AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Committing to an education reform agenda – from the high chair to higher education
Q. HOW CAN WE IMPROVE NUMERACY AND LITERACY IN OUR PRIMARY AND HIGH SCHOOLS?
We’ve seen from recent international and local tests and rankings that Australia continues to benefit from an excellent education system, but that there are signs of plateauing and, in some cases, decline.
What that shows is that while strong levels of investment in schools are important – and we have that – it’s more important to ensure that funding is being distributed according to need and that it is being used to back initiatives proven to boost student results.
We know that we need to get ‘back to basics’ when it comes to how we boost the literacy and numeracy of Australian students.
I hear regular reports from teachers and principals that too many teaching styles and methods are creeping into classrooms that don’t have the sort of proper, rigorous evidence to back them that we would expect.
Since our review of the Australian Curriculum only a couple of years ago, all States and Territories have agreed to de-clutter and re-focus what is being taught in our classrooms. The new Curriculum has strengthened the emphasis on phonics in reading and literacy, and targets literacy and numeracy skills across the eight key learning areas of English, Mathematics, Science, Health and Physical Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, the Arts, Technologies and Languages.
For new teachers coming into the school system, we’ve also rolled out a test to ensure they can only be registered to work in classrooms when they meet standards that show they have literacy and numeracy skills that put them in the top 30 per cent of Australia’s adult population. Most Australians expect that only teachers with strong literacy and numeracy skills should be allowed into our schools.
Last year we also announced a reform platform – Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes – that outlined more than a dozen initiatives we want to tie our record and growing levels of schools funding to.
I want to see things like minimum proportions of specialist literacy and numeracy teachers in schools, the use of explicit literacy and numeracy instruction methods, early screening of Year 1s with a phonics and numeracy check so teachers can identify and stop students falling behind, and minimum literacy and numeracy standards for school leavers.
There is a large body of research and evidence to show these common-sense initiatives are proven to boost student outcomes.
If we look beyond the headlines and spin of self-interest, many evidence-based reforms over the past 20 years have been suggested and then ignored.
I want to assure parents that not only will the Turnbull Government maintain record but affordable levels of school funding, growing from $16 billion last year to more than $20 billion in 2020, but we more importantly will focus on ensuring delivery of reforms that make a difference to every child and teacher in every classroom.
Unfortunately many of these reforms have been lost and ignored amidst all the debate about how much money is being spent, instead of focussing on how to most effectively use that money.
Q. WHAT IMPROVEMENTS TO NAPLAN CAN WE EXPECT THIS COMING YEAR?
NAPLAN allows policymakers and education researchers to get a national snapshot of how our students are progressing at school. It’s only one part of what we use to inform policy and it has never been meant to replace the opinions and assessments of classroom teachers.
This year the body that runs NAPLAN, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is working to ensure
“THERE IS A LARGE BODY OF RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE TO SHOW THESE COMMON-SENSE INITIATIVES ARE PROVEN TO BOOST STUDENT OUTCOMES. “
the tests are responsive to the needs of our schools and that they also give us an even more accurate picture of how our students are going.
In 2017, NAPLAN tests will be conducted online for the first time in up to 10 per cent of Australian schools. The move to NAPLAN online will mean faster turnaround of student results to schools, teachers and parents. It will give teachers better information, earlier, and can help them better design their teaching to suit the individual needs of their students.
Australian parents also want to know more than if their child is just meeting the bare minimum standards, they want to know if they are confidant, competent and skilled in the basics of their literacy and numeracy. That’s why this year we’re going to work with ACARA and State and Territory governments to develop proficiency standards for NAPLAN.
New proficiency standards will give parents, schools and teachers better information about student performance: where they are currently placed, where they should be and where we expect them to be against that year level, not just the minimum standard which NAPLAN currently measures.
The Turnbull Government will continue to do what we can to deliver greater transparency and accuracy to provide parents and families with the information they need to truly understand how their children are performing at school.
Q. YOU HAVE RECENTLY SAID THAT THE CURRENT EARLY EDUCATION AND CARE SYSTEM IS BROKEN AND NEEDS REFORM.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, AND HOW IS THE GOVERNMENT GOING TO TACKLE RISING CHILD CARE COSTS?
In 2015 the Productivity Commission found that the current child care system needed significant change to overcome systemic and specific failings.
But as a parent who has used child care services and in my many conversations with families around the country, I don’t need a report to tell me what is self-evident – the current system is inflexible, inaccessible and unaffordable for too many people.
We’ve put in the time to consult with parents, families and child care providers and listened to input from the Productivity Commission and two Senate inquiries to lay out a reform package to address issues with the early childhood education and care system. We’ll make it more affordable and accessible for those who need it most.
Some of the most welcoming features of the reforms for families will be the abolition of the $7500 yearly rebate cap many people currently hit only partway through the financial year, our hourly fee cap to put downward pressure on incessant fee increases, streamlining the messy current system into one payment for families and our increased subsidy rates targeted at families working the most and earning the least.
Overall, official data shows that around one million families will benefit from the Turnbull Government’s reforms.
There is also a safety net to ensure the most vulnerable children get a strong start in life by supporting services for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds or children with additional needs such as disability, we’ll be able to pay subsidies to many Indigenous families who have been left out of the current system, and we’ll be able to give centres more flexibility in their opening hours to better suit the families they serve.
In the meantime, we’ve already been implementing the elements of our reforms that can be progressed without legislation, such as an additional 25 per cent in funding to help to remove barriers so early childhood and child care services can include children with additional needs, the integration of child care, maternal and child health, and family support services in a number of Indigenous communities experiencing disadvantage, and an indexation of the $7500 rebate cap from this year.
Q. HOW WILL THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT MAKE STATES AND TERRITORIES ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE CHANGES OUTLINED IN THE QUALITY SCHOOLS AND QUALITY OUTCOMES POLICY?
We’ve been clear that future funding will be tied to reforms we’ve outlined that will improve school performance and the quality of student outcomes.
We will also deliver a new funding deal with States that ensures our significant and growing investment delivers improved outcomes for students.
The current schools funding arrangements are not what were envisaged by the ‘Gonski’ report – indeed, one of the report’s authors, Dr Ken Boston, labelled the 27 deals Bill Shorten stitched up ahead of the 2013 election as a “corruption” of needs-based funding. Those “corrupted” current arrangements Bill Shorten authored means a disadvantaged student in a school in one state receives up to $1500 less federal funding per year than the exact same student would receive in other states in the exact same circumstances. We will replace those deals with a fair, transparent and needs-based model for allocating our record levels of funding.
Q. HOW IMPORTANT IS TEACHING OUR CHILDREN ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM AND THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS IN SCHOOLS?
We all know that it’s crucial our children can grow up to be active and informed citizens and we support that development with a robust curriculum, national assessment and specific initiatives designed to support civics and citizenship education.
Specific initiatives include the Parliament and Civics Education Rebate (PACER) program, which last year welcomed the one millionth student to visit Canberra since it commenced in July 2006, the National Schools Constitutional Convention, and various national history competitions.
I encourage all schools to reach out to their Members of Parliament to help with civics education via engagement directly with relevant classes. Hearing from and asking questions of direct participants in the democratic process can complement the national curriculum and help to make it more relevant for students.
Q. HOW WILL THE CHANGE FROM VET-FEE TO THE NEW VET STUDENT LOANS SYSTEM IMPROVE VOCATIONAL TRAINING?
At the start of this year we replaced Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP scheme with the new VET Student Loans program – a program that ensures our support for students is more closely linked to quality training outcomes and employment outcomes, and is only going to training providers that students can trust.
Only now with historical data can we see the true damage Labor’s changes to VET FEE-HELP did when they opened the scheme up to more courses and providers without proper checks and balances in place.
The scheme blew out from costing $325 million in 2012 to $1.8 billion in 2014 and $2.9 billion in 2015, student numbers jumped by almost 400 per cent, fees more than doubled and loans increased by 792 per cent.
There were clear failures of policy design and administration for VET FEE-HELP under Labor, and when I became the Assistant Minister in December of 2014 we started to receive briefings about the problems and that’s why we took a range of actions to address the situation.
While the 20 measures the Coalition put in place over 2015 and 2016 stemmed some of the losses in VET FEE-HELP, with total 2016 loans projected to be around 45 per cent lower than in 2015, it was clear that a completely new program was essential to weed out the rorters and restore credibility to VET.
Ultimately the changes we’ve made will help rebuild the reputation of Australia’s valued vocational education and training sector. Students and taxpayers can be assured there are via tougher barriers to entry to VET Student Loans for providers, properly considered loan caps on courses, stronger course eligibility criteria that aligns with industry needs, mandatory student engagement measures, a prohibition on the use of brokers to recruit students and a stronger focus on students successfully completing courses.
Q. WHAT OTHER EDUCATION INITIATIVES ARE IN THE PIPELINE?
We’re extending the popular Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) program to support language learning from a child’s early years to their later schooling years.
ELLA aims to make language learning engaging for children in preschool through play-based apps, helping to ignite a love of languages early and prepare them for how internationally-connected Australia’s workplaces are becoming.
We also know that the jobs of the future will require a high level of technological literacy and it is essential to equip our school students with a strong foundation of literacy, numeracy and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.
That is why the Turnbull Government has provided over $64 million in initiatives to improve the teaching and learning of STEM in early learning and schools under the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
We will drive a renewed focus on tackling the digital divide by ensuring students most at risk of falling behind are given opportunities to participate.
Under the National Innovation and Science Agenda’s Inspiring all Australians in digital literacy and STEM measure, a variety of initiatives will be introduced to increase the participation of all students and the wider community in STEM and to improve their digital literacy.
In June 2016, the Australian Government committed $3 million to a new and contemporary National Career Education Strategy to ensure students develop 21st century skills and are ‘work ready’ and prepared for life beyond school, including the jobs of today and the future.
The strategy is also closely aligned with work already underway to develop, assess and track students’ general capabilities as described in the Australian Curriculum so that teachers, parents, education and policy makers have concrete data on student achievement and progress.
All images: Department of Education.