Interview on SKY News with Kieran Gilbert
NAPLAN National Report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms; Republican movement
08:33 AM

Kieran Gilbert: Good morning, and welcome to the program. The latest NAPLAN results have confirmed that students from non-English speaking backgrounds, from migrant families are outperforming the average on both literacy and numeracy. Why is that the case? And more broadly, why are the numbers plateauing despite record funding going into our schools? I spoke to the Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, thanks for your time. So what does this report tell us in terms of Australian standards? Are we still above the OECD average and so on?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we saw last week a report that demonstrated that Australia does have above average results, which is good news, but that we are declining in terms of our performance as a nation. And this NAPLAN report this week certainly shows that at best we are essentially plateauing, and at worst, we’re going backwards. And that obviously is unacceptable in an era where we have record growing levels of investment in Australian schools, and where our competitiveness as a nation demands that we actually continue to increase our skill base.

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] So why is that? Given more money, as you argue all the time, more money’s going in there – it’s going to reach upwards from $16 billion at the moment to $20 billion within four years – why are the standards in literacy and numeracy going backwards?

Simon Birmingham: Well indeed, Kieran. We’ve seen a growth of 50 per cent in federal funding since 2003, and clearly it’s not being used as effectively as we would hope. Which is why the Turnbull Government took to the election a range of reform measures, which this week on Friday when I meet with state and territory Education Ministers, I’ll be presenting as a comprehensive reform proposal that I hope they will go away and consider and embrace early in the new year as part of our new funding arrangements, conditional reforms that ensure earlier assessment of children in terms of their phonics skills, their reading skills, their numeracy skills, to enable earlier intervention to help those children who are struggling. At the other end, higher levels of ambition in terms of minimum literacy and numeracy standard, as well as changing the way we reward teachers to keep our most capable teachers in the classroom.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, the Labor Party as you know, very much tied to the Gonski agenda and trajectory on funding. The OECD, though – you pointed out today – says that there’s not always a correlation between the dollars spent and the outcomes. How do we match that up more evenly in terms of the increasing dollars? Is it all about teacher quality, or is there some more substantive change that can happen here?

Simon Birmingham: So the OECD says that once you get to a critical mass of funding, which Australia well and truly has, then you get very marginal differences for any increase in investment, and of course that it’s how you use that funding that matters most. So teacher quality remains the single largest in-school influence in relation to children’s performance in schools. Of course, parental engagement is perhaps the biggest external influence, and so making sure that Australian parents appreciate and understand their role is critical. But as governments, we can do our best to help continue to lift teacher quality, which is why as a government we’ve already applied changes to the training of teachers in universities so that they must meet and pass the test of minimum literacy and numeracy standards themselves while at uni so that we get more specialist teachers in maths and sciences and English coming out of unis that can go into the classroom …

Kieran Gilbert: [Interrupts] It’s interesting that you point out that the non-school impact, of course, of parents, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds in these NAPLAN results are outperforming those who were, or their parents were born in this country. This is a very interesting outcome. Why is that?

Simon Birmingham: It is an interesting statistic. We should recognise that there’s a wide range of scores in terms of students from non-English speaking outcomes, and so we can’t just read that as everybody’s doing well in that category.

Kieran Gilbert: [Talks over] But a lot are, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: But a good number are. There’s some very high performers, and they do appear to be students whose families place a very high value on educational success and educational attainment, and are very engaged in their child’s learning. Now, that is of course a lesson for all of us, and one that Australian parents well and truly need to heed: that the ambition they have, the expectations they set, and the engagement they have with their children from the earliest age does matter, does make a difference, and can help teachers and schools achieve their best.

Kieran Gilbert: Sure, but those from migrant families, as you say, it’s not across the board, and in these figures nothing is. Obviously, we’re talking in generalities here, but they’ve got higher standards. Is it because the parents are expecting more? Is it because- well, why is it? Because it’s not just in literacy. It’s in numeracy as well, isn’t it? They’re above the average.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. So parental expectation and ambition does matter to the performance of children, but of course, aligned with parental expectation and ambition is the engagement of parents, the undertakings they have to read to their children from the earliest age, to help them engage in maths and to do more outside of the classroom; all of which of course ensures kids firstly arrive at school better prepared and better able to succeed, but can then achieve more while they’re in the school environment. We shouldn’t expect that Australia’s performance can purely be addressed by looking at in-school factors and putting it all on the shoulders of hard-working teachers. There is a real role for parents and families and society to play, too.

Kieran Gilbert: Well, given what you’ve argued in relation to the dollars not necessarily meaning that the outcome is locked in, are the dollars – the federal funding to 2020 – guaranteed to $20 billion? Given how tight the budget is. We’ve got the latest comments from Moody’s today, S&P’s got us on negative watch, there are health funding soaring; is that $20 billion guaranteed, locked, won’t change? 

Simon Birmingham: It is absolutely guaranteed. We made a commitment at the election in terms of our school funding envelope, and it is funding that is record funding, growing funding, but also affordable and sustainable. It is not what the Labor Party took to the election, which was of course billions more in spending. Ours is measured, sustainable growth, but what we want to see of course is that it is distributed fairly, equitably, and according to need, but most importantly used more efficiently in the future, which is why the types of reforms that we’re taking for discussion with the states and territories in hope that they will constructively engage in discussions about are critical to lift our literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally, Tony Abbott copped flak for awarding Prince Philip a knighthood when he was in office. Mr Turnbull’s agreed to speak at the Republican 25th Anniversary dinner this Saturday night. Should he have rejected that invitation?

Simon Birmingham: Oh, no. Look, anybody who knows Malcolm Turnbull knows his views on this. Of course, the whole nation knew Malcolm’s views from 25 years ago when these debates were happening. But I doubt very much that his construct and his formula for how the topic might be advanced at some point in the future has changed, which is that it’s unlikely to go anywhere under the reign of the current monarch.

Kieran Gilbert: So you’re not disappointed this is a bit of a distraction, as some of your colleagues apparently are saying anonymously?

Simon Birmingham: Malcolm Turnbull can well and truly walk and chew gum at the same time, and I know that he is overwhelmingly focused on the types of achievements we’ve had to date this year: more than $20 billion in budget savings passed through the Parliament; industrial relations reforms that had stalled and failed in the previous Parliament but that Malcolm Turnbull has had delivered in this Parliament; big changes to our vocational education and training system. We’ve got a lot of runs on the board since the election this year, and we’ll be getting many more in place in the new year.

Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time. Thanks.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Kieran.

[End of excerpt]