Interview on LAFM Tasmania Talks with Brian Carlton
Programme for International Student Assessment; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms;

Brian Carlton: The man who hopefully has some kind of plan in place is the Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham; I have him on the line now. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Brian and good morning to listeners.

Brian Carlton: This is not happy reading.

Simon Birmingham: No it's not. Now the first thing we should acknowledge is that Australia-wide we continue to perform above the OECD average, but absolutely, the trend is clear and the trend is downwards, and as you rightly indicated in your introduction, in Tasmania in a number of categories you're performing below the OECD average. So whilst nationally we can say the figures are okay but trending in the wrong direction, in Tassie there's an even bigger problem there, which is why in part I warmly welcome the work that Will Hodgman and Jeremy Rockcliff have been undertaking in terms of the education plan in Tasmania to get kids into school earlier, to ensure that more high schools are offering year 12 and that we actually have children staying right through their schooling and to really lift the standards there.

But clearly there's a message for us nationally, when across all schooling sectors and essentially across all states and territories our performance has gone backwards, and children today are not achieving at the same level as they were even ten or twelve years ago. That is a real indictment when it comes at a time of record and growing levels of spending and investment.

Brian Carlton: It would also be fair to argue I think that the subjects we're talking about – literacy, mathematics, science – are the fairly fundamental subjects you need to have your head across to go on and further educate yourself. This is a- and what I'm arguing here is this is the very basic, basic education. To what extent are non-core education subjects, and I'm thinking gender diversity studies and all of those sort of … you know, the sort of the hippie fringe left agenda that's been around in the education system for a very long time, Simon. Is that a problem? Have we gone down the wrong path there, where we've lost the basics and we're teaching all the kids this fluffy kind of nonsense stuff that – maybe yeah, sure, they need to know, but not at the expense of maths and science.

Simon Birmingham: Our government federally undertook a review of the national curriculum, which was finalised and agreed with the states and territories just over 12 months ago, and that certainly tried to de-clutter aspects of the curriculum so there can be more time spent on the basics. And I do think we have to continue that work. Now this PISA assessment that was undertaken looks at reading, maths and science skills, but it doesn't look at them just in a basic sense, it actually looks at them as to how they are applied to problem solving, to day to day engagements. So it was actually looking at the application of core skills, and the fact that our students are going backwards in the application of these core skills is a real worry, because it's actually how we translate that knowledge into the workplace, into further studies that will determine whether or not we are able to continue to succeed and excel as a nation in being a high knowledge nation, a nation that can innovate and a nation that can ultimately continue to maintain the high standards of living that we enjoy, and that's why we have to front up to the problems.

We took to the election a reform proposal around 12 different policy areas for early assessment and therefore earlier intervention where children have problems, for new standards and approaches to ensure the proficiency of teachers when they get into the classroom, to keep our most capable teachers in the classroom for longer and to set minimum standards of literacy and numeracy for students before they leave school so that we actually put pressure right through the education system for the attainment of those types of minimum standards.

Brian Carlton: To what extent is the focus of particularly the public education system… because when you do the compare and contrast between the outcomes of state funded education, publicly- public education versus the private or Catholic system, we're lagging even them. Public education is lagging the private sector. I just wonder, given the – let me hit you with some hard stats. This is more for the listeners than you, Minister, because you know. Since 1988, student enrolments have increased by 18 per cent, but we've doubled the amount of money we're spending on education in that period. This is no longer a just throw money at it issue, is it, Minister? We just can't keep increasing the funding, because it's not producing the results. What sort of evidence based system can we put in place that would see perhaps the kids who have got a bit of a talent for example not being left aside or not encouraged or not put in a special strand where they can achieve their best. The focus has been on the bottom end; we focus on the kids who are not performing and not achieving. My gut feeling is that's brought the standard the wrong way, it's pushing it down, not up.

Simon Birmingham: There are several points out of the facts you've highlighted there, Brian. The first is that the data released today actually shows that all school sectors have been in decline in terms of their performance. So independent, Catholic and government sectors have all seen some decline in performance. 

Brian Carlton: [Talks over] They're still outperforming the pub- still outperforming the public sector though, still outperforming …

Simon Birmingham: They absolutely are, but the trend line is in the wrong direction across the board. So we all have to work together to identify exactly those evidence based reforms that we can act upon. Because you are right, we have effectively doubled – in real terms – funding since 1998. Federal funding into Australian schools since 2003 has gone up by 50 per cent in real terms, and yet since 2003 we see students accomplishing essentially one year less of schooling by the time they reach age 15. So that's an unacceptable outcome. Now we, on the basis of evidence and consultations took a range of reforms to the election that I've presented to state and territory ministers that I hope to ensure are conditions upon which future federal funding flows, so that we actually drive reform through the states and territories who administer our school systems and guarantee that those earlier assessments and interventions occur, that reforms to ensure minimum standards of literacy and numeracy attainment for school leavers are put in place; that changes to the way we reward teachers to keep our most capable and advanced teachers in the classroom occur. We build on reforms we’ve already introduced in the last couple of years that now test teaching students at universities to guarantee they have high levels of personal literacy and numeracy skills, to get more specialist teachers into the classroom. All of those are important pieces that are evidence-based reforms that we want to see delivered. But of course I am also desperate to see states and territories engage constructively with us on other priorities that they identify as to how we can get gains across the board. And Jeremy Rockliff is doing a great job with positive engagement with us and positive reforms to Tasmanian education, coming off of a sadly very low base in Tasmania. Some others seem to want to spend more time taking political pot-shots or playing games around the level of school funding, when in reality we have record and growing levels of funding. We want to make sure it’s distributed fairly and according to need but we must focus our efforts now on how we best spend and invest those record levels of funding to get the best outcomes for the future.

Brian Carlton: Might be worthwhile having a look at the West Australian system too because they seem to be doing fairly well as a state-based system and perhaps in the ACT also. Tell me just one other thing, not directly related to the curriculum taught in the classroom but peripheral issues; things like discipline. I talk to a lot of teachers Minister, and one of things they say is my ability to actually transfer the information required in that period or to that class on that day is hampered by the fact that I’m spending at least half my time disciplining kids who don’t have any. Is that – to what extent is that a problem? Because you can imagine in a classroom, if that goes on day after day after day after day for many years of an education, that student involved in that class is going to be disadvantaged.

Simon Birmingham: The vast majority of our teachers are very hard-working and we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that what they have to do is only one part of the solution. Now, as governments, of course, what happens in schools are the things that are more directly within the control of the state and territory governments and things that we should focus on. But there are clear messages out of results like these PISA scores for parents that they need to play a role too, in terms of ensuring that early year’s capabilities are developed, particularly around reading to children, ensuring they have strong vocabulary before they enter the school system, ensuring that they are then supported to engage in learning, to be serious about it right through their education. This is not something that can just be a problem for governments to solve alone; families and parents have to take a role in this and acknowledge their responsibilities too.

Brian Carlton: We’ve got to think of it as important I guess is the first thing. Perhaps if we thought childhood education was as important as winning, I don’t know, an Ashes test or something then perhaps we’d be on the right track. Minister I appreciate your time today. I don’t know whether we’ve got any specific answers here and it’s an ongoing discussion but I’ll tell you what – something’s got to happen because the taxpayer, apart from anything else, is not getting value for their investment dollar.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Brian, and it’s absolutely our focus to ensure record growing funding is used far more effectively in the future.

Brian Carlton: Okay thanks Minister, appreciate your time. Simon Birmingham there, Federal Minister for Education.