SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Can I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and all of Australia’s indigenous people and as Australia’s Education Minister I particularly acknowledge that we continue to learn much more about the traditional knowledge of our indigenous people and learn much from it and to of course build up on it as a nation.
Some of you would have heard me tell this story before, but I like to tell it because it’s a cute story, but it also is great insight that as educators you would appreciate. Earlier this year I got home from Canberra one Friday morning just in time to take my five year old daughter off to school; reception we call it in South Australia, kindergarten I think it is here, the foundation year. On the way to school Matilda said to me “Daddy after school today, can we go to the moon?” I said “well it’s a bit hard to go to moon, Matilda. You need a rocket ship to be able to go to the moon” “Well after school today, can we get a rocket ship and go to the moon?” “Well rocket ships are very hard to come by, Matilda. They’re very complicated and they’re very, very expensive” “Well after school today, can we buy a rocket ship and go to the moon, Daddy?” Great perseverance, greater persistence than most 5 year olds have. “Well Matilda, they’re very, very expensive these rocket ships, I don’t know where we could go and buy one, but even if we could find one that we could buy to go to the moon, I’m not sure Mummy and Daddy could afford a rocket ship” “Well Daddy, you’ll just have to work harder then!” She said. Now, I like to tell this story because it’s cute, but it also of course is a demonstration as you well know of the limitless thought and capacity that young children have in terms of what can be done, what can be achieved and it is, of course, that potential that those limitless, boundary-less ideals that they have, that we seek to harness as a nation and that you seek to harness as leaders in our education sector.
I really do welcome the discussion that you’re having here as an education nation forum over these couple of days and more generally I know in the associated activities because your approach to thinking about what it is we can do to best harness that potential of all of the nation’s children is absolutely essential. I have confidence that I’m in a very fortunate position of being able to provide the best for my children, but as the Education Minister, my ambition has to be and is, to make sure that we can provide the best for all of the nation’s children from all of their different and diverse backgrounds.
I think firstly in these discussions are important because too often in today’s debate the negatives are focussed on, but it is important to recognise that we have an education system in Australia of which we can be very proud of, which is a very good system and that we should spend a little bit more time perhaps, celebrating and not quite so much time focussing on its challenges. Overall, our performance is above most of the OECD averages. We actually do, do very well. We of course, provide remarkable levels of universal access as we should, good outcomes as we should. Financially, we support our schools generally above the OECD averages as well. So, it is a good system underpinned by good basics and foundations but yes, we equally need to acknowledge that we can do better and you would not be here today if it were perfect and impossible for us not to do better because you’re here out of that commitment and desire to ensure that we do, do better. The challenges are equally relatively well understood. We have a long target in terms of student performance. We’ve seen a decline in the performance of some of our best achieving students as well, so we have challenges that sit at both ends of that spectrum. Our PISA schools have, in both real and relative to other nations terms, gone backwards in a number of categories. PISA and NAPLAN, as I know you’ve been discussing, are not the sole determinants of whether or not we are performing well or if a school is performing well, but they’re important indicators that we should equally not ignore. We face particular challenges as a nation, as indeed most of the western world does, about how we can best equip students for a rapidly changing global environment. Ten years ago, the iPhone hadn’t been released on to the market, Netflix didn’t stream out to peoples television sets around the world and Facebook was only one year old. A lot has changed in ten years in terms of the type of economic environment in which we operate and what the environment will be for today’s students when they finish their studies and enter the workplace is something that we cant necessarily know or predict. We do know that the STEM skills, science, technology, engineering and maths, are going to be critical to more and more jobs whatever the sector, whatever the industry in which students go and work, more roles will require a richness of understanding across those skills. So, it is with those various challenges in mind that I welcome those discussions you’ve been having here and really do look forward to seeing the types of outcomes and ideas from these discussions that we can use to help inform the future direction of our education system in Australia. My commitment is to absolutely make sure that we are driven to be the best we can be by [indistinct] that appropriately reflects what can deliver the best results for student outcomes for those who are, of course, at the heart of our education system.
We must make sure that the system essentially addresses two key aims. A system that delivers in the basics, the basics up on which essentially we all [indistinct], the basics up on which all future studies or employment activities will rely as well as preparing students for the dynamic world in which they will enter, to be adaptable, to be collegiate, to be capable of working in modern work environments. Those two aims need to be complimentary. Too often it strikes me that we seem to say it’s about one or the other, well it is actually about ensuring that all of those aspects of learning are built up on and delivered. Now, our commitment as a government stretches across a number of areas of potential reform. Firstly, because it tends to get a fair run at the present in relation to funding, federal funding for school systems around Australia, if the Turnbull Government is re-elected, will continue to grow from around $16 billion this year to more than $20 billion in 2020. So, the truth is, despite what some of the commentary has said, whoever wins this election there will be more funding going in to our school system. Now, I don’t pretend that there are not differences in those funding equations, but I just want to make sure that it is clear and well understood that funding will grow. Our commitment is to make sure that funding is distributed according to need, that we actually do deliver greater resources to those who need it most to help their adjustment, greater resources to those from low socio-economic backgrounds, students with a disability, indigenous students, small rural, regional schools, those types of loading factors that are well appreciated and understood across the system. So, funding will grow.
Our commitment is to make sure that we do address some of the challenges in the basics, that we face up to some of those declining performances in terms of reading, writing and maths and sciences, that we do ensure that we actually deliver, across the schooling system, minimum standards of achievement in literacy and numeracy from school leavers. Now, those things wont be easy to do, we have to set them down as identifiable, clear targets. We want to make sure that at the very foundation stone of learning, the capability of students to read, we address the fact that around 200,000 Australian students are estimated to not, in terms of their reading skills, be at a satisfactory level to participate in the other areas of learning in their school environment. So, early identification of those students and then early intervention is, of course, critical to then helping them to learn and succeed thereafter.
Equally, basics on one side then of course a change in global environment and STEM on the other. Across our National Innovation and Science Agenda, we’ve released around 14, delivering around 14 different measures to try to lift STEM engagement and involvement from the training available to teachers through the support we’re giving the University of Adelaide to run a MOOC that is available right across the country to skill up, in terms of technology training and involvement, through to greater early years support, right down in to our pre-schools for students to be able to access STEM related apps and programmes that can help them to learn and inspire their interest through, of course, to lifting the level of ambition in terms of those going on to university and their study of maths and science. We equally want to make sure that we fix and address the way in which NAPLAN works so that it provides, and transparency and accountability measures provide, richer data and information to schools, to teachers in faster time so that teachers can actually make greater use of that information and see the benefit of it and actually ensure that it does deliver changes, in terms of the treatment of individual students and their support within the classroom. We want to back the continued research and advancement of teaching programmes and information that can enable us to ensure focus on student progression, not just about benchmarking students to an average, but individual progression to ensure a years worth of learning for a years worth of teaching whatever the individual capabilities of those students and of course related to that is about supporting continued improvements in teacher quality, especially in terms of initial teacher education and the types of things we can do to lift the work within our universities to ensure standards of future graduates are high and do actually give people confidence in relation to where our education and school system is going.
Too often, as I said before, it strikes me that the types of debates we seem to have around education policy are pitched as two extremes or two polar opposites. That it is a debate about how we fund one sector versus another, about whether we teach basics to children or whether we teach them STEM or coding or the like, about whether we apply direct instruction type pedagogies or whether it is about experience based learning. The truth, of course, is that all of those issues probably set [indistinct], that it probably depends on the student, depends on the school, depends on the environment and that we need to back the autonomy of principals, teachers, school communities to make the right decisions for their students to get the balance between all of those areas right. We need to follow evidence, not all evidence is equal of course. Some comes with prejudices of those who have written it or commissioned it, but we need to follow long term evidence about what gets the best possible outcomes for our students. We need to skill our teachers, as I said before, and we need to empower and engage parents. I often say that if I had a magic wand, that as Education Minister If I could wave over one aspect of the education system, it wouldn’t be about our school teachers, it would be about the home environment and the engagement of parents and families in learning because that, of course, is the foundation for the learning environment. Teachers are the most important in-school factor, but parents are the greatest influence of ambition and commitment to learning in terms of a child’s life.
So, how we ensure all of that comes together is central. What parents usually tell me is, of course, that they want both a great education for their children and the confidence that there will be jobs for them in the future. Those two things come together in environments like this because what you’re doing is skilling students to succeed in the world after school. That success is, in part, about getting a job as well as leading a rich and successful life in all other areas and that is, of course, what we hope to achieve through all of our plans. Today, our gathering is meant to be an engaging session, so I’m not going to keep my remarks going on, but rather, take your questions today, but thank you very much for the commitment you’ve all shown by attending this session, by attending this conference and by engaging in this discussion about reform, what it means and how it can best achieve results for our students in the future. Thank you.
QUESTION: The question I want to ask, I just want to contextualise if you don’t mind indulging me for just a moment. I was really encouraged to see you talk about the wellness and the healthiness of our education system in Australia and the trajectory we’re on. We did have a lot of conversations yesterday about the validity of the PISA data and how because of the way a lot of other OEDC countries utilise the test, for example, some streaming schools [indistinct] not letting rural and regional students take the test, the difficulties that arise when you translate the test in to different cultures and that the ability to actually make valid and reliable comparisons is compromised by a lot of those factors and they need to be considered and to seek extra data to justify that. So, one of the questions we had yesterday which wasn’t fully explored was in Australia we have a standard reference test and the HSC that is very reliable at comparing from one year to the next and to see how we’re progressing in improving the quality of outcomes for our students and the data there would suggest that we’re not doing so badly, that we’re not going backwards, that we’re probably actually going forwards and because the decisions that then get made based on how we’re going sometimes we may miss seeing some of the really, really great things that are happening and grab hold of those and actually focus in on what’s working really well and grow that and if we don’t look down in to it and drill down in to it more deeply, one of the things I think the federal government can do to assist this powerfully, there has been obviously a very strong movement to try and nationalise a curriculum, but we haven’t yet had a federal approach to how we look at the professional learning and development and standards of teachers, it is still very state based and very differently operated. So if a teacher moves, yesterday we heard of a teacher moving from the Northern Territory to NSW who couldn’t just transfer and start teaching, they had to start again and it was a completely different process and it is not helping to create outcomes so, is the federal government open to or looking at that as perhaps the next roadblock to smash down to get a better national system for supporting teacher growth?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks John. I’ll try quickly to address the diversity of the issues you’ve raised. Firstly, no single data source should be seen as the be all and end all of information up on which you guide decisions. So, PISA is useful but no doubt imperfect, NAPLAN is useful, but no doubt imperfect. The same can be said across any other different measure that is applied. So, it is about of course, reading the collective nature of those data sources to then help to drive and inform decision making and particularly decision making that is based on evidence. Now, I’m very passionate about making sure that we are driven by the best available information and data, but also that we’re not driven to the extent of collecting data or looking at data for the sake of it. So right now, as many of you may know and some of you may have made a submission to, the productivity commission has asked to take a look at the type of data sources we have in terms of education, assessment and reform in Australia, to consider their appropriateness, to consider they place on schools and to look at how they can actually be improved to make sure we’re doing and collecting the things that are useful and doing so in the most efficient way possible, that takes the least amount of time for teachers and principals to walk away from their core activities. As you would also know, I have recently been appointed a new Federal Secretary in the Department of Education who hailed from NSW and one of the things that attracted me most about Michelle and her background is that her PhD is in data and those types of assessment processes that can help to give you a system wide look at things. Now again, we have to be conscious that each school is different, each school is different just as each student is different. So, we can never pretend that aggregate national figures give us the correct answer, but I do think that actually making sure that all of our policy approaches are driven by good information is critical and the real challenge I think in the system is how we establish effective feedback loops so that things that are working are working in one school are identified as working successfully in that school and that we can make sure that the information about that is picked up and shared so that similar schools can adopt those types of measures, that innovation needs to be encouraged in a school environment, but critically it also needs to be able to be identified, adapted and replicated across other environments where it is working well.
In terms of the final part of your question, I guess professional standards and professional development. We outlined in our policies that we have released as a government are a very strong commitment to wanting to see the Australia professional standards for teachers adopted as they have been in some systems, including the NSW government system, as a benchmark for reward, as a benchmark for pay. Now, it has been misrepresented by some as being performance pay, of course, it is not performance pay in terms of the classic concept of paying teachers against a NAPLAN score or some other measure of performance, it’s about saying that teachers who go to the effort of submitting the work to be recognised as being highly accomplished teachers or lead teachers ought to be rewarded for that. We ought to be encouraging those types of professional development activities recognising teachers when they have gone through it, rewarding them for it so that the career path is about more than time served in terms of reward for effort and that we can try to then keep our best teachers in the system, in our schools and ideally, start to report on how many of those highly accomplished or lead teachers we have in different schools to put the incentives in place to get more in to our most disadvantaged schools where we know that quality teaching can make the biggest difference to outcomes. The same can be applied in terms of principals, an assessment against the professional standards for principals and certification processes there, these are of course not standards dreamt up by me or bureaucrats in Canberra, but have been developed largely by the profession and experts through AITSL and can actually set a good baseline of those types of professional development activities and hopefully for the lifting of the status of the profession [indistinct].
QUESTION: You talk about reform, how do you see the role of principals and what’s the government’s suggestions of including principals in supporting the education strategy you’ve just been talking about?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Principals are in one of, if not perhaps, the most important positions for their place in terms of reform. Principals need to be the chief leader within a school environment of driving teachers in their application of any change in policy, programme or direction that is appropriate and a good fit for those schools but yes, from my perspective, principals also need to be apart of feeding up the agenda to education bureaucrats and ultimately to politicians about the types of policy measures that we apply. My commitment is absolutely to try to be as consultative as possible in terms of the approach that I take and the federal government takes [indistinct] and I’ve met with primary principals as I have other principle bodies and most other representative bodies across the sector and I want to continue that and if need be or if it would be welcomed, have a look at how we can formalise some of those consultation processes to make sure that your feedback input is clearly there when we come together as an education council with the state and territory ministers to discuss the types of reforms that float through from those decision making processes. It is an interesting role to be a Federal Minister, I don’t run any schools and I don’t employ any teachers or principals, but we have a leadership role to play, particularly in terms of working with the states and territories and I would warmly welcome perhaps a richer level of input in to our decision making processes from those principals for when we go to talk to the states and territories and particularly through education council process.
QUESTION: You suggested in you Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes paper that there would be significant requirements to the states and territories to comply with certain requirements to be able to draw down that funding and I’d hate to think in the future, that will be contingent on the extra funding that is going to come to support these programmes. So to that end, how are you going to establish that consensus of opinion between the states and territories to reach an agreement and will that same veracity of agreement apply to all sectors of education across Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So bear in mind to some extent the classic tension that can exist as federal government in this space. Do we hand over record sums of money, as is currently flowing in to the system, no strings attached and in sense then hope that just by talking about things we can exercise role of providing some leadership in school reform? Or, do we say well, we’re actually a partner in a system, not just a cheque writer, but a partner who expects certain things to occur as a result of the record levels of funding that we provide. Now, I’m a reasonable person, I’m not going to go to the states and territories and say well, we’ve listed in a policy paper a range of areas we think require reform and you must comply to the letter with every one of these or no funding will flow, that’s not a position I’ll take. I will engage in a collaborative way with principals, teachers, parent bodies and the states and territories and the non-government sectors to work through the priorities we’ve identified, see how they can best be implemented and make that part of an overall arrangement. So from my perspective, it is about cooperative working with the states and territories, not just holding a gun at the head, but I would hope and trust that the states and territories, if the measures we’ve put forward, which I think are reasonable and founded on evidence, are reasonable and they are founded on evidence and we can get a good cooperative approach with the other stakeholders as to how they should be applied. With that, I would hope the states and territories will work with us to do so and recognise that the Commonwealth’s growing contribution to school resourcing does equally warrant the Commonwealth having a say to some extent in how that resourcing is utilised.
QUESTION: I was very excited when the Australian curriculum came about; I think it has been overdue. However, I have concerns when you’ve got three of the biggest states NSW, Victoria and WA actually doing their own thing, in other words, they haven’t actually taken the Australian curriculum in its native form, they’ve actually taken it in to their own syllabuses which really does get away from what the Australian curriculum was set out to do in the first place and my other concern is do we really have a national curriculum when we don’t actually have national assessment? I’m not talking about NAPLAN, but we have obviously HSC and others so, where are we heading in terms of this national curriculum?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well that’s a great question and certainly we’ve discussed in my office and with my department around the final couple of years that fall outside of the national curriculum and what the priorities and what direction there should be, just as we obviously look to see [indistinct] are implementing the national curriculum and this, of course, is but year one of implementation. So, it is early days in terms of implementation. I don’t want to strangle systems of their ability to innovate and their ability to focus on their priorities, but I do think that parents generally like the idea of a national curriculum and the benchmarks it provides, the affordability it provides, that teachers generally do, although I note that we don’t of course have national registration processes for teachers, so there are different issues that they face in terms of affordability and skills but at least affordability of the national curriculum is something that they can take as something that will better enable them to shift around the nation. I think we have to at least give the current reforms some time to see how they’ve been applied, what’s working and not working before we necessarily say well, we need to try to encourage those states taking different approaches to become more reliant or we need to extend it in some way in to years 11 or 12, but I think certainly if I were one of the smaller states, and of course I hail from one of the smaller states, I might look at the resources it takes to run your own HSC type process and to build the curriculum at that highest level of attainment in the school system and think well, could we get more academically robust, more evidence based results if we collaborated a bit more with some of the other states of Australia rather than each working to our own independent styles. So, I’m open to encouraging the discussions there between the states about where we might expect to improve up on outcomes and, of course, one of the things about year 12 and year 12 certificates around the country is that it is that final point that drives much of what happens beforehand. That is of course what students lead up to in many ways and that’s what schools are preparing students for, particularly in their secondary years. So, having a national curriculum that ends in year 10, but then different approaches that apply for years 11 and 12 does in some ways seem counterintuitive, It might have worked almost better to have a common approach in year 12 and allow the flexibility systems to work out how they best get to that common end point of ambition, but they’re discussions that I’m very open to having, but I’m also very conscious that we’ve only just reached a certain point in the national curriculum’s role out and it would probably be a little overly ambitious to start trying to leap for the next point before we’ve got this one bedded down.