Interview on Sky News with Graham Richardson
Topics: Composition of the Senate; Cyber bullying; Numeracy and literacy standards in schools

Graham Richardson: Now, we shall turn to Simon Birmingham without further ado. Simon, welcome to the program.

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

Graham Richardson: Yeah look, I’m sorry about the interruption there – but the comings and goings in the Senate, it’s very hard for a bloke like me to keep up with them. I don’t know about you but, who’s who in the Senate zoo, mate, I can’t work it out?

Simon Birmingham: As the newly minted Manager of Government Business in the Senate it’s now my job well and truly to try to keep up with them. You know, Richo, you make a point before, it’s an all too common story with these personality cult political parties, whether it’s Clive Palmer or Jacqui Lambie or Nick Xenophon, where the party’s built around the individual …

Graham Richardson: Or Pauline Hanson.

Simon Birmingham: … and that you end up- well, or Pauline Hanson indeed, but you see people come and go, come and go. Not so much coming back, they’re usually gone and gone forever. And of course in this case we’re seeing that with the first chance of there being a second person other than Jacqui Lambie in the Jacqui Lambie Network in a parliament somewhere, it’s lasted – or hasn’t lasted at all – beyond the declaration of who the individual would be. And I guess for Tasmanians who will be voting in a few weeks time they’ll certainly, I’m sure, be reflecting on what this means for whether you really know what you get when you vote for some of these parties.

Graham Richardson: Exactly. I don’t think you’ve got a clue because they haven’t. If they don’t know how the hell are the voters going to know?

Okay, look that having been said I note what you’ve said about bullying in recent times. Now, I wrote a piece about bullying I think three or four weeks ago in The Australian because I’ve had personal experience of it with my son, but it does seem to me to be a massive problem on two levels. History gives you bullying physically and that just requires I think at schools – a better effort from schools having programs to try and get rid of bullying in the playground. But that having been said I just don’t know really how to deal with this whole question of cyber bullying. What do you think we should do?

Simon Birmingham: Well Richo, your column rightly identified the fact that, yes, there’s cyber bullying but of course there’s traditional bullying that still exists and that can come about in a whole range of different ways and cyber bullying is simply another median, sometimes, of course, a vicious and anonymous median but another median by which students or children can be bulled. The first point in any strategy to combat bullying has to be that any form of bullying just like any form of disrespect towards women or any other individual is unacceptable. Now of course, then when you come down to how do you tackle the individual components of it? The Government’s already done a number of things in establishing the eSafety Commissioner which has the powers to be able to receive a complaint and issue a take down notice to the likes of Facebook or other social media operators and that’s an important power and they’ve really built up a capacity in that area.

But I did flag over the weekend a view in response to some questions that we also need to make life easier for teachers in schools when it comes to access to personal mobile phones and personal applications in the school environment. When you’re in the classroom you’re there for learning. There’s a place for technology but not for playing around with your personal mobile phone or your personal applications and particularly not if they can be used as a tool to disrupt the class or to victimise another student.

Graham Richardson: Yeah, I think it shouldn’t only be the classroom. I have real worries about them being brought to school and my little bloke’s school they won’t allow phones at all and I think that’s a pretty good thing because no good comes of it. But what about naming and shaming? I mean one of the problems here is that kids in particular, they might be 15-years-old or younger, think they can get away with saying: I hope you die, and the kind of things that are just extraordinary. I mean some of the things I’ve read that kids have said about other kids, they make politicians look like they haven’t got a clue on how to insult, makes Paul Keating look like a piker. I mean you’ve really got to say we’ve got to do something about that. There needs to be a penalty and if the only penalty is to take it down from Facebook, that doesn’t affect the individual who’s doing the bullying at all.

Simon Birmingham: Well Richo, there’s a number of steps I think that we’ve been taking over the last few years to try to get the law to keep up as best it can with all types of different areas of online abuse and indeed at what point you need to be able to use technology to identify who the culprit is, noting that often people hide behind the potential for anonymity off these sites. Well, I think that’s a reasonable point that we’re going to have to explore is to when people are making direct threats or at least threating life through the type of conduct and suggestions they’re making towards another individual, we do need to have a look at whether the powers are appropriate to be able to get to the bottom of that type of behaviour.

Now, there are new laws already before the Parliament to provide some further capacity in terms of our ability to respond to inappropriate online behaviour. Ultimately, though, in most instances there will be other types of behaviour associated with this that schools, school systems, parents, need to be able to identify, need to be able to engage with their children about whether they are the parents or the teachers of the child who is being bullied or the parents of the teachers of the child or children who are engaged in the bullying. It’s not just about the online activities which they ought to, of course, be playing a role in monitoring too, but also picking up those other trends and problems.

Graham Richardson: Yeah, I think you’ve got to convince 14-year-olds that they don’t have a right to privacy. I think parents need to know what they’re doing on the internet, what they’re looking at, who they’re talking to and what they’re saying because it seems to me that too many parents just let it go and it’s now become so bloody dangerous it just really scares me.

Can I just turn to one other thing? The other concern I’ve got about education in general is every time I pick up a paper these days I read that Australia is slipping world wide in terms of maths and science et cetera, why is that and what can we do about it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, like you I’m a dad and my girls are a little younger than your son so I’m right at the start of the journey and with that I put a lot of emphasis on learning through the early years and particularly learning the fundamentals, making sure that kids are learning to read and write and basic numeracy skills in those early years because they’re the foundation blocks upon which all the rest of their learning experience is built. That’s why I’ve been out there advocating for there to be a common approach to screening in the first couple of years around where the children are actually developing the skills and the knowledge of phonetic awareness, of reading skills that are necessary to be able to succeed in those later years. Because if you’re not getting it right in the first couple of years then the gap usually grows throughout a child’s learning journey.

Now, more generally we’ve also as a government focused on how we reform teacher training; making sure that students going through our universities are undertaking specialisations if they’re training to be a primary school teacher. So, we get more specialist skills around maths or English or otherwise in those early years, as well as putting some minimum benchmarks in place about the capabilities of people coming out with a teaching degree so that we’re confident that they have high personal skills themselves in terms of their literacy and numeracy capabilities.

Graham Richardson: Yeah see, one of the things I noticed coming here to Sky is you look at some of the people who do the digital stuff and who do the ticker across the bottom, so many young graduates come out today they can’t spell. They’ve got university degrees and they cannot spell to save themselves. I mean, it just seems to me we’ve given up on spelling.

Simon Birmingham: Well I’ve seen some of the state governments I think have done some admirable things recently. In your home state of New South Wales, the coalition government there has put in place some minimum standards for school leavers as well – because I do hear far too often from universities, from vocational providers, from employers, that they don’t believe the basic skills of school leavers are adequate. So, actually putting in minimum standards in place for the high school certificate I think is a very important step that’s been taken in New South Wales. It sends a clear signal into high schools that says: not only do your students need to get good marks in their HSC but we expect for them to take that certificate away from school that they do meet some minimum literacy skills, some minimum numeracy skills themselves that gives everybody confidence that a high school certificate means something and means that those graduates of school are able to actually undertake certain activities in terms of their writing skills or other engagement in their workplace.

Graham Richardson: Now I note, whenever I look at the HSC results at the end of the year and school by school as I think most parents do, there’s no question that in my state – and I don’t think it’s different in other states – selective high schools do very, very, very well, but high schools often miss out and there’s a debate about whether you should have selective high schools because it robs other state schools of the best and so they never have that sort of top student at the ordinary schools and that means that they don’t quite get the marks. What do you think of that, is that a legitimate point or not?

Simon Birmingham: I grew up in a state in South Australia that doesn’t have anywhere near the type of culture of selective high schools that for example New South Wales does. But what is important is that in every classroom across the country teachers focus on student progress, because not every child who might be highly skilled or able is going to have access to a selective high school. It might not be available in their state, they may not live close to one or anything else. And for every student whatever their capability, when they go into the classroom – and Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne who’s chair of our teaching and learning institute is very passionate about this – you need to make sure that students learn to the upmost of their individual capabilities, a year’s worth of learning for a year’s worth of study. So, when you walk into whether it’s a Year 3 class or a Year 9 class, they’re going to have different skillsets across that classroom. Teachers need to be equipped with the tools, the programs, the capabilities and the skills themselves to be able to teach individually for those students to make sure each of them progress to the best of their capabilities. Whether that is in a selective school environment or elsewhere, you want to stretch them.

And, of course, one of the challenges you talked about our international benchmarking, one of the challenges we’ve seen in recent years in that our highest performing students haven’t been performing as well as you might have hoped as well and there of course our future Nobel laureates or innovators across the economy who will be creating future jobs and opportunities in the country, so we need to lift that performance at every level and I really hope and trust that the review we have at present that David Gonski’s undertaking will be looking at that concept of student progress and how we make sure that teachers have the support to ensure everybody is progressing to the best of their capabilities each year of their schooling life.

Graham Richardson: Okay, now I know you’re pressed for time but one last question. When I was in fifth class at Marist Brothers Kogarah, I had 52 students in the class. Fifty-two. Now, today we think it’s terrible if there’s any more than 30. What’s your view on that? Do smaller class sizes matter?

Simon Birmingham: There’s been a lot of research that says for teachers what is going to help lift their performance in the classroom and therefore their student’s performance, is time to prepare, time to plan, time to make sure that they are really deploying the best programs to the most appropriate curriculum with the best teaching strategies in the classroom. Now, of course, as I spoke about before there’s got to be an individual element to that to make sure every student is progressing to the best of their capabilities and that all takes some time. But I do think that there’s been a disproportionate focus on classroom sizes in recent years as part of industrial negotiations and agreements rather than a focus on ensuring that teachers have that support and time to prepare for each of their students. And again through our record investment we’re making, through the review that we’re undertaking at present, I hope we can really hone in on the evidence about what teachers best need to succeed in the future, not just follow the gut feel of the union in their industrial negotiations.

Graham Richardson: Yeah, I just want to get the results. That’s the only thing I’m interested in is seeing us go back up the charts and we’re not doing that so …

Simon Birmingham: Happy, successful kids leaving school.

Graham Richardson: Exactly mate, we need more of those. We need more happy successful ministers. We’ll see you very soon, Simon. Thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Richo, a pleasure.

Graham Richardson: Okay. Simon Birmingham in our Canberra studio and to be followed in just a few moments by Chris Bowen.