Interview on Sky News Live with David Speers
Topics: Release of Gonski 2.0 report

David Speers: Well, the Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now. Minister, thanks for your time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day David.

David Speers: Labor says there’s not much new in these recommendations. A lot of it were measures Labor, when in government, was implementing. What is new in this list of recommendations?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there’s a fair bit of revisionism in terms of history there from the Labor Party. This is a landmark report, and it’s a landmark report because it presents a significant blueprint for change in the way that it recommends how we should go about making changes to the Australian curriculum to shift to an approach that better charts student progression; how we should make changes to the way students are assessed within classrooms to, again, truly track the progression of those students, but then link that in a tool that gives teachers real-time data and feedback, but also real-time steps in terms of how they then support the progression of each of those students. It’s about making sure that, yes, we expect more of teachers in terms of the way in which they support the progression of students, but we give them more time and better tools at their disposal to be able to do that in the most effective way possible, to get the most out of each student in their classroom.

David Speers: Okay. The language might be different, but in Labor’s National Education Reform Agreement back in 2013 that it signed with the states and territories, it did involve developing a plan for year-by-year school improvement; prioritising literacy and numeracy in early years; public reporting of progress against performance indicators; comprehensive, high-quality online resources being made readily available. The language is a little different, but it does seem like a fair bit of overlap there.

Simon Birmingham: What we’ve got here, though, is actually not just the concept, but also actually clear recommendations of what the next step should be; outlines in relation to these types of reforms; and an approach that has been thoroughly transparent in terms of engaging with more than 300 different submitters, working closely with the states, the territories, non-government sectors, education experts to build the body of support for this.

David Speers: And I’m sure you’ve done all that, so what’s the- just in clear terms, what’s the one big new idea that people can understand will change what happens in the classroom?

Simon Birmingham: Conceptually, the one big change to occur out of this is to say: sure that we extend each student to the maximum capability possible; that we don’t just say a minimum benchmark of achievement …

David Speers: A lot of teachers would say they’re doing that right now. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do with their students right now, so what will actually change in terms of how they do that?

Simon Birmingham: And many good teachers do do that, but the way in which we undertake assessment and the approach that we have at present is to say there’s a minimum achievement, a minimum benchmark that should be met. And that’s great, and you need to keep that, and the report makes it clear that you should keep that, but how do you value-add to that by also saying we want to extend students; that it’s unacceptable that students can coast on by if they’re just getting to the minimum benchmark. They ought to be extended further.

David Speers: So how do you do that?

Simon Birmingham: You do that by making the changes to the curriculum that are recommended so that there are clear further steps, and you can identify- if a student’s starting, for example, year 4 or year 5, and they’re already up to the standard where they have met all of the different progression elements of learning for that year level, you know what the next steps to take them on are; that you’re able to assess that, you’re able to benchmark that, and you’re able to take them onto those next parts of their learning journey so that they go further.

David Speers: So does that mean, for example …

Simon Birmingham: Equally, if a kid is behind the pack, you want to make sure that that is clearly identified, because otherwise they fall further and further behind over a period of time. So it’s about lifting the tide for everybody.

David Speers: But aren’t teachers doing that at the moment? Aren’t teachers recognising kids in their class who are falling behind and tackling that at the moment?

Simon Birmingham: Good teachers are, and there are many good, hardworking teachers there, but this proposes building the type of tools to make that simpler for teachers so that they are able to more effectively give that extension and stretching of each and every student as much as possible.

David Speers: So just explain what that tool is. What do teachers need in their toolkit they don’t have now that’s going to enable them to do this: to identify kids who are falling behind and giving them special attention, and indeed those who need to be extended?

Simon Birmingham: So the big change there is firstly to put into the Australian curriculum clear steps in terms of the learning progression of each child, but then to embed that in terms of how . And it’s all that is available to teachers in an online format that they’re able to use at their judgement in their classroom, at the start of the year, at different points during the year, at the end of the year instead of current ad hoc tests or skills checks they might apply. Something that is evidence-based and benchmarked that they can step into get the real-time data for their students, know where they’re at, know how far they’ve progressed since the last assessment, know how that compares with similar schools around the country, know how that compares with schools right across the nation. To actually then also have attached to that clear evidence steps around what they should do in response to that information, what they next steps on that learning journey for those students are that are based on evidence.

David Speers: So are we talking about software program or some sort of intranet where the teacher can get on and six-year-old Susie is struggling with her reading, punch that in and get a bunch of ideas back on what they can do to help six-year-old Susie?

Simon Birmingham: In many ways, yes. Now again, some of those portals for that precise example exist, but we’re talking about is integrating that entirely so that six-year-old Susie, actually, when she does a classroom test, . But it’s actually linked into something that’s proven to be an evidence-based test that’s applicable for a six-year-old that gives the teacher then real-time feedback about where six year Susie is benchmarked relative to where she should be for a six-year-old, relative to her peers in the classroom, in the school, in like for like schools across the country . Evidence as you just said of what the next step should be in terms of how you give the best teaching programs to Susie.

David Speers: Will that inevitably mean the teacher has to spend a lot more time individually with each child? You and I grew up no doubt with teacher at the front of the class, 25, 30 kids sitting there getting the lesson on whatever it was. Will the teacher under this model be working their way around the classroom individually, and therefore spending less contact time overall with the class?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, as you’ve rightly said in this interview, many teachers already target and individualise their teaching to groups within their classroom. What we’re trying to do here is create a system that supports them to do that and gives them more time to be able to do it effectively by not having the teachers have to invent the wheel themselves each and every time, but to be able to use nationally accredited and benchmarked evidence-based resources and tools that can help them undertake that differentiation, know what the best policies and programs to apply to the students in their classes are, and actually do it all much more effectively.

David Speers: But that is going to take time. I mean Minister, as you know, teachers only have so many hours in the day and they’re not extremely well-paid for those hours, let’s be fair. If they’re going to be tailoring a lot of this teaching to individual students, where’s the time going to come from for them to do that?

Simon Birmingham: But the point is great teachers are doing that now, but they’re doing that largely off of their own bat, finding their own resources and tools to be able to do so. What we’re wanting to do is take that best practice approach and make it accessible and available to every teacher across the country. Now of course, there are also recommendations around how we improve the quality of teaching so that those great teachers who are doing it effectively at present are also given the scope to do more mentoring of new teachers, to ensure that those sorts of practices are replicated elsewhere. But there is, if you look at the totality of this report, a clear ability to give teachers more support, to do tailoring because you make it more effective, more efficient, and therefore less time-consuming in the way they go about it.

David Speers: Are they going to need smaller class sizes or more teachers in bigger classes to be able to do this?

Simon Birmingham: Look, how schools and school systems choose to resource themselves will still be a matter for those schools and school systems. Of course, if you want teachers to undertake more mentoring of new teachers, and for your lead and accomplished teachers to be recognised and rewarded appropriately, they’re the types of changes potentially to enterprise bargaining agreements that states and territories will have to look at. What we’ve got going into the school system is ….

David Speers: Well, they’re going to need more funding, additional- if you’re going to have more teaching resources in the classroom, they’re going to need more money to pay for that.

Simon Birmingham: And let’s remember what the genesis for this report was: firstly, the fact that our performance as a nation has been slipping, but secondly that we’re putting record funding into schools already, there’s $25 billion further growth forecast over the course of the next decade. How do we get the best bang for our buck for taxpayers, for parents, for teachers themselves who want the best for their students out of that investment? So this report has really identified how that record and growing funding in our schools can best be used to get the best results for students.

David Speers: With respect, we got this the wrong way around didn’t we? Not just you but Labor as well. This report should have come before we attached the dollars and cents to how much is needed.

Simon Birmingham: Well David, we inherited of course a debate about funding. I’ve said to you on air before that frankly this country has spent far too much time over the last close-to-a-decade talking about school funding and not enough time talking about how we use those dollars most effectively. The Turnbull Government’s provided the circuit breaker for that and I’m very pleased that today, overwhelmingly, people are wanting to talk about how we change practices in our school system, to get better results for principals and teachers, for students themselves, for parents who have an enormous responsibility in this mix as well. So I think we have delivered the circuit breaker there that enables us as a country to say yes, there’s record levels of federal funding available, states and territories and parents themselves make significant contributions and growing contributions in many cases, how do we ensure everybody is getting the best value for that investment because that’s then going to give us students who are achieving to their maximum potential.

David Speers: But coming back to the core change that you’re talking about here. This individual tailored learning. Surely more money, the sort of money that Labor’s talking about, wouldn’t be necessarily a waste would it, if it is going to allow more teachers in the classroom, more individual tailored learning, the sort of things that this report today is talking about?

Simon Birmingham: Well funding is at a record level and it’s going to grow under the Turnbull Government settings by a further $25 billion. Now it’s for the Labor party to explain what more they think they might manage to achieve out of the funding that they’re promising. Of course they’re also having to tax Australians a whole lot more as a result of that. And ultimately …

David Speers: Yeah sure, that’s true. That’s true. But what I’m putting to you in this sector though is if it means more teachers in the classroom that’s going to go a long way to delivering what this Gonski report today is talking about.

Simon Birmingham: But you’re missing the specific recommendations and direction of this report which is to actually say how do you allow for individualised tailored teaching practices in the classroom in the most cost effective efficient way possible? How do you use technology tools, better curriculum to enable teachers to do that? To enable the teachers who are already doing it off their own bat to have more free time as a result of having better tools at their disposal, having a better tailored curriculum at their disposal. That you actually …

David Speers: [Interrupts] Yeah, no I appreciate that. Just on teachers themselves, I mean the report says, here’s the quote: teaching needs to be an appealing and valued profession that attracts and retains the best candidates. It’s all about lifting the status of teachers, something everyone agrees needs to happen but that sounds very much like an argument for paying them more doesn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well particularly, look, the retention of the best teachers is something that we absolutely need to focus on. Our government has worked to provide new certification standards for teachers so that they can be certified in a peer-based process by fellow teachers as being highly accomplished teachers, lead teachers, and what we’ve seen is that some school systems have made a shift to embed in their enterprise agreements greater reward for those highly accomplished and lead teachers. That’s one of the ways in which we can provide …

David Speers: Okay, but simply put Minister, do you think they should be paid more?

Simon Birmingham: I think we should pay teachers as much as we can afford to within the budgets that are available but we should also make sure that the reward structures for teachers are set in a way that keeps the best teachers in the profession, keeps those best teachers in the classroom where they can be and gives them clear roles of leadership to be able to mentor new teachers coming through.

David Speers: And a final one, when are these changes likely to happen? At the next election, the Coalition would have been in the office for two terms, is it going to happen before then?

Simon Birmingham: Well we hope to see real progress over the course of this year rolling into next year. We’ll start the ball rolling, sitting down with state and territory ministers this Friday. David Gonksi will come in and brief the ministers himself. We’ll be seeking to then embed agreement around changes in a new national schooling agreement that will take place from the start of next year. There’s no reasons why we can’t target these changes in the areas that they report identifies, particularly in those early years around developing literacy and numeracy skills as foundational elements by the age of eight that are completely essential for children to succeed.

David Speers: Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, we’ll follow that with keen interest. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Speersy.