Q&A at the Positive Schools Conference, Adelaide




Michael Carr-Gregg:     Thank you very much, Tracy(*), and Senator, thank you so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham:     Thanks Michael.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     It is in fact the 10th anniversary of the Positive Schools conferences, and as a sort of marker of that, we thought it would be a great idea to invite ministers, both state ministers and of course the Federal Minister, to talk a little bit about social and emotional education and mental health support in our schools. So I’ve just wondered, have you ever been interviewed by a psychologist in front of a bunch of…


Simon Birmingham:     No, I think it’s safe to say that this is a first of its kind experience.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     What I’m interested in…


Simon Birmingham:     Should I be threatened? Or…I’m fine?


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Right, fantastic. Now, I’ve actually been doing a…some research on you, and I know that unlike some of your Cabinet colleagues, you actually went to a state school. You went to Gawler High. And I wondered if you could tell us…


Simon Birmingham:     Don’t pick sides, I love everyone equally.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     I wonder, Senator, if you could tell us the story of you and Pride and Prejudice?


Simon Birmingham:     You have been doing some research, indeed.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     I have indeed.


Simon Birmingham:     So I’m in politics, as you all know, and clearly one of the things that is a skill in politics is communication and language and I like to think, I guess, that at school public speaking and debating, those sorts of things. And perhaps some of those skills were of value at the time. Certainly, my English teacher thought so, and I remember having the discussion with her of deep disappointment at the end of year 11 when she said: “why aren’t you doing year 12 English? You enjoy seemingly so many different aspects.” And I looked at her and I said: Pride and Prejudice. We did – Pride and Prejudice, was our year 11 book that we worked our way through. Or pretended to work our way through perhaps. But a great piece of literature as I might now be able to acknowledge it was, I have to say, that perhaps like many other 15 or 16-year-old boys at the time, it didn’t really engage me and motivate me to stick with English, to be honest.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Right. No, no that’s good. That’s good. You gave your first speech in Parliament in 2007, and you called for US-style school voucher systems to be trialled. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and have you changed your mind since?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I guess as you grow and change, and 11 years in the Senate, I’m not sure where that time has gone, and I appreciate a lot more of the complexities of the way different parts of our school system work today. But in essence, you can correlate a voucher system in some ways to a needs-based system, and that in many ways in those remarks, that is in some ways what I was reflecting and what we’ve tried to do as a government in terms of the funding. How do you target support, the greatest levels of support, to the children in your schools who need it most? Now, an extreme version of that is potentially voucher systems. It’s a complex system as well, and there’s not a lot of support for it, or necessarily examples where it’s been a great success. But to step one degree back from that, you’re truly looking at basically assessments of need. And now, the way we’re seeking to do it in Australia is to assess school community need, what additional support is required because a school community has large proportions of students from low socio-educational backgrounds or more students with disability or more students from language backgrounds other than English. They’re the types of needs that we now assess and address that through additional loadings and do that at the school community level rather than a voucher model which is applied at the individual student level.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Let me ask you about assessment. Could you put up your hand here if you would like to see NAPLAN retained? Just put it right up in the air please?


Okay. So they’re doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount of enthusiasm for NAPLAN.


Simon Birmingham:     I want to give absolute credit to the gentleman who put his hand up.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     It was introduced, I think, in 2008 to improve numeracy and literacy. We’re now ranked below Kazakhstan in numeracy.


Can’t be rude about the Kazakhstani’s. And we haven’t done tremendously in literacy. What’s your view on the whole NAPLAN thing? Do we need it?


Simon Birmingham:     Anybody who says NAPLAN was introduced in to improve literacy and numeracy is misreading, of course, the intention. No test in and of itself improves anything. We go to the doctor and we get a blood test. That doesn’t improve our health, it informs the doctor in terms of where we’re at. And NAPLAN is meant to be there as a tool to inform where we’re at in particular areas, especially of course in terms of core areas of NAPLAN; literacy and numeracy skills. Now, NAPLAN, I’ve heard loud and clear, is for teachers in schools as it’s been delivered over the years, not the most useful tool. Hands up though those who’ve participated in NAPLAN Online this year? A good few. And the ambition behind NAPLAN Online is to try to ensure that perhaps NAPLAN becomes a more useful tool in a number of ways. Firstly, rather than waiting months and months and months to get the results that therefore aren’t terribly useful for this year’s classroom teacher if you’ve lost a whole couple of terms before you get the results. NAPLAN Online would enable us to give you feedback within the space of a few weeks. Secondly, NAPLAN Online is an adaptive assessment tool. Now, that’s going to provide a couple of benefits. One, hopefully to teachers, in that it will give you a richer spectrum of information, and also another hopefully to students as an important point for wellbeing discussion, in that it will hopefully will make NAPLAN a better experience for those students. Why is it a better experience? Because  there’s an adaptive assessment there. It will, the first third of the content, largely be the same. But then, if a kid is flying through it, it will test them a little more and that will stretch their capabilities, but it will also then of course give the school richer information on just the skillset of those students. Equally, if they’re struggling through it, it will get easier.


Now again, that’s about testing what a student knows. If a student gets every question wrong, all you know if what they don’t know. You’ve got to get to the point in the assessment ensuring your checking what they do know and what they’re getting right. And so an adaptive assessment tool like NAPLAN Online will be will give that broader range, but also will give the student greater satisfaction they’ve had success in doing so. Everyone will walk out having, of course, gotten answers correct, feeling more confident in themselves in doing so, but it will give clear data feedback information.


It’s not the be all and end all though, and indeed, there’s a possibility of looking at some of what’s recommended in the latest Gonski work about providing and arming schools and teachers with continuous formative assessment tools that are in your hands to choose to use when you want you want to, how you do, but are nationally-consistent evidence-based tools, but in your hands to use and apply as you choose when you want to, how you do it, to be able to get something much richer and better than NAPLAN over a period of  time that compliments individual teacher judgement, builds on the skills you already bring to your classroom, but also does provide data of comparison for you as schools. And I suspect, I guess, the last hands up, as I’m talking a lot on NAPLAN, the last hands up though: who would say to me that your biggest gripe with NAPLAN is the way the data’s published or presented?


A miss, and for other rather it might be that you don’t like standardised testing I’m guessing, or you think that the way in which it makes certain stresses or the like. We can have a whole session on NAPLAN. It’s always interesting for me to try and get feedback. But we are trying to improve it as a tool. NAPLAN Online is a key part of that.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     That’s actually good news. Thank you. Senator, what does the future of wellbeing education look like to you?


Simon Birmingham:     This is a question where, in some ways, I guess I start from experiences as a dad, and my girls are five and seven and what do I want for them? Well, it’s the same as any parent in that I want them to go into the world post-school with confidence and ability to adapt and change to whatever life throws at them. To be happy and to be successful in all of those different aspects. Now they’re in a fortunate background and I know for many children there are far greater challenges and I think back to my schooling days at Gawler High in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, a mixture of families coming from a range of different migrant backgrounds, second generation or first generation migrant backgrounds, language challenges. A whole range of different challenges that are there. What do I see wellbeing as, in the future of wellbeing? Well, it is very much how do we build those rich skills of resilience in students.


As a non-educator, I try to simplify the way I look at the challenge that you as educators have into three components: the foundational skills, the basic literacy and numeracy things we’re talking about with NAPLAN. The rich knowledge of the content of the subject areas, Pride and Prejudice perhaps in English lit. But then, the overall skills in terms of a capacity a student has to be able to succeed in life and to deal with what life throws at you in terms of resilience; to also be a good contributor in workforce, in society; to have that capacity to work collaboratively, to think creatively, to build those general capabilities as we described in the curriculum context and how we make sure that that is achieved as well.


But I think- I’m thrilled to see so many people participating in what has been a national exercise, because the question of wellbeing is well and truly- perhaps the question that is asked of me most often when I go to schools or principal bodies or teacher association conferences around the country, because it’s at the forefront of people’s thinking. They see changes in society, changes in families, changes in work practices, changes in technology as all impacting on student wellbeing. Nobody has the silver bullet of what the answers are – it’s through shared practice and exchange of information that we can better get there.


Michael Carr-Gregg:                 Speaking of wellbeing, I’m very concerned about the year 12s and the amount of stress that they’re under. A study that was done in Victoria found that 31 per cent of year 12 Australians actually have the DSM-5 criteria for a major depressive illness, and 41 per cent had the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Do you think that the year 12 system – and you would have done the SACE presumably – the HSC or the VCE, do you think that’s a useful exam? Should we have such a focus on the ATAR?


Simon Birmingham:     I slightly predate SACE.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Okay.


Simon Birmingham:     But in the end, there was a year 12 equivalent of the time and indeed a score to work towards for uni entry, and I didn’t get the score that I wanted the first go round. I was dead set, you know. So I sort of know what that cycle can be like. My view is that achievement matters, but we do need to keep all things in perspective. We talked about NAPLAN before. The approach, of course, instead of the more public commentary we have around NAPLAN, the greater the tension rises. The greater the tension rises in different schools, the greater the problem becomes. It sort of can become quite a vicious cycle. Year 12 and ATAR, of course, is the transition point in life from secondary school into the rest of life, and into higher education if that’s the ambition of the child and more naturally has that built into it than even NAPLAN does. I think we have to find the sweet spot, and I was encouraged last week when ANU announced some changes to their university admissions practices. And in trying to find that sweet spot, they’ve said: we’re going to maintain minimum ATAR requirements. We want- and we think achievement matters, we think standards matter in terms of the students we’re admitting.


But above the minimum, we want to assess a broader criteria in terms of student enrolment. So that essentially what they’re seeking to do is take out of their enrolment practice the race and competition for the highest possible ATAR score and acknowledge that above a minimum threshold achievement you then want to look at a range of other characteristics in those students. And of course, we’ve done that in a number of ways, in disciplines like medicine over the years, where there’s been acknowledgement that just getting a 99.95 isn’t automatically going to make you a great doctor, that you actually need to have communication skills and compassion and a range of other attributes to succeed. And universities trying to develop and change the approach for admissions. But we have to also be conscious that the flipside of that is they’ve also said we want most of our entrants to be doing maths and English as a year 12 subject. That whilst they’re saying we don’t want the chase for the absolute score, but there are certain knowledge areas that we want students to enter with. And we don’t want to be having to do catch up maths for engineering students in their first year, or having different literacy programs. We want to make sure that everybody’s got those skills when they’re leaving school. So all of that’s combined with this to think about different ways of looking at entry and there are some unis who are leading the way in changing those concepts, which will obviously have a significant flow-down effect into schools.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to do your job, but it would be wonderful to hear around about the time year 12 rocks around…


Simon Birmingham:     Everybody else does. That’s the nature of politics.         


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Towards the exam time, it would be wonderful to hear you come out publicly and say to the young people sitting exams: you know what, you’re not your ATAR. Life will still be worth living irrespective of the score …


Simon Birmingham:     … And that is a critical point and it’s a point that needs absolute reinforcement time and time again. 


Michael Carr-Gregg:     I know you’ve got a plane to catch, but I’ll just ask you a couple more questions. There’s a recent study that’s come out that’s looked at earlier versus later start times. This big study found that pushing the starting time of school back actually had a major impact on poor behaviour in schools. It went down and academic performance went up. Does this interest you – the idea of earlier start times?


Simon Birmingham:     I think some of these questions are ones where you really do need to hand back autonomy within schools and school leaders to work through with their school communities the decisions that are going to best apply to them. Some schools start the day at 8.30. Some even start earlier than that. And often times there will be, as I go around, a brief burst of exercise or head-clearing activity in the morning, particularly in primary school years, but then let’s settle in to the harder, in inverted commas, topics, the concentrations of focused topics in the earlier parts of the day, knowing that concentration’s likely to lag in the later parts of the day and that encouraging the areas of other creativity that are out there in latter parts of the daily work. But indeed, there are other examples where yes, you do get examples of, perhaps more in the secondary school years, a later starting time seems to work. Now we’ve got to be careful, conscious I guess, in that of what we’re responding to. Are we responding to a natural need that is just there and you will get better outcomes from a later starting time, or are we responding because of some of the pervasive impacts of technology that are seeing children possibly not getting the sleep they need. And what we tackle, or try to tackle with families across society, some of those issues before we say we’ll react in a different way by trying and seeing if we say: well, you can stay up late on your technology, but then sleep in during the morning that the solution is a later start time to school. So, there’s the natural aspects, there’s the other things that are impacting society that ultimately we need to question and ultimately I think it would be very hard to say there’s a one size fits all solution to that question.


Michael Carr-Gregg:     Very thoughtful response. Could we thank Senator Birmingham for…


Simon Birmingham:     Thank you everyone. Thanks for taking the time to pursue what’s such a critical area – wellbeing comes up time and time again in discussions that I have and nobody thinks there’s a silver bullet, but this type of exchange is critical. Thank you very much.