Interview on Sky News Live with David Speers
Topics: ARACY Report Card on wellbeing of young Australians; National Party leadership; GST distribution

David Speers: First to our main guest this morning. Another Gonski review is due to be handed to the Government by the end of next month. Now, this one’s not looking at how much money should be spent on schools, this time it’s looking at how that money is actually spent in the classroom. The aim is to stop Australia’s slide down international rankings, and this morning there’s further evidence of the problem.

A new report shows just how far Australian students have slipped. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of 15-year-olds at level two or above for reading has fallen from 88 to 82 per cent. In maths, the figure has fallen from 86 down to 79 per cent. Also of concern in this report, a fall in preschool attendance; just a small one, but despite all the efforts we’ve seen attendance drop from 85 to 83 per cent – Australia now 35th out of 40 OECD countries when it comes to preschool attendance.

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now from Adelaide. Thanks for your time this morning, Minister. When you look at these figures on reading, maths, science in particular, putting aside international comparisons – how we compare to other countries – Australian kids now aren’t performing as well as Australian kids were a decade ago; why do you think that is?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning David, and these are concerning figures and they do reinforce much of what the Government has said over the last few years and what I’ve said over the last couple of years, which is that whether you look at it in comparative terms with other nations, or indeed in absolute terms of Australia’s own performance, we have been seeing a decline or a stagnation in other areas around reading skills, maths skills, numeracy skills, science skills and so forth. And that is a real worry and it continues to frustrate me that we see political activists in education call for the Federal Government to take a back seat when it comes to policy, yet argue over funding issues; when in reality we must work as a nation to identify the best practice, evidence-based measures to lift performance and turn around these results.

Now, already as a government, we’ve done a lot in terms of teacher quality and teacher standards. We know that the most powerful in classroom factor in terms of student performance is the quality of teaching that occurs and our reforms to initial teacher education at universities across the country will get more specialist teachers into our primary schools with absolute expertise in maths and English and literacy and core foundation skills that are essential building blocks for the future. We want to make sure that we continue to boost the quality of teachers; which is why we’ve also put in place minimum literacy and numeracy standards for teacher graduates out of our universities and are now working with the states around areas of professional development. But, importantly as you say, the work we asked David Gonski to do last year which will come back to us soon is really having a look at what else as a nation ought we be doing to put our record and growing funding to schools to much better use.

David Speers: And there are a lot of ideas in the mix about what might be done here, but when you see that report, can you give us a sense, what do you envisage the Commonwealth doing to try and fix this problem, beyond some of those measures you’ve just outlined?

Simon Birmingham: The role for the Federal Government is absolutely one of national leadership. We do that in the teacher quality areas I’ve spoken about, we’ve done that already in the reforms to the national curriculum to make sure there’s more time for some of the basics. We’ve also really tried to lead a national discussion around areas of parental engagement, including funding ARACY – the research centre for children and youth who’s responsible for today’s report – to do further work around getting parents more engaged. Because outside of the teaching influence, an even bigger factor in terms of student performance is the home environment and the learning environment.

David Speers: So, just to be clear on that, the bigger reason why we’re seeing the figures we are today in declining standards is parent’s fault rather than the school’s fault?

Simon Birmingham: I’m not looking to lay fault in that sense David, but the research is very clear that the greatest factor for student outcome relates to the home environment, the educational attainment rates previously of parents, the focus that’s spent in home on reading and learning and activities there. Then, of course, the school has a huge role to play as well. And in many cases, schools will overcome disadvantage in homes, but you can see strong correlation points there which is what we have to work very hard to overcome.

In terms of where do we go out of the Gonski review; now I don’t want to pre-empt what David Gonski and the panel of very highly qualified and talented educators working within will report on, but I am confident that what we will be doing is going back to the states and saying that more is required in terms of the focus we place in those early years around foundational skills and making sure that they are attained. Because, again, research is clear, if a child is behind by year three in terms of developing the basic skills, it’s really hard for them to catch up from thereon in.

David Speers: Does that mean more NAPLAN-style testing at that earlier age?

Simon Birmingham: What we’ve called for is something quite different to that and that is to make sure there is a common, evidence-based skills check in the first year or so at school to make sure that there is an early identification as to whether phonetic awareness is being developed in terms of the skills and capabilities that children need to develop their reading skills. In terms of numeracy skills as well. Are they achieving the type of levels that we would expect very early on? So that’s but one element, but it’s an important one in terms of what flows through the rest of children’s schooling.

David Speers: And there’s some resistance to this, as well as any- any sort of Commonwealth meddling in the classroom given the Commonwealth doesn’t run schools. You’re saying: whatever you agree to do – whatever you resolve after this follow up Gonski review – this will be contingent on the state’s receiving the $23 billion in funding that you’ve negotiated over a decade. They’ll have to do what you suggest?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll be sensible about talking to the states. We want to make sure this is constructive and cooperative as far as it can be. But yes, there is a requirement that states and territories enter into agreements with the Commonwealth, so as their funding can then flow from next year onwards and the type of ways in which that spending is invested will be a core part of those agreements. That’s only, I think, what every Australian would expect that if a federal government is putting some $18 billion on the table for schools this year and growing out in future years, it ought to have some sense check and some guarantee that it’s going to be invested wisely and as effectively as possible in terms of lifting student outcomes and supporting teachers who are hardworking and doing a great job in many circumstances, but supporting them to access the resources and the tools to do even more in future and to do even better in future.

David Speers: Alright, so things like that literacy, numeracy check in the early years; that will be contingent- the states will have to do that to receive this money?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll work through each of those types of issues with the states and we’ll get the Gonski report first and see what it says, and we’ll share that with the states and territories, work through its content. But we’re not going to be passive players in education as Bill Shorten appeared to suggest he thought the role of the Federal Government was at the AEU Conference. We’re not going to just sit back and say: here’s a blank cheque, go and spend it however you like. We’re going to make sure that we are engaged in trying to get the states and territories to share best practice across one-another, to steer them to what we see as some of the priorities, to make sure that the quality of outcomes in our schools meets our expectations for what Australia requires to be a successful and prosperous country in the future and what our children will require to be able to succeed in that economy and world.

David Speers: What about – just before we leave this area – Peter Dutton flagged during the week, some sort of civics pledge, or something along those lines for Australian kids in the classroom. Is that something you’d be interested in?

Simon Birmingham: Again, we saw some disappointing data and analysis late last year around civics education. It showed a failure in terms of the awareness of Australian children of how our democratic system of government works and of course the values that underpin it. Now I think making sure we do more to have more informed future voters, more informed future citizens, is also important. It sits alongside of course, making sure that they’re going to be successful contributors to society and successful at being skilled to get a job. But they are very important areas to guarantee that we produce out of our schools and out of growing up essentially – and that’s where homes and parents come into it as well – fully contributing citizens for the future.

David Speers: Alright, let me turn, Simon Birmingham, to the situation the Government is in. We’ve just seen that Sky News ReachTEL poll. It’s got the Government now trailing Labor 46 to 54 per cent. What do you put that down to?

Simon Birmingham: Clearly, David, the media coverage over the last few weeks has not been centred around the issues that the Government would prefer it to have been talking about. We want to be talking about the reality of the 400,000 plus jobs that were generated last year around Australia. The reality that if you look at international experience and we’ve seen it from the Prime Minister’s trip just now that of US companies reacting to President Trump and company tax cuts, it’s up 70 per cent of those…

David Speers: It’s not the media’s fault that the media has been covering what it has. I mean this is the Government’s own doing, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we wish that these circumstances had not arisen. Now, of course, Barnaby has provided the circuit breaker by deciding to resign and we now get the opportunity to make sure that all of the work the rest of us have been doing and getting on with – it’s not that I’ve been spending any time as Education Minister worrying about Barnaby and the issues that have surrounded him – I’ve been getting on with my job and every other Minister’s been getting on with their job. Now we get the time, hopefully, to have a bit more clear air to explain to the Australian people, again, the things that we are doing, what we’ve achieved, what we’re seeking to achieve, the choice that they will have in the run up to the next election and that is the most important thing – to make sure people understand the choice.

David Speers: This whole Barnaby Joyce saga though, has seriously hurt relations between Liberals and Nationals. You’ve even got George Christensen now suggesting the Coalition should come to an end – that the Nats would just support the Liberals on supply and demand. Firstly, what do you think of that idea? What would it mean in practice?

Simon Birmingham: George says lots of things, but I am confident that the National Party, overall, understands that the best way to have a say in government is to be at the table of government, to make sure that they are in the Cabinet room as the decisions are being made to influence those decisions, and that’s exactly what will continue to occur with a new Deputy Prime Minister to be sworn in tomorrow. That individual, along with the rest of the National Party, will get on with continuing to be very strong champions for rural and regional Australia, alongside the many rural and regional Liberals who are within the Government as well. We are determined …

David Speers: Do you accept that relationship has been badly damaged over recent weeks through this Barnaby Joyce saga – the Prime Minister’s very strong condemnation of Barnaby Joyce, the leaking, the backgrounding between the two parties – this has been a pretty torrid time?

Simon Birmingham: Look, there’s been a lot of torrid coverage, but no, I think the relationship remains strong. I think people will see that Liberals and Nationals are very committed to working together, with each other, because we share common values and interests in terms of the direction of the country, because we believe that free enterprise and private investment is critical to generating the wealth upon which Australians succeed, upon which our quality of life and standard of living depends; that we recognise the benefit of free trade, from which agricultural activity generates of course so much of our trade investment in dollars and therefore underpins so many jobs across Australia.

David Speers: But there are differences, though.

Simon Birmingham: … Because we recognise that lower taxes are important and that lower taxes will again, create more money in people’s pockets, greater opportunity for Australians to get ahead, and these are all common policies and attributes.

David Speers: Okay, but speaking of tax. One of the leadership contenders for the Nationals – David Gillespie – says if he wins, he’ll use the position to push for a change in the GST carve up in a way that’s less generous to recipient states, particularly South Australia. Does that concern you?

Simon Birmingham: The Government has a thorough analysis being undertaken by the Productivity Commission around the way GST distribution operates. We are 100 per cent committed to the principles of horizontal fiscal equalisation that make sure that every state is in a capacity and has the ability to deliver a quality of services across Australia. I think that all Australians accept that …

David Speers: So if he becomes Nationals leader, he won’t be able to do anything?

Simon Birmingham: The process is well and truly set in place around what the Productivity Commission’s work will be, and then of course it will be a matter to work through with the states and territories if there are indeed any changes recommended, what they would look like. But I stress again, our absolute commitment as a government, to ensuring the same level of services apply across the country. That’s a core value for the National Party as well and we focus …

David Speers: So he’s making an empty promise in other words.

Simon Birmingham: David, this is an important point to make, that in terms of that delivery of equality of services, the National Party and rural Liberals equally argue very strongly to make sure we invest more in services in the bush. That’s why the Coalition Government working together has championed things like the Mobile Black Spots program to improve telecommunication services across areas of regional Australia that have been neglected under the previous government to lift that equality that occurs and should apply across states, as it should apply across city and regional boundaries.

David Speers: Education Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us today.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, David.