Interview on Daily Telegraph Miranda Devine Live
Topics: Release of Gonski 2.0 report

Miranda Devine: Well, we’re talking the latest Gonski 2.0 report on education released today, which proposed a, quote, ‘radical overhaul of the national curriculum to boost student outcomes’. And now in the studio with us is the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Thanks for joining us, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure Miranda, great to be with you.

Miranda Devine: Now you’ve heard a fair amount of criticism here from me and from Jennifer Buckingham from the CIS. So I’ll give you an opportunity to spruik your wares.

Simon Birmingham: Well sure Miranda. This isn’t my report, but it’s a report to government. But it’s a valuable report. It looks very much indeed to the medium- and long-term as to how we build into our education system opportunities for continuous improvement; that the recommendations to put in the hands of teachers the type of assessment tool that can give them quicker, more rapid data feedback information about how their students are progressing, how they compare. To link that then into better research and evidence I think over time can absolutely give us improvements, but we have to make sure we keep doing the other things that we’re pursuing already, some of which Jennifer referenced such as our reforms to initial teacher education; such as ensuring that the focus on literacy and numeracy isn’t lost. I think we’ve got some renewed emphasis there lately. This report, as well, does emphasize very clearly that it’s critical that any of these changes give priority in the first instance to those early years, to literacy and numeracy skills, and to make sure that the basic foundations are established by the age of eight.

Miranda Devine: Now look, the report for instance calls for A to E grading. Does it ask for it to be abolished? It is quite critical about it. And what happened to F?

Simon Birmingham: The report doesn’t call for such grading to be abolished. Indeed the report still acknowledges that yes, you might want to assess progress of the student. And I’ll come back to that point in a second, but you should still absolutely also assess real achievement, absolute achievement of students. So are they meeting minimum benchmarks or proficient benchmarks? They’re important questions. But also, are they progressing as much as they possibly can is also an important question. A student who starts year five having been an A grade student in year four, who may well know most of the year five content already ought to be being extended. Equally a student who might be behind the rest of the class in their reading skills needs to be identified and given targeted support to bring them up in terms of their skills. Good teachers do this already. Many teachers work very hard in terms of how they target their teaching to different groups within their classroom and different abilities within their classroom. But those good teachers also have to do a lot at present to invent the wheel themselves, sometimes, around the way they target. This report is trying to say can we put in place better systems, better structures to support them to do that.

Miranda Devine: Look, let me just read to you and I’ll get Jennifer to pipe in whenever you want to, but a part of this report says something I just cannot understand: cultivate an adaptive, innovative and continuously improving education system. That just sounds like mumbo jumbo.

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think you can take the report-type language out of that, and what it is saying in my terms would be how do you make sure we keep getting better? That you can’t just have an education system that sits still. There are some things that an education system is always going to have to do, and frankly which we’ve been failing on over time. That’s teaching kids how to read effectively, teaching them how to write effectively, teaching those basics where it’s clear that we have slipped. But there are other things in terms of the skills you expect children to have when they finish school, and particularly in areas of technology and so on, we expect kids to have skills and knowledge that really weren’t applicable when any of us were at school. So you’ve got to have those changes in terms of the way teaching responds, as well as responding to all of the other impacts, technology being another one, in different ways, that impacts on how students are learning, impacts on what they’re doing at home. And how we make sure that, again, do we have good research and evidence for teachers to know when to use technology, when not to use it, and indeed, information then that goes back to parents about how they should regulate the use of technology to make sure their kids aren’t distracted from their learning?

Miranda Devine: Now the report recommends moving away from year-based learning. So how are teachers going to have the time to teach children curriculums sort of above and below their grades, while still managing the rest of the class?

Simon Birmingham: I sort of gave that example before that good teachers already do that. They do recognize there are different levels of standards within the classroom and they target their teaching accordingly. What the report is trying to do is to say by embedding some of those elements of progress in the curriculum and by putting that in a more accessible, easy to reach assessment tool – coupled with support materials and resources for teachers – you can help those good teachers have more time in terms of the way they target their teaching, but also make that more accessible to other teachers to understand how they differentiate within their classroom to ensure that the kid who already knows the content is being extended more, so you get more high achievers; the children who might be slipping behind are identified and therefore remedial action taken to make sure they don’t slip further and further behind.

Miranda Devine: But the terms of reference I think were more specific and asking for more ideas about teacher effectiveness and something more than sort of airy-fairy motherhood… (audio skips), which is really what the report is full of. You must be a bit disappointed that from your panel – Ken Boston, David Gonski – that they haven’t given specifics that anyone, parents and journalists writing about it and Jennifer Buckingham, an expert, can actually grab hold of and say this is really worth all the money that we’re going to be spending on education extra, and we can actually base our decision on whether it’s successful or not on whether or not this report follows through. But there’s nothing specific in the report.

Simon Birmingham: I think there are specifics in the report, but there are specifics that as Jennifer was talking about before are probably tailored more to the medium- and long-term effects they will have in terms of creating improvements in what happens in classrooms, and indeed in the research that teachers can rely on as to how they teach what they teach and the methods that are used. It doesn’t present here are the five silver bullets that you could apply over the next one or two years to make a tangible difference.

Miranda Devine: Jennifer, could you have suggested a couple of silver bullets?

Jennifer Buckingham: Well, I think there’s an enormous amount of research that points towards particular curriculum design principles and teaching principles that have shown time and time again to be effective, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are at risk, but also for children at the other end of the scale. I think this was another one of the things that I think the report did not capitalise on or explore sufficiently was that how you cater effectively for children at different ends of the achievement range. Their expectation is that, as the Minister is saying, this new assessment tool would show where that needs to be done, but there isn’t then any guidance about how you do that. And so there’s- the report is full of what, not the who or the how, and their recommendations sort of glide over that. So …

Miranda Devine: Isn’t that the most important thing, Minister, the how?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the type of assessment tool that’s proposed, if we think about how it might practically work is that rather than waiting for a year three NAPLAN. Of course teachers already have a whole range of different assessments that they use. Again, some of them are very good. Not all of them are benchmarked or evidence based though. So putting in place an assessment tool that from the very first year of schooling and through each of those years teachers are able to use to chart the progress, is a child learning to read, is a child getting their numeracy skills that are required…

Miranda Devine: Sure, but that’s the assessment. What about the teaching? I’m all for assessment but it seems like it’s all assessment and no advice or no plan for how to teach.
Simon Birmingham: And it’s absolutely expected that alongside that assessment tool would be resources to show how it is you should be targeting teaching to different students at different stages of their progression.

Miranda Devine: But that’s not in a report.

Simon Birmingham: So that’s partly about what the curriculum changes proposed are. In putting in place some of the progression-based elements to the curriculum. But indeed, we have to make sure that in its application you make sure that there is clear guidance there for teachers around how they use it and what the tools and resources they should use are, to make sure that they are evidence based in their application. I don’t pretend that any of this is easy or can instantly be done overnight. But I can see that it’s got clear potential to make sure that we don’t continue to have a circumstance where either fewer and fewer kids are achieving at the standards they used to be- this report makes very clear that on 2016 data the entire student cohort in Australia in terms of their reading skills, their math skills, their science skills is behind where students were in 2005. That the low achievers are performing even worse, the median range is lower, and the high achievers are performing at a lower level. So we’ve got to …

Miranda Devine: But this report was supposed to fix that and supposed to give us concrete ways that you were tying that extra funding to improved education. And yet subjects like history and science and literature and mathematics, the sort of understanding and the skills associated with those, as Kevin Donnelly has written today in The Australian, are just thrown aside for these kind of general capabilities.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, I don’t agree with that analysis, in that the report makes very clear you’ve got to put the emphasis on getting all of those early foundational elements in place. That you won’t succeed at school if you don’t get the basics of literacy and numeracy there, and that indeed if they’re not there by age eight, there’s every likelihood kids will fall further and further behind. So I think we have to take those elements of the report, really apply them hard. There’s a clear message there as well, frankly, for parents, for communities too that there have to be clear expectations …

Jennifer Buckingham: For a phonics check in year one.

Simon Birmingham: … Jennifer and I are on a unity ticket there, and have done some great work in advancing the cause around teaching of phonics, and the potential use for phonics check, which in and of itself you could say, to take one of your questions before Miranda, is just an assessment. And it is just an assessment, but you hope from the assessment that of course it’s setting an expectation within the school that this is important. And what we’ve seen where the phonics check has been used in the UK, and Jennifer’s better able to speak on that than I, but what we’ve seen is that it has changed teaching practice. They have been teaching phonics much more successfully, and children are not only better meeting the phonics check, but now several years down the track you’re seeing benefits in terms of their reading capabilities later on.

Miranda Devine: And that’s wonderful, and of course there’s evidence that backs up the use of the phonics check. There is evidence for other things such as direct instruction in teaching that Jennifer was talking about. Are you disappointed really – I know that your heart is in the right place and you want to fix the problem, but are you disappointed with this report, that it is so vague; that it leaves out these very important evidence based issues that would just give such a clear roadmap to teachers and schools?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think I think there could have been a series of recommendations like a phonics check that would have given us some gains in certain areas. What the panel chose to do was to try to take a longer-term perspective and say: how do we make sure that things like phonics in future aren’t an ideological debate, that if you actually have proper assessment and data, proper research gathering and undertaking, that actually you shouldn’t – when Jennifer or I or anybody else talk about a phonics check – suddenly then have the ideological warriors go out there and argue the case. You should actually be able to say, just as when a doctor receives new instructions out of medical research, that says you know this is the best way to diagnose a problem or this is the best way.

Miranda Devine: But the evidence is already there. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Simon Birmingham: And yet we don’t seem to have the architecture of the way the education system works, a way to take the politics and the ideology out of that, and actually say clearly the evidence is there. Who is the authoritative voice upon which does that evidence- actually collated and the data that it relies upon. It’s all very hotly contested.

Miranda Devine: But the government’s got to make a decision, you’ve got to take a stand.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve taken a stand in favour of a phonics check. Of course it takes states and territories to actually administer it in their schools. I’m thrilled that in my home state, the new Liberal Government – but based off of work to their credit that the old Labor government had started – is actually delivering the phonics check state-wide this year. And I hope that again we’ll be able to take evidence from what they’re doing and encourage other states to follow suit.

Miranda Devine: Now lastly the F. Has that been abolished completely? What happened to F, why is it A to E? Is no one allowed to fail any more?

Simon Birmingham: I might have to go away and check in terms of whether F’s are out there in the land, but the students should fail. Students who aren’t meeting the minimum standard should clearly be failed. They should be made aware to parents. I was about to say before there’s a big, big message out of all of this as well that we can expect education bureaucracies to do things, principals to do things, teachers to do things, but we also have to expect parents to do things as well and to take education seriously. I heard you asking Jennifer before about the term growth mindset and so on. Well again, let me put that in terms that I’d use, which is people valuing an education, and that at home parents ought to be setting high expectations for their children …

Miranda Devine: Sure, but what about the poor kids …

Simon Birmingham: … the value of an education, respect their teachers and go to school with a mindset to learn.

Miranda Devine: Sure, but I mean I just feel sorry for the kids that don’t have parents who are particularly adept at helping them. They should be able to go to school and learn to read write and be as good as anyone else who’s got great parents at home so …

Simon Birmingham: They should indeed.

Miranda Devine: But we won’t know for ten years or five years.

Simon Birmingham: We won’t stop pursuing other things, be it the phonics check, be it better teaching of prospective teachers at universities, all of those other reforms that we’ve been pursuing, while we indeed work on these recommendations to provide medium-, long-term improvement. And indeed I hope continuous improvement. I said before it would be great to think that whatever the phonics check argument in five years time is, it’s not an argument. That we actually have a process in place by then for it to be assessed, resolved, and people to go that’s what the evidence shows, let’s just do it.

Miranda Devine: And of course I mean it is state governments that are in charge of the schools. We have to remember that. Minister, thank you for joining me in this studio, and also to Jennifer Buckingham.