Press conference, Canberra
NAPLAN National Report; Turnbull Government’s Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes reforms; Future schools funding arrangements; How-to-vote cards; Republican movement

Simon Birmingham:     These NAPLAN results confirm information that has been contained in international reports over the last couple of weeks. We see results that show at best Australian school performance is plateauing, and elsewhere it’s been in decline. This is not good enough when we’ve got record growing levels of investment into Australian schools. 

Later this week, I’ll be taking to Education Council a package of reforms that the Turnbull Government took to the last election as conditions for future federal school funding. We want to invest record sums in Australian schools which will grow from $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion by 2020. 

But most importantly, we want to see that used far more effectively in the future to lift student performance and student outcomes, which means earlier assessments and intervention for young children to identify where problems are and to help them raise their performance. It means higher standards of literacy and numeracy for school leavers to raise ambition right through our school system, and it requires us to better support our most capable, competent teachers to stay in the teaching profession rather than just rewarding teachers based on time served. It will be a comprehensive reform proposal, and I look forward to working with the states and territories over the coming weeks and months to ensure it is implemented into the future.

Question:         These results out today, what did that tell you about the need for improvement in our classrooms?

Simon Birmingham:     Well this NAPLAN assessment builds on the international tests that were released over the last two weeks and yet again demonstrates that Australia’s performance in our schools is at best plateauing and at worst going backwards despite record levels of investment. What that demonstrates is we must drive a reform agenda and I’ll be taking to the Education Council meeting on Friday with state and territory education ministers a package of comprehensive reforms that was outlined by the Turnbull Government in the election campaign this year and which we want to see applied in our schools in the future as part of future funding arrangements.

Question:         Some of the analysis of the results tends to suggest that it could be cultural issues holding Australian-born children back. Are parents doing enough? Is the community doing enough to raise and promote education?

Simon Birmingham:     There’s absolutely a message here that we must acknowledge and recognise that the parents have a key role to play too. Parents are the first educators, the first teachers of their children and the expectations and ambitions they set, the level of engagement in areas like early reading is absolutely critical to the success of children. This is not all just about what teachers, hard-working teachers, and schools can do. It’s about ensuring that we can increase parental engagement as well and recognising that yes there are some parts of the community that have very high levels of expectation and ambition for their children and invest a lot of time and effort in the home to support children in their learning. And that’s a lesson for all Australians about what we can do as a nation to lift our educational outcomes.

Question:         Given those results, should more focus be on encouraging parents to invest time rather than public funds investing actual capital?

Simon Birmingham:     The Turnbull Government has absolutely run a parental engagement strategy. We have an app that we released called Learning Potential which is being downloaded by many thousands of families and steps people through the types of things that they can do to help teach their children and to help engage them. But it absolutely needs to be, like all aspects of education, a cooperative national approach. State and territory governments, as the operators of our schooling system, need to work with us on delivering the types of reforms that can keep our best teachers in the classroom, ensure we identify problems with young children at an earlier age, raise the level of ambition in terms of literacy and numeracy standards for our school leavers, and absolutely engage parents effectively and help them to understand what they can do to help their children succeed.

Question:         Is it time to go back to things like Play School and Sesame Street over the kid’s shows today? Should there be a more stronger focus on educating that infant level through the entire community, not just parents as well?

Simon Birmingham:     Early years are absolutely critical. So parents can play a huge role. Just reading to your kids for 15 to 20 minutes a day when they’re young can equate to 500 hours of reading experience they’ve had by the time they start school which gives them a greater vocabulary. And we know from the evidence that a bigger vocabulary ensures they are more likely to succeed and learn in their reading and their literacy skills and fly through their schooling from there.

Question:         You said that future funding is dependent on that reform package, but surely the Commonwealth can’t cut off funding for schools?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, the Commonwealth wants to see our record growing levels of funding used effectively to deliver reforms in Australian schools. It’s not acceptable to keep doing more of the same, which for the last 20 years has been to simply increase funding but not focus on how it’s spent. We want to make sure that in future, record growing levels of funding are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible, and that requires reforms in our school system to make sure that students are getting the best opportunities for the future.

Question:         So to clarify, in layman’s terms, the message is accept these changes or we’ll cut off your money?

Simon Birmingham:     We want to work cooperatively with the states and territories, and my request is for state and territory ministers of all political persuasions to put down the political arguments and work cooperatively with the Federal Government on a reform agenda for Australian schools that can lift outcomes in the future. We want this to be a cooperative, effective, successful reform agenda that ensures our record investment is used as effectively as possible.

Question:         What do you think the results of students from non-English speaking backgrounds say about the emphasis Australian parents apply to education?

Simon Birmingham:     Look, there’s a few things out of students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Firstly, to acknowledge that it is a wide range of results that occur there, and that we shouldn’t read too much into one dataset. Nonetheless, I think we do need to recognise that parental influence and parental engagement is one of the most important factors in student attainment and student success, and that there are within some of our communities very high levels of emphasis and value placed on kids doing well at school, and those communities appear to be enjoying success in terms of the performance of their children. And so the results today are a reminder that it’s not just about what happens in schools or with teachers that matters. What happens in the home is critical. Parents are the first educators of Australian children, and they need to be placing a very high value on their kids doing well at school, and they need to be helping them at home from the earliest years to do so.

Question:         You’ve constantly said that it’s not about school funding increasing it’s about how you spend it. Do these results sort of prove that- what you were saying and support what you were saying?

Simon Birmingham:     There’s now a very strong bank of evidence from international tests like TIMSS and PISA as well as NAPLAN testing that despite record levels of investment in Australian schools, our performance is at best plateauing, if not going backwards. And that means we need to not just have a debate about how much is spent in the future, we need to focus on how well it’s spent and ensure it is spent far more effectively in the future to get the best possible results for Australian schoolchildren.

Question:         Will how-to-vote cards still be handed out at the next election by party volunteers?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is undertaking its ritualistic review of the most recent federal election, and it no doubt will consider that matter along with many others in its review.
Question:                     Jason Wood says that unionists and volunteers should be ditched in favour of an official desk where you can pick up your how-to-vote cards; not very democratic, is it?

Simon Birmingham:     Woody is a passionate advocate for his electorate, and I suspect he like many of us did find at the most recent election that the barrage of union officials with negative scare tactics around the Mediscare campaign and elsewhere was confronting to voters, and I don’t think is a help to democracy.

Question:         Last Cabinet meeting today. How do you think Cabinet should reflect on 2016?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, 2016 has finished well. It’s a year in which we’ve delivered through the Australian Senate more than $20 billion in savings measures, industrial reforms that had stalled in the previous Parliament, significant reforms to our vocational education and training system. We’ve demonstrated that we can make this Parliament work, get on with the job, and of course we have big ambitions and big tasks ahead for 2017. 

Question:         Will there be the same faces around the Cabinet table at the start of 2017?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, it’s always a matter for the Prime Minister as to who sits at the Cabinet table, but he’s indicated that he has great confidence in the team.

Question:         The Prime Minister’s speaking to the Republican Movement on the weekend. Why’s he doing that when there’s much bigger issues like the ones that you’ve just mentioned, and the economy, which isn’t going too well at the moment?

Simon Birmingham:     The PM can walk and chew gum quite effectively, and his views on the republic are no surprise or secret to anybody.

Question:         Rag to a bull to some on the backbench?

Simon Birmingham:     I think the PM has also made very clear for a long period of time that he sees no scope for this issue to progress under the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, and I doubt that those views have changed.