Interview on FIVEaa, Breakfast with David Penberthy and Will Goodings   
Topics:  Release of Gonski 2.0 report




David Penberthy:         Federal Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham joins us. Senator, good morning to you.  


Simon Birmingham:     Good morning Will, good morning Penbo.


David Penberthy:         Now, Birmo, this is a pretty massive report, and again, it’s David Gonski, who’s become synonymous with education in this country, who’s put his thinking cap on to give us a bit of a sense as to the direction the education system is going to be heading in. For the average parent who is listening, how will schools change as a result of this?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, the key change that’s recommended here is to put a very strong focus on how to extend each student individually to their maximum capability. So it proposes changes to the curriculum that set out clear steps in terms of learning progressions that need to be in place. It proposes changes to develop new tools for teachers to apply in the classroom that would replace current random testing or skills checks in the classroom with something that is more evidence-based, robust, but also gives teachers better feedback about where their student is tracking relative to other students, and what types of things they can do to be able to target their teaching effectively to each of those students in a way that gives teachers as much time as possible to do so, and really makes that a simpler process as possible for them.


David Penberthy:         So when you’re talking about testing there, it’s in the classroom setting, it’s not in the context of NAPLAN and so forth?


Simon Birmingham:     No, this is not about more NAPLAN and it’s not about more testing. It is about having, though, the resources for teachers, who do lots of individualised testing and activities in the classroom already, to draw on evidence, data and well-researched assessment tools that are nationally available and consistent, where they can then get real-time feedback with use of those tools for application in their classroom; real-time comparisons about how much their students are learning through the course of the year, and real data about how that compares with similar schools around the country.


David Penberthy:         So how do you get more one-on-one time? Because the constant refrain I hear from other parents, and indeed from the teachers as well: if you’ve got 32, 33, 34 kids in your class, how do you realistically provide them with one-on-one time beyond 10 minutes a week?


Simon Birmingham:     Absolutely, which is why it’s so important that the curriculum spells out simpler steps in the learning progression that is necessary for kids; why you want to build the type of tools that make it easier for teachers to not only identify where their students are at, but also to then get clear feedback as part of those tools that they can access online around what the next steps for those students should be. So that we really take what great teachers do already and make that a process that is better systematised, better available to all teachers across the country. We’re putting record dollars into Australian schools, yet we’ve seen declining performances. We have to make sure that first and foremost we get the basics right – reading, writing, literacy, numeracy standards – in the early years, particularly those four skills developed by age eight, as this report recommends we give a priority to that, but then also richer, more complex skills about how you proceed in the workplace and develop social competency.


David Penberthy:         Senator, the review charts the decline in our standards relative to other OECD countries; from highs in 2000 of fourth in literacy and science, seventh in maths; to these days, sixteenth in reading, twenty-fifth in maths, fourteenth in science. Over the interceding 18 years, you guys have been in government for more than half of it. Is this an admission that you’ve got it wrong?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, the report does state pretty brutally that, as a nation, we’ve failed a generation of students. Now, I think we still have good schools who do great jobs for children, but clearly, we haven’t been keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of advances in education, and this report is a real call to arms about how we lift performance in our schools for students; how we stretch and extend every student to their maximum capability. So that ultimately we get not only fewer underachievers but also more high achievers in our school system and for our nation.


David Penberthy:         Are you going to pursue a regimen whereby you institute some sort of performance pay for teachers?


Simon Birmingham:     No, this doesn’t recommend that. It does recommend that, in terms of highly accomplished and lead teachers and schools, that more should be done to try to keep them in classrooms, but also in leadership roles in schools where they can mentor new teachers, where there can be a dialog of feedback in terms of teaching practices to ensure that the best teachers are creating even better teachers around them.


David Penberthy:         How isn’t that performance pay?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s about ensuring that you pay based on skills, talent, merit. It’s not about saying that you’re having the type of simplistic approach that some have debated over the years of performance pay, where you pay just on NAPLAN scores. But ultimately, you have to look at this report in its totality. It is a significant blueprint for change, and what it calls for is really a series of reforms, partly about getting the best teachers in the classroom, partly about changing the curriculum, partly about assessment processes, partly about how we get better research and evidence that flows back to teachers in a way that they could use. All of that has to be put together to give us the type of lift that is necessary.


David Penberthy:         Minister, 40 years ago – more than 40 years ago now – when I started primary school, the school day used to finish at half-past three. It now finishes at three o’clock. We had four weeks’ worth of holidays during the year; we now have six weeks of holidays during the year. We had no pupil-free days when I was at school. Today, neither of my kids – one at a private school, one at a state school – are at school, even though it’s technically the first day back for the term. They’ve got pupil-free days today, not for the first time this year. And often, when I pick them up from school and say: what did you do today? They’ll say: oh, we had two hours of health and wellbeing; we’re learning about wellness; we’re learning about resilience. But if you ask them who were the three chief protagonists in World War Two, who were the axis powers, they’d look at you blankly, but they can tell you about food pyramids and how to brush your teeth. Now, isn’t so much of the problem that we’ve just strayed away from just nuts and bolts, basic education and more rigour in the school day?


Simon Birmingham:     I think rigour is critical, and that’s where this report drives us back to how do you make sure that each kid is learning as much as they possibly can. There’s also a big message here, and the report makes it clear that you can’t expect it all to work if it’s just on the shoulders of teachers or the school system. We have our part to play as government; of course, state and territory governments who run the school system have an enormous role and we’ll talk to them later this week. But parents, carers and families have a huge role too, and if the expectation is that more time is spent teaching kids to brush their teeth at school rather than at home, then of course that is going to put greater pressure on the time that’s available in the school day. And really, that’s where parents and families need to step up to the plate and make sure that they’re fulfilling their roles in helping kids develop the basic skills in the early years, reading to their kids as much as they possibly can, and also that they’re setting high expectations, because expectation is critical in terms of then how hard kids, in fact, work, the aspiration there and so forth. So, there’s a big message in this report, not just for government, not just for schools, but also for parents.


David Penberthy:         Simon Birmingham, the Federal Education Minister, Liberal Senator for South Australia, thanks very much for joining us.