Question: Simon, does this report dictate that our education system's letting people down

Simon Birmingham: There are real concerns about the quality that we're getting in terms of literacy and numeracy outcomes from students, which is why as a Government we've really focused on how we lift teacher quality, parental engagement and content of the national curriculum, seeking to make sure that we're teaching students the right skills in the classroom, that teachers are of the highest capability in the future. And this is really where the reform agenda in relation to school education needs to go. Our reforms will make sure that in future, all teacher graduates are in the top 30 per cent for literacy and numeracy of all Australians, and that's a really important minimum benchmark to set to ensure that those in the classroom have the skills themselves which they're then able to pass on to their students.

Question: Doesn't this mean a complete overhaul of the system so that it meets the needs of business and the community?

Simon Birmingham: We've really been working to make sure that with a new national curriculum that takes effect from this year, there's an appropriate use of teaching methods like the use of phonics to give those skills to students in the future, as well as lifting the bar for teacher training in years to come. And all of those measures are part of a comprehensive suite of reforms that yes, does acknowledge we've got to get the curriculum right, the teacher quality right, the parental engagement right. There's no silver bullet here; it's about focusing on all the different areas of schooling to lift those outcomes and to give people job ready skills.

Question: Under the reforms though will there still be a press on the focus on digital technology? Is that focus part of the problem?

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. I'll just wait for that the other joyous part about this spot. We absolutely want to make sure that students are equipped for the digital age just as well as they need to have the basic foundation skills for employers and for jobs in the future. So it really is about getting English and maths right as well as digital skills and scientific capabilities. And the more than $1 billion we're investing in the National Innovation and Science Agenda is part of the Turnbull Government's focus on getting those digital skills into the classroom, where it is by no means at the expense of ensuring student have literacy and numeracy skills that give them the foundational capacity for wherever they choose to go and work in the future.

Question: What about TAFE and universities – is there pressure on them to fix the problem as well, if there is an issue at schools, for them to then fix the problem that's coming out of schools?

Simon Birmingham: Every different part of the education system needs to play their role here. We're investing as a Federal Government around $900 million in programs that support the advancement of foundation skills in adults who might have them lacking, or give employers capacity to access training funds where they can skill employees with the type of re-skilling or new foundational type skills they might require for the future. It's essential though that our universities and our TAFEs operate at high standards too. There is a really important aspect here that starts at a parental level about the setting of standards and expectations in terms of what people learn and what the expectation is for literacy and numeracy capabilities in the future, and we should expect really high performance outcomes from our universities. We should expect strong vocational outcomes from our TAFEs. But of course in the schooling system we should be laying the foundations where people have literacy skills and numeracy skills that are of a standard that allow them to go to TAFE, go on to university, or enter the workforce without needing to have further retraining or skilling in relation to their writing or math skills.

Question: Well that's a given, surely, that you would expect that to happen. Why has it got to this point, why is it so bad?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is a real concern. That's why, as a Government, we've focussed over the last couple of years on reforming teacher training so that teachers in future must be in the top 30 per cent of Australians for their literacy and numeracy skills; on reforming the national curriculum so that it has a focus in terms of teaching methods, like the use of phonics in the classroom, that has historically been shown to work; around how we get parents better engaged so they're reading to children at a young age, and they're engaging every step through their schooling.

As I said before, there's no silver bullet to this. You've got to take the holistic approach, get the curriculum right, the teacher training right, the parental engagement right. They're all the different aspects that can ensure we turn this around and ensure future generations of Australians do have the skills when they've finished school to be effective in the workforce.

Question: So is it in such a poor state at the moment that the findings you saw this morning weren't actually that surprising in terms of how many businesses were concerned?

Simon Birmingham: I've heard lots of anecdotal stories over the years from employers who are concerned about literacy or numeracy standards. Australia still has one of the best schooling systems in the world, but we have recognised that despite record levels of funding going into school education in recent years our standards, both in real and relative terms, have been slipping in comparison with other OECD countries. That's why we've sought to focus not just on questions about how much money is spent, but importantly on how it is spent and making sure that we're getting that training of teachers right, getting the curriculum right, increasing parental engagement, as well as investing in new technologies in the classroom and new skills for teachers so that students get the foundation skills as well as the digital capabilities they need for the future.

Question: So in the past, all of those things haven't been done effectively?

Simon Birmingham: We have to acknowledge that there have been failings in the past, because this is evidence that students [inaudible]. Now, ultimately, I hope that we can turn it around and ensure that far more students finish school with the type of minimum standards and skills in English and numeracy that every employer and every Australian would expect a school leaver to have.

Question: Are you appalled by the content of this report?

Simon Birmingham: I'm concerned by the content of the report, and it is evidence that we do need heed, and we need to recognise that our education system is expected to skill people for jobs, and to skill people to be thoughtful contributors in the workplace. And if it's failing that or if it's not skilling people appropriately to go to university, to TAFE, or to enter the workforce, then it is failing students and we need to follow through on the types of reforms we've pursued over the last two years and continue to enhance the quality of teachers, the autonomy of schools to really focus on delivering what their students need in their local school environment, as well as those issues around the appropriate curriculum and parental engagement. Thanks guys.

Question: Great, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Pleasure.

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