who need it.

Carrie Bickmore: We’ve also learnt through NAPLAN that mentioning the word test freaks the entire country out. Could there have been a better way to do it?

Simon Birmingham: Well we don’t want this to be a test. It’s not a test. It is a light-touch skills check, where a teacher who’s known to the child sits there one-on-one with the child and has them verbally read off a range of words and sounds and numbers. It’s not proposed to be published or reported publicly. It’s just about ensuring that in every school we’ve got that attention to ensuring kids are getting what is the basic foundation skills upon which the rest of their schooling depends.

Waleed Aly: So I should point out this is based or modelled on a program that was rolled out in the UK in 2012. But it might be worth it for our audience to see what that phonics test looks like there. So we’ve got a little bit of a video from that. Have a look now.

[Excerpt of phonics test video]

Waleed Aly: So the idea here is they’re saying words that don’t exist to see whether or not they can actually recognise letters and put them together and read in that way. The evidence from that suggests that they have got better at phonics, but there’s no evidence I’m aware that says they have improved their literacy skills.

Simon Birmingham: So Waleed, firstly the check is partly real words and, yes, partly made-up words so that it does test the understanding of the letter sounds that go into words. There has been a marked improvement in terms of phonetic awareness and skills in children that have undertaken the skills check. Things like the skills check we’re talking about – what’s done in the UK – happen in many, many Australian schools already. But we want to make sure that it is done consistently and to a standard that can give us confidence right across the board.

Peter Helliar: Simon, is it a bit cruel and perhaps hypocritical that the word phonics isn’t spelt phonetically?

Peter Helliar: Surely it should be spelt with an F.

Simon Birmingham: Well that is letter sounds. P-H makes a F is one of those really important parts of learning.

Peter Helliar: Okay.

Peter Helliar: I believe you. I think it should be an F. It’s confusing.

Carrie Bickmore: Alright Simon, well it would be good to see results get better for our kids at school so hopefully this works. Thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, guys.

Gorgi Coghlan: You know, when I was teaching my daughter to read when she was about four or five, she said: no, you read to me and I’ll tell you if you’re right.

Peter Helliar: Really?

Gorgi Coghlan: Yeah.

Peter Helliar: Were you right?

Gorgi Coghlan: No, I was wrong.

Carrie Bickmore: What do you think about this idea though?

Gorgi Coghlan: I think it’s ridiculous.

Peter Helliar: Why?

Gorgi Coghlan: Because I can’t see what is going to be done with the results and I think that amount of time and effort and resources should be going into plugging the holes and finding out why these kids are not on top of this in the first place.

Carrie Bickmore: But how can you find out that if you don’t check?

Gorgi Coghlan: I think if we can give teachers space, not filling it up with doing tests but one on one relationships with their class room, I think they would observe it.

Peter Helliar: It’s not a test, it’s not a test, it’s a light-touch skills massage or whatever it was.

Gorgi Coghlan: True, sorry.