Interview on Sky News Sunday with Chris Kenny
Topics: Release of Gonski 2.0 report; Schools funding
20:03 PM

Chris Kenny: Now, as I mentioned, let’s talk about education. Education is going to be a big issue debated between now and the election for sure. There’ll be a focus on it, no doubt, in the Budget again on Tuesday as well. But last week, we had the Gonski 2.0 report came out, that- telling us really how to try and fix our education outcomes. We keep putting more and more money into education, unprecedented levels of funding at a federal and state level, yet comparatively our outcomes are going backwards.

I’m joined live from Canberra by the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for joining us, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Chris. Great to be with you.

Chris Kenny: I just want to start off first on a political question about the story reported in South Australia that I talked about at the top of the program about Rebekha Sharkie apparently sounding out Liberals about re-joining the Liberal Party and trying to be the Liberal Member for Mayo. Would you be supportive of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Chris, it would be up to Rebekha if she chose to join the Liberal Party. I’ve had no such conversations with her myself and I’m not aware of any colleagues who have. But if she did choose to join the Liberal Party then she would have to run through an open preselection contest to be the Liberal candidate for Mayo like anybody else.

Chris Kenny: Yeah, so the Mayo FEC got it right, when they said that that’s the case. If she joins, just have a normal preselection.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the party, unlike the Labor Party, values giving its grassroots members a say; plebiscite-based pre-selections in the South Australian division of the Liberal Party for a long period of time. Our members do value their say, and I would anticipate fully that any candidate who sought to put their hand up would get a fair, a decent hearing. Rebekha was once a member of the Liberal Party. If she chose to re-join, well, we’d welcome her back into the fold, but whether she could be preselected or not, that’s a matter for the members in Mayo.

Chris Kenny: Why would you welcome her back into the fold, given that she ratted on the party and actually knocked out one of your members?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I like to see people join the Liberal Party, Chris, Now, as I said, whether she’s preselected, that’s a matter for the members of Mayo, but I’d much rather we had a richer, more vibrant Liberal Party which attracts new people. And in the end, people how might have left us do sometimes re-join. Otherwise, sometimes we get new people, and we’ve had individuals such as Senator Lucy Gichuhi come from Family First across to the Liberal Party – that’s been welcomed – and indeed, Dennis Hood in the state parliament follow a similar trajectory recently.

Chris Kenny: Just finally on this though, would you be concerned if senior members of the party, or indeed the government, had actually discussed these options with Rebekha Sharkie?

Simon Birmingham: Well I’m not concerned if people have discussed with Rebekha the idea of joining the Liberal Party. I encourage…

Chris Kenny: What if they talked about the idea of actually giving her a rails run…

Simon Birmingham: … I encourage all of your viewers who aren’t members of the Liberal Party to think about joining, Chris.

Chris Kenny: Okay. No doubt, there’s a website they can go to or something.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.

Chris Kenny: Let’s get onto education. You’re having a lot of trouble getting full acceptance of your Gonski funding package. The Catholic education system, you’re effectively at war with it across the country. Why can’t you cut a special deal with the Catholic education system?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Chris, in terms of funding non-government schools, our view is very clear that we should fund those schools on the basis of need in those school communities. Ever since John Howard and David Kemp introduced the use of the SES model funding, the socio-economic score system, the intention behind that – and it’s been very consistent for governments ever since – is to try to extend the ability of Australian families to choose a non-government education, if that’s their choice, and to make sure that that is as available to as many families as possible, regardless of their means. And the way you do that in a limited budget…

Chris Kenny: [Interrupts] Sure, but the Catholic education system- the Catholic education system say that they’re being short-changed comparatively and they effectively want to do a deal with you to try and see whether you can negotiate more. Why wouldn’t you enter into those sort of negotiations?

Simon Birmingham: Well, if I finish the point there, the way you do that is to make sure that you provide the greatest amount of funding to those school communities who can least afford to make a contribution to their fees and less to those who can more afford it. And that’s absolutely what our policy does, and our approach is to do that blind of faith or the organisation or entity that happens to run a school system. However, Catholic education have expressed concerns about the way those SES scores as calculated and the way that that works. We heard those, we put in place a process last year to address that. The report that’s been looking at that will come to us in the next couple of months and we will absolutely respond to that and act on that. And in the interim period, we’ve put in place some top-up funding this year to make sure that there was no disadvantage this year. And of course, even under current settings, there’s an extra $3.5 billion of funding over the next decade going into Catholic education systems. But I absolutely value the role of Catholic education systems across Australia. They do an incredible job, and educate vast numbers of students…

Chris Kenny: Well, it’s the only reason- it’s the only reason federal governments are funding private schools around the country, effectively, is because of special deals done with the Catholic education systems in the ‘60s. So I would have thought there’s a case to actually sit down and nut this out as quickly as possible?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the history absolutely is that federal governments started funding non-government education in the ‘60s because of pressure and fair arguments put by Catholic education at the time. But today and for a number of decades prior to today, the funding of non-government education has been about providing Australian families with a choice. A choice if they want to access a faith-based education, an education based on certain values, an education that has an approach that suits the needs of those families as long as it’s consistent with overall curriculum and standards. Now, in offering that choice to people, we nowadays seek to do so in a way that doesn’t favour one religion or one organisation over another, and I don’t think Australians would want us to. And frankly, I don’t think Catholic education authorities want us to. They have concerns, though, about the way in which the formula works and some of the data is calculated, so that’s why we’re reviewing that. We’ll respond to that, we’ll act on that, and I’m confident from the constructive engagements many elements of Catholic education have had with the review panel there, that they will absolutely hand down findings that are fair, and I hope give everybody confident in the fairness of the system.

Chris Kenny: Well, if you have a look at the Gonski 2.0 report last week and what it says about where we’re going comparatively in our education outcomes. I mean, it really ought to be a national scandal, shouldn’t it? Given our unprecedented levels of funding, that we are actually declining compared to similar nations, really, competitor nations.

Simon Birmingham: Chris, for the entire time I’ve been Education Minister, the great battle has been to get the argument across and understood that it’s not a matter of how much you spend, it’s how you spend it, and that clearly, with record growing investment over recent years it hasn’t been going in the right direction given the declining performances. That’s why we – when we went ahead last year to try and fix the mess that was school funding that Labor had built in and to ensure that that was done as affordably as we could get through the Senate, as fairly as it could be in terms of treating different parts of the school system and consistently across the country. We also said you can’t just worry about how much money is spent or who it’s distributed to, you also have to look at how it’s spent. This report has been looking at that. It’s not sought to prescribe a series of quick silver bullets, because frankly they don’t really exist, but it has sought to say you’ve got to deliver on the basics: reading, writing, numeracy, basic skills and do that by age eight. Then you develop richer knowledge and then ultimately you apply the type of teaching skills that ensure we leave- that students leave school with the well-rounded capabilities and skills to succeed in the workforce. So, it’s about a really staged approach and within how we restructure the curriculum, restructure the way in which kids are assessed and give teachers better tools to not only assess them, but better instruction as to how they teach in response to where those children are at.

Chris Kenny: I am glad that you say it says we should get back to basics like reading, writing and arithmetic early on in the school years because, what I read of the report, it was very hard to discern that straightforward message. Are you saying, in essence, that’s what you’re going to do differently. When you say: you’re right, we shouldn’t be talking about the quantums of money, but actually what you’re going to do specifically spending that money. Are you going to ensure that this money is spent on getting those basics right, and how so?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. Absolutely, Chris. So, my view and the government’s firm view is that there are three steps to learning: the fundamental basics of reading, writing, numeracy skills, which must be established early. Then the rich knowledge base that’s essential in terms of other subjects: the sciences, the humanities in terms of developing the knowledge of children. Then, of course, you have the other skills in terms of the ability of young Australians to collaborate, to think in a way that challenges the information that’s put in front of them and ultimately to be good employees when they get into the workforce. But you start with the basics and the Gonski report does make it clear that the prioritisation in terms of changes as to the way teaching occurs and the way the curriculum is structured, in the way assessment applies in the classroom, should be honed in on those early years first to get that right because if kids aren’t learning to, or aren’t reading effectively by the age of eight, they will fall behind in the rest of their learning. You spend those first few years learning to read and then you spend the rest of your education reading to learn. And if you can’t do that in the rest of those years you’ve got big problems ahead and that’s what we’re grappling with in many parts of the system today.

Chris Kenny: I hope that’s what it does and I hope that’s what you’re able to do. I just have one of the quotes here- I could have quoted just about any sentence from the report, but: revise the structure of the Australian Curriculum to present the learning areas and general capabilities as learning progressions. I just don’t even know what that means. I’m glad you do.

Simon Birmingham: I’ll do my utmost to explain it crisply for you, which essentially is – how much is a student progressing? Now, how much are they progressing is about what they know at different points in time. So, if you look at the basics of literacy first and foremost, you want to assess not based on waiting for a year three NAPLAN for system authorities or the like to know there’s a problem in a school, you want to have stepped assessments along the way. So, what the report has recommended is that we develop a national tool that has within it a bunch of different assessments, or tests essentially if you like, that teachers can apply in the classroom; that they use those nationally evidence-based tests in place of the current quick checks that different teachers use. Now, of course, many teachers do an outstanding job already. That’s why we have the vast majority of children who do learn to read and do a good job.

Chris Kenny: Yeah, well it seems a staggering thing to suggest. I would have thought that all kids get that every day in every school. If it’s not the case, then wow, that’s a shock.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s clear that we can and must do that a whole lot better because we do have too many children passing the critical juncture in their education unable to read and unable then to participate fully in the rest of their school journey.

Chris Kenny: I don’t know if you had a chance to read it, but Noel Pearson wrote a piece in The Weekend Australian where he visited a couple of particularly well-performing small schools in outback Queensland, and one of the things that really struck me about that, he found that these schools were spending up to two hours a day with primary school kids on literacy, where other schools that he’s involved in said they will never do more than an hour. And these schools are saying no – that literacy is just so important. If you don’t learn to read and write you drown. And so, they just give as much training in that area as they need to get the job done and if it’s two hours every day then so be it. It made an enormous amount of common sense to me and I’m wondering whether that sort of straightforward approach is where we might be heading.

Simon Birmingham: I did see Noel’s story, and in fact I swapped a couple of messages with him about it over the course of the weekend, because I thought it was a really good example of what’s being done in certain schools. Those schools place great emphasis on phonics instruction as well. And over the last year or so, I’ve really been encouraging the states and territories to look at how they better ensure schools are teaching the science behind reading, phonics instruction. We’ve urged different states and territories to apply a phonics skills check adapted out of the UK.

I’m very pleased that our home state, South Australia, has agreed to do that, not just under the new State Liberal Government but to their credit the previous Labor government actually started the process with an initial trial of the phonics check, which despite the fears of the teachers’ union and elsewhere, teachers ultimately came back in the analysis of that check and said: ‘you know what, it’s simple, it’s straight forward, and there’s nothing threatening to the children and it gives clear information’. But unfortunately in the case of SA, the clear information was that children there were not getting the phonics skill at the same standard as they are in the UK several years after this check has been introduced. So, there are a number of things, I think, that we can do and pursue in the states to get better outcomes, the likes of which Noel wrote about in his story this weekend.

Chris Kenny: Okay. And your key message is that it’s doing things right, that it’s getting your focus correct that is going to improve outcomes, not additional money as Labor has always argued. Yet you are offering, you have budgeted, an extraordinary amount of extra money in education. What is, specifically, that going to do, are you going to employ more teachers, are you going to pay teachers higher wages, where will the money go that’s going to make any difference?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Chris, of course, as you well appreciate, we’re a federal government – and I read your column on the weekend too and I think there was a fair degree there of: if only the Commonwealth and the federation could get back to the basics and that would see us not doing a lot in schools…

Chris Kenny: Sing it, sing it.

Simon Birmingham: …And the states taking full responsibility there. Now, the states have shown …

Chris Kenny: Yeah, that would be great, why don’t you announce that policy?

Simon Birmingham: I think we tried that with the states a couple of years ago, in terms of offering them some income taxing powers but we didn’t get too far with that in terms of their enthusiasm or willingness for it. And, of course, we inherited arrangements in terms of legislation prescribing school funding into the future. So, what we’ve done is we’ve tried to fix that, ensure that it is within the budget as best we can be. And, of course, I am frequently attacked by the Labor Party and the left, who are still promising to spend an additional $17 billion, without saying how they would spend it.

What also we’ll be doing this year, is we’ll now be negotiating agreements with the states about the types of reforms that need to happen in schools. They will clearly put a priority on literacy and numeracy. They’ll be about how we get those school systems to apply the type of assessment tool that Gonski recommends, how we ensure that they do more to better value their highly skilled teachers, because there are some great teachers out there.

And under our time in government, we’ve put in place a certification process known as highly skilled- or highly accomplished and lead teachers, where they’re able to demonstrate that they are at the top of their game in terms of the way they teach. Now, why is that important? Because what you can do over time is step away from the history of paying teachers more based on the number of years they’ve been in the job and instead look to embed, in the industrial arrangements, incentives to keep those highly accomplished and lead teachers in the top of their game in the profession. And also to require better, clearer professional development just as accountants or doctors or other professionals are required to undertake accredited professional development each and every year, we ought to be making sure that the standard of professional development that teachers are doing is keeping them all as skilled in the classroom as they can be.

Chris Kenny: Just finally, you’re a key player in the senate, is there going to be any move this week in budget week to try and get those company tax cuts through, do you think there’s any chance that you can get them through with the former Xenophon senators?

Simon Birmingham: Look, my colleague Mathias Cormann – my senate leader, Mathias Cormann – was, of course, on Sky this morning speaking with David Speers. As he made clear, everybody knows the state of the numbers, that we’re a couple of votes short of a majority for our enterprise tax plan. We’re committed to it because it’s the right thing to do for Australia in terms of ensuring that our businesses are competitive, that we keep creating jobs and that wages grow in the future. We’ll keep talking to each of those crossbench senators, we dearly wish that the Labor Party would actually live up to what we know they think, but they’re just playing politics in doing the opposite. However, in the interim we’ll keep working. Will it happen this week? I couldn’t possibly say because even if we were close to striking a deal, it would be for those senators themselves to declare their position at the time.

Chris Kenny: Alright, Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us. I’ll see you down there on budget day.

Simon Birmingham: Cheers, Chris…