Graham Richardson: A little while I spoke to Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education. He’s an impressive one of the younger brigade in the Liberal Party. He’s been doing a pretty good job, and I put to him I think all of the questions that matter in today’s debate about education. Here it is.


Graham Richardson: Now education has once again become an issue. A very big announcement from the Labor Party just last week spending many many many billions that you’re not spending. Why aren’t you spending it?

Simon Birmingham: Well Richard, school funding in Australia is at a record level. We’ve seen enormous growth over the last few years and in fact if you go back far enough back to 1998 you’ll find there’s huge growth of funding over a long period of time, yet in that timeframe we’ve seen results actually go backwards. So we think firstly, firstly, that you need to focus in your education policy on the things that will make a real difference. Secondly we don’t think the Commonwealth budget can sustain the type of $37 billion of extra spending that Labor have proposed when they’re already deep in debt. And thirdly it’s really important to emphasise to your viewers that we are still proposing to grow school funding over the forward years but we’re just doing it at a slower trajectory than the Labor Party. So there’ll still be growth. That growth will come off of the record base that we are currently at, it’s just at a slower and steadier level than the Labor Party propose.

Graham Richardson: Whenever the word Gonski is mentioned it has a kind of reverence that’s enormous. Now Gonski, you know, a report, he wrote about what you should do with schools. The state premiers seem to have all adopted it and so has the Labor Opposition, but you haven’t. Why not? What’s wrong with the Gonski report? What do you see in it that you should not fund?

Simon Birmingham: Well the state premiers have not all adopted it. That’s the first point. That only a number of states signed up to the deals that Julia Gillard was seeking to make and even then what they often signed up to was a really bastardised version of what David Gonski had recommended. So in that regard we shouldn’t confuse David Gonski’s work which is valuable work, it’s work that I’ve spoken to him about and I’ll continue to speak and engage to him about how we make sure that the money we have we do direct appropriately on the needs of students and focus to those most needy students. But ultimately we do also have to accept we don’t have a limitless bottomless pit of money that’s available to spend. The Commonwealth has upped its growth in school spending at a rate much much faster than the states have over recent years. We are at this higher level. We now really want to focus on those issues, teacher quality, parental engagement and ensuring the curriculum is right and giving principals autonomy on how they run their schools, because it’s those types of things that can turn around the decline we’ve seen in literacy and numeracy and science standards that we’ve seen notwithstanding the growth in funding in recent years.

Graham Richardson: There has been a big growth but clearly it’s getting backward. Gonski did want you to spend more and so my question remains, why aren’t you listening to Gonski? What was Gonski wrong about?

Simon Birmingham: Well David Gonski produced a model and as I said it was quite bastardised by the time it was implemented with a whole lot of special deals for different states and different schools systems. But David Gonski produced a model that tried to have a look at how you might efficiently price a school in terms of what type of resourcing they may need, but also was very focused around the issue of directing funding to areas of need. 

Now when I sit down and work out with the states, territories and non-government schools systems’ how we deliver the money that is available from 2018 onwards, the record funding available from 2018 onwards for schools, I will be really focused on ensuring that the formulas are fair, they’re transparent and they are based on need, so that we do direct funding to those students who need that greatest help. I make no bones about the fact that we should be ensuring that appropriate assistance for disadvantaged loadings in relation to people who’ve come from lower socioeconomic areas, where there’s likely to be lower levels of educational attainment, to students with disability, to students of indigenous backgrounds which is an important topic for today, we absolutely want to get all of those sorts of loadings and parameters right, but we can only do it within a sustainable budget context and so it is about trying to get the best bang for our buck and we should not kid ourselves, say time and time again, that money itself is the answer. How you use the money is far far more important that if we’d pumped record funding in and only got the worst results in recent years.

Graham Richardson: Well I remember when I went into Marist Brothers Kogarah at the age of 10, the first class I went into had 52 students in it. We’ve spent an awful lot of money reducing class sizes. So just as a first question, does that help?

Simon Birmingham: It does not demonstrably help when you’re getting to the levels that we’re talking about changing  class sizes nowadays. So yes there are some improvements that can be had in some areas in terms of class sizes, but the evidence certainly shows and the OECD research has backed this up that just to continually focus on smaller class sizes does not get you better outcomes. And unfortunately in seeing more than 100 per cent real growth in education spending over the last 20 years, we have not seen that spending go into areas that are making a difference. We’ve seen too much of it go into things like smaller class sizes and yet our international standing and our real performance in literacy, numeracy, science has gone backwards. 

So that’s absolutely why if I’m striking a new funding deal with the states and territories on behalf of the Turnbull Government, we will be quite focused on ensuring money is spent in the areas of improving teacher quality, in getting parents more engaged, in focusing in how we lift particularly those stem subjects that are critical to our innovation agenda, and in getting the basics right, particularly into areas of disadvantage to get students reading, writing, literacy levels up, their vocabulary up in the very earliest years because again we know that if students enter school with poor vocab they will end up struggling right through their whole school experience.

Graham Richardson: Yeah but one of the problems there of course is what happens in the home. If your read to your child every night and you have your child read back to you every day then you obviously get an outcome, vocabulary improves, confidence improves and obviously you’ve got literacy staring you in the face, it’s a lot easier. But teachers can’t necessarily make up for what some parents won’t or can’t do.

Simon Birmingham: And this is an enormous battle. A couple of weeks ago I made a call based on research urging parents to take that 15 minutes a day through the first five years of a child’s life because you can provide them hundreds of hours of reading time before a child even starts schools. And that does demonstrate that you are lifting their vocabulary and that makes their chances of success that much better through the schooling environment. And we do need to really work to get that message out there and to encourage parents to use the resources and the support that’s available. As a government we’ve released some resources, a parental engagement app that is available for parents that help step them through ways they can enhance the learning experience for their young children. Equally at a more grassroots level, there’s lots of support around reading available in local libraries that parents with small children should seek to access if they lack the confidence or want some assistance or need the access to free books that libraries can provide them. So lots of resources out there, we just really need to encourage people to do so because the data says that around 20 per cent of school students are starting at school without the necessary vocabulary to succeed and that’s a real problem we do need to [indistinct].

Graham Richardson: Even if we have the parenting, one of the difficulties is pretty clear, I was listening to my colleague- my Sky colleague- Alan Jones on his radio show and I’ve got to say about that he was talking about a young woman who’d been in contact with him who was a teacher, who went out to do a school in Sydney’s west and was just absolutely appalled by as an example the language in class being told to F off et cetera by students on a regular basis, there being no real attempt at any real form of discipline. Now when I was at school that would have been unthinkable and yet today it’s not abnormal at all and what’s more you’ll see kids drinking in the playground, I mean what are we doing about getting some discipline back into the system and I’m not talking about canes, but I’m talking about respect, if you’re not taught respect at home, it’s a bit late when you get to school to be taught it isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: I think ultimately the final comment there is the big challenge that our education and school system faces that you do have to expect a certain standard to be applied in the home environment, a level of support from parents to be able to back in teachers who can’t be expected to do everything but it’s important, it’s why I highlighted principal autonomy as one of the factors that we’re really focussed on that you do empower the local school community, so it’s not just about giving the principal autonomy but working with parents, working with that whole school community about where they want the school to be and that includes of course issues around the culture in that school, the discipline practices in that school, where you get interventions from to help with students who are going seriously off the rails and they’re types of things that we do need to see much more of. I think we’ve seen some of the states lift their game in that space but others have a long way to go.

Graham Richardson: Well I think most of them have a long way to go, seems to me discipline’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem but it’s one of those elephant in the room questions that no one wants to talk about because if you talk about it you’re admitting something’s wrong at your school aren’t you?

Simon Birmingham: Well look the other factor in a discipline exchange and a conversation they’re talking about in secondary schools is that we have lifted the benchmark over years in terms of targets for numbers of students staying at school for the completion of their high school certificate. Now that’s a good thing where it’s working well but of course it is perhaps keeping students in the system who don’t want to be at school and can be a disruption to others. So that’s where things like vocational education in schools becomes critically important whether it’s delivered in the school environment or by the school through another provider nearby to the school, giving students those alternative pathways so that you’re not keeping somebody who is going to end up being disruptive problem, not advancing themselves either and finding alternative pathways to support them into them.

Graham Richardson: Well I suppose the big question then, the last question remaining is what about the quality of our teachers, is the reason that we have declined in literacy, numeracy, maths and science, is it all about the fact that the teachers aren’t good enough or not?

Simon Birmingham: Well the number one factor in a child’s education are the home circumstances and parents; the number two factor and the number one in school factor is the quality of teaching. So we know that they are the two big things that they’ve really got to focus on to lift outcomes.

We have pursued a number of teacher training reforms. From this year, all new graduates from teaching programs will have to attain at least or have to pass a test in relation to their literacy and numeracy that will ensure they are in the top 30 per cent of Australians for literacy and numeracy so we can make sure that from this year onwards, all those who graduate from universities with teacher training qualifications are in that top 30 per cent of Australians for literacy and numeracy capabilities.

Graham Richardson: Seeing some- I’ve got to say Simon, seeing- hang on, seeing some of the stuff that I’ve seen, forgetting just about teachers, there are an awful lot of people who are graduating from universities who can barely write.

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s an indictment perhaps on universities and the whole system that we need to apply this test in such a blunt manner in relation to teacher training and I hope the universities and the education system will reflect on the fact that governments have now come to the point of saying we’re going to mandate a test that must be applied before you can actually qualify somebody as a teacher because we’re not satisfied with what’s been going on to date. That’s what the action we’ve taken, we’ve taken that action so that we can be confident that in future when somebody graduates as a teacher and steps into a classroom, they know what they’re doing themselves when it comes to literacy and numeracy and they are one of the best Australians in that regard.

Graham Richardson: Yeah at least my little bloke is being taught spelling. Now tell me something, did Stuart Robert break ministerial standard rules, because it seems to me pretty obvious that he did.

Simon Birmingham: Well Martin Parkinson will make that determination, look Malcolm Turnbull has made it very clear to all ministers that he expects a high standard and that ministers must adhere to the code of conduct and what he has done in relation to this matter, as he did in relation to a matter previously is put it in the hands of an independent process, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Let that independent process run in terms of getting the evidence, giving due process to Stuart Robert as well but then coming out with an outcome which I’m sure will be fair and ultimately will determine this matter once and for all.

Graham Richardson: Alright Simon Birmingham once again thank you very much for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure Richo.

[End of excerpt]

Graham Richardson: Simon Birmingham I think always very, very good.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:
                 James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                   Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media: