Interview on SKY News with Kieran Gilbert
Programme for International Student Assessment report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms

Brooke Corte: Well we've seen this morning new international data which has certainly prompted concerns about the teaching of core subjects in Australian schools. Figures have shown students in Australia falling behind their overseas counterparts when it comes to maths, science and reading. This data is from the Programme for International Student Assessment, and shows while Australia is above the OECD average, it's equal 10th in science, equal 12th in reading and equal 20th in maths.

Kieran Gilbert: Joining us now on First Edition is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Senator, thanks very much for your time. I want to ask you, why is the trajectory so bad for Australian students over the last 12 or so years, given from my understanding real funding into our schools has gone up over the same period, yet our standards have declined?

Simon Birmingham: Well good morning Kieran. You are dead right that we have seen a very clear trajectory emerge since about 2003 with declines across reading, maths and science skills. Now we are performing still above the OECD average, so we are still a high performing education system, we shouldn't talk ourselves down, but absolutely we have record levels of investment, funding since 2003 from the Federal Government has grown by 50 per cent in real terms into Australian schools, and yet we are seeing students in 2015, when these assessments were undertaken, performing at lower levels than students were in 2003; in fact in some cases performing effectively 12 months lower in terms of their academic achievement. Now that is a real concern and requires us to end the politicking and debates about how much money is sloshing around the system and focus far more effectively on how that money is used in the implementation of quality reforms to address these problems.

Kieran Gilbert: So for year nine students in maths, just to recap, 12 months behind where they were in maths in 2003, seven months behind in science compared to 2006, and 10 months behind in reading since 2000. This is according to this Programme for International Student Assessment. It's all quite worrying, you've got to say, Minister.

Simon Birmingham: That's right. So I mean it's a clear demonstration that Australian students today are not performing at the same level of earlier generations, in fact of students just five, 10, 12 years ago. Now this is on top of evidence that NAPLAN tests in a domestic setting show at best a plateauing of our performance. The TIMSS data last week specific to maths and science showed us slipping behind many other nations.

Now we've taken action already in our time in government to try to reverse these trends. We've put in place new measures that will ensure future teacher graduates are tested for their own personal literacy and numeracy skills to a minimum standard to ensure that we have more specialists coming out of our universities who are teacher graduates, particularly in the primary school years so that we can get maths and science and English specialists into primary schools, but we also …

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] Is that the key, is it all about teacher quality? Is that the key? Is that the core problem here?

Simon Birmingham: Well the single largest in-school factor in terms of student performance is absolutely the teacher performance and teacher quality. Now, most Australian teachers are incredibly hard working, are doing their best. We need to make sure they are equipped in their university training with the skills necessary to succeed, that there’s continual professional development. One of the twelve different policy areas that we took to the last election, and which is on the table with the states and territories as a condition of future funding is around better rewarding our most capable teachers, our lead teachers, those who are recognised by their profession against agreed standards as being the ones who can make the biggest difference in the classroom so that we can ensure we keep those best teachers in our classrooms, in our system and can give them rewards, to direct them to the schools where their help is most needed to lift outcomes.

Kieran Gilbert: And also is it about ongoing training and maintenance of standards as well, not just the university degree once people are in there, but also to have ongoing opportunities for training and enhancement of teachers?

Simon Birmingham: Well continual professional development and professional development of a high quality is absolutely essential. But other areas we’ve highlighted as well look at one end of the system in terms of earlier identification of problems through uniform national screening of students in their first year or so of schooling, so we can pick up problems in their literacy levels and  their reading skills at that earlier stage for interventions, as well as putting in place some minimum standards for school leavers of literacy and numeracy skills at the other end to really raise the ambition and put pressure right through the school system to make sure that students are meeting those types of skills and standards. 

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time as always. Thanks for that.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Kieran.