Interview on FIVEaa Mornings with Leon Byner
Programme for International Student Assessment report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms; Vocational education funding
10:33 AM

Leon Byner: We’ve talked about jobs and we’ve announced 100 jobs, some of which are executive positions between 50,000 and 80,000 a year at the best supermarket in the world. We’ve talked about that. 

But you know, the one thing that is very important in a person’s access to prosperity is education and skill. And this is where the discussion now is resting, because Australian Year Nine students have in 12 years fallen an entire school year behind the results of their counterparts in maths, prompting urgent calls to reverse a downward spiral that basically says we’re dumbing down our children. We’re dumbing them down. The release of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment reveals the performance of our 15-year-olds in maths, science, reading in absolute decline. We’re being outgunned by – listen to this – New Zealand, Estonia, Slovenia despite a strong focus on education and record spending. 

Now, more money will not necessarily fix this problem, and by saying that, do not construe it to mean that we shouldn’t spend money on Education. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is – and this goes back to what the late Dr Ken Rowe said to me on air some time ago – the greatest determinant of a child’s academic success is how good the teacher is. Now, the AEU do not agree with that, even though Ken Rowe has global research – or had it, because he’s not with us any more unfortunately – that proved what he’s saying is correct. So let’s talk to the minister, the federal minister who under his watch will need to fix this. Simon Birmingham. Hey, merry Christmas. 

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Leon and all of your listeners and a merry Christmas to everybody. 

Leon Byner: Now, what are your thoughts about how we’re going to tackle this?

Simon Birmingham: Well Leon, we are taking some steps already, and there are many more that we must take. So under our watch, we’ve instigated reforms to teacher education in our universities that ensure that future graduates that are coming out of universities into the teaching profession are tested to guarantee their own minimum personal capabilities, literacy and numeracy standards; that they are definitely within the top 30 per cent of the population for personal competencies in literacy and numeracy; that we are getting our universities to change the way in which they undertake initial teacher education so that people have specialisations in future, including the primary school years, and so that we have more specialist teachers at early ages influencing maths, science, and reading. 

But the Turnbull Government also took to the last election a suite of reforms across about 12 different areas that look at earlier assessments and intervention for children; that look at how we keep our most capable teachers in the classroom; how we ensure proficiency of teachers; and seek to raise the benchmark for students in their final years of schooling so that we have minimum literacy and numeracy attainments that are necessary for school leavers and more students having to stay and study maths or sciences if they’re going on to university.

Leon Byner: Minister, do you think that school autonomy has a bearing on any of this?

Simon Birmingham: Well, strong leadership is a critical factor in schools, and leadership of course comes from principals in terms of setting the pedagogical direction and learning style in different schools and ensuring that their teachers are undertaking effective professional development to keep up with the knowledge they need to be able to effectively teach and train students in the future. And that type of leadership is really a combination of ensuring they are sufficiently empowered with autonomy to make decisions, but of course are also held accountable and responsible for what they’re doing so that we have real transparency attached to that. 

Leon Byner: You talk about pedagogical- Let me give you an example: there are a lot of teachers who don’t have a full-time job, and so sometimes they’ll do jobs, they’ll stack shelves or work in a servo, waiting to find out where their next job is. And a lot of these teachers are terribly popular with the school management, and indeed the principals and the kids, but despite that, when the schools say we want to keep Miss so-and-so or Mr such-and-such, the rules are: no, there is a seniority issue here so teacher X over there has got to have that job. Would you like to change that?

Simon Birmingham: I would like to see state and territory governments, who of course are the administrators of our school system, work really hard to change the way in which we employ and reward teachers. We propose that teacher rewards, teacher salaries should be more based upon advancement against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, recognition as being a highly capable teacher, rather than purely based on time served. And the types of factors you’re talking about there, Leon, in terms of employment decisions are similar factors there that all too often, time served, time in the system, is a determinant of what happens, rather than who is absolutely best to be in the classroom delivering capable teaching. And they’re the types of things we need the states and territories to stand up to the unions on in terms of some of the demands that are made. And to make sure that we are rewarding the most capable, not based on NAPLAN scores, but the most capable based on peer assessments within the profession against degree standards to have teachers, not only in the classroom providing the best possible teaching, but in the school providing the best possible mentoring and support to new teachers coming through the system.

Leon Byner: I’ve got an email here from a listener – and this is an issue that’s been raised today in the national media – who says: in the Herald Sun today there is a report that some teachers in Victoria are going to wear t-shirts saying let the refugees in, or something to that effect. What is the Minister’s reaction to this?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think this is completely inappropriate behaviour, that those teachers ought to know better than to bring personal political views into the classroom. And of course, it is an indictment of the fact that they think that classrooms are for political campaigning, rather than being for teaching of students about things that are outlined in the national curriculum. The areas of course that are really critical to our national development highlighted in this PISA report today around reading, maths and science and what it is that’s necessary to reverse our decline there. And that’s where I think teachers, during their daytime jobs, need to be focusing their attentions. Like every Australian, they’re free to protest or voice their political opinions outside of hours, but when they’re on the job, in the classroom, student learning must be the first objective.

Leon Byner: All right. I’ve got an email here from Gary, who listened to your reply about a question I asked a couple of minutes back, and he said: so what is the situation where there are some teachers on contract who, for whatever reason, will be perceived as much better or effective by a school that’s blighted by the fact that seniority rules? What will the Minister do about this, if anything?

Simon Birmingham: Leon, we are trying to have discussions with the states and territories about reforms on a range of practices, and the points around better rewards for teachers against their capabilities is one of those things that we’ve put on the table. Of course, as the federal minister I don’t actually run any schools, employ any principals or teachers, that is all done by state and territory systems. We’re trying to provide policy leadership in the types of reforms that make the biggest difference to student learning, and tackling some of these issues about the advancement of quality teachers and ensuring the proficiency of new teachers into the profession are right at the top of our list for those discussions.

Leon Byner: There are some schools in SA who employ teachers or tutors that do not work for, or members of the Australian Education Union, and these people, if the Government continues with its policy, these people will be excised from the school system unless it’s afterhours, and a lot of children will lose the music tuition that currently their parents are paying for – those teachers or tutors are coming on the premises, the AEU doesn’t like this – do you back the AEU, or do you back the parents?

Simon Birmingham: Union membership should never be a determinant of the quality of the teacher or the quality of the teacher aide, and their participation in the formal system.  What we should be doing is judging teachers, teacher aides, all those engaged in the teaching of our children based upon their competency, their proficiency, their capabilities. They’re the only factors that matter. I respect the right of teachers to be a member of the union, I respect the advocacy role that the union plays, but in the end that is an individual choice of those teachers or teacher aides and in no way should those who choose not to participate in that process should they be disadvantaged in terms of employment if they are the best person for the job.

Leon Byner: With regards to TAFE, there was a discussion that you had with the Government at the time about funding, and you were, at the time, concerned about a lot of money being withdrawn from private providers, all put into TAFE, and you weren’t sure that you were happy about this. Where has all that gone?

Simon Birmingham: Leon, that agreement is close to the end of its life, between the Commonwealth and the states. Now, we did our best under very loose terms that were set in that agreement, which was struck by the Gillard Government to try to hold the South Australian Government to account. We’ve certainly taken steps at a Federal Government level – where we control vocational education funding – to reform it and fix a number of problems. The significant rorting of vocational education student loans that have been occurring has been addressed with the passage of legislation we got through just a week ago to create a new student loan system that is more targeted for employment outcomes, where the only providers who will participate are high-quality providers with a proven record of their qualifications and their students going on to employment in the future. And certainly, in any future agreements we have with the states or territories it will be that type of focus on training linked to employment outcomes, and what industry and employers identify as being relevant skills that we’ll put at the top of the list.

Leon Byner: All right. Minister, thank you for joining us today. That’s the federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham on some pretty important stories about prosperity, which you get out of school.