Interview on Channel 9 Today with Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic
Topics: Numeracy and literacy checks for better learning

Lisa Wilkinson: Welcome back to the show. All Year 1 students could soon be tested on their reading and maths two years before sitting the NAPLAN test. Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now from Adelaide. Good morning to you, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Lisa.

Lisa Wilkinson: So why do you believe six-year-olds need these tests?

Simon Birmingham: We know from the existing NAPLAN that around one in 20 children are not meeting the minimum literacy standards or skill sets when they get to that point. So it’s essential that we ensure children in those first few years of schooling are getting the extra help they need, if they’re falling behind, if they’re not responding appropriately to the type of teaching practices used. So this is not a test, this is a in-school, in-classroom skills check that won’t be publicly reported or anything like that that relates to NAPLAN, but will give teachers, principals and parents a consistent platform to say: is my child, is my student actually meeting the type of standards we would expect after around 18 months or so at school?

Lisa Wilkinson: A lot of parents might be concerned that these, let’s call them a skills check, could be stressful. What will the test consist of and how long are they going to take?

Simon Birmingham: So they literally consist of a school teacher, could even be the classroom teacher, sitting down in a one-on-one format with a list of words and sounds and numbers that a child would read back to the teacher. So it’s actually really very simple, it’s the type of thing that many schools of course already do but we are wanting to make sure that in every school in every classroom every child gets the chance to be proven as meeting the type of standards of learning you’d expect. so they’ve got those foundational building blocks of literacy and numeracy upon which so much of the rest of their schooling success depends.

Lisa Wilkinson: Once you identify children who are having problems what’s the plan then?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re putting record and growing levels of funding into Australian schools, some $23 billion in a needs-based funding model that will see around $2300 extra support per student over the next decade. So it really is then a case that schools need to make sure they’re using the funding and the support they’ve got to target their teaching, to tailor their teaching, to support individual students who may not be coming up to scratch, to make sure that every child who can gets the success to be able to have those basic foundational skills.

Lisa Wilkinson: How important will phonics be in all of this?

Simon Birmingham: Phonics is critical. Now it’s not the only element of literacy that needs to be taught. But it is a way of essentially helping children to decode words, to understand what the individual letter sounds are, so that when they look at a word they understand that how to put those sounds together and come up with a word that you or I would just read off of a page. So it’s a key part of it. Of course it doesn’t completely supplant all other literacy skills over the following couple over years. But in particular parents, advocates, experts in the dyslexia field strongly advocate that phonics teaching is a way of really helping some of those children in the very early stages to develop skills that can help them to not fall behind and to overcome some of the challenges they have.

Lisa Wilkinson: Learning Difficulties Australia have made a submission on this and they said that the problem is few Australian teachers since the 1980s have had any sort of proper training in the teaching of phonics. That’s got to be a problem.

Simon Birmingham: And that’s something in the teacher training reforms we’ve already sought to address. We made sure through the review of the curriculum that phonics teaching was part of that. But yes, absolutely, the review has been asked and did take a look at indeed the type of skills and support that schools and teachers would need to guarantee the adequacy of their instruction prior to teaching the test and in response to the skills check demonstrating that kids may need a bit of extra help. So teacher support is critical to this to make sure that it’s not just a skills check that then sits in the bottom drawer, but is actually something that helps inform and improve teacher practice in the classroom for kids who need it most.

Lisa Wilkinson: All right, Simon Birmingham, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Lisa.

Karl Stefanovic: It is an interesting proposal. Any time you can find out where your child is at in terms of learning is a fantastic thing. I worry a little bit about the pressure that the kids may or may not feel going into that test. But as he pointed out before we went into that interview that it’s more about just finding out where they’re at.

Lisa Wilkinson: Yes, and hoping kids don’t fall between the cracks.

Karl Stefanovic: Yeah, yeah, exactly.