AN IN­TER­VIEW WITH SI­MON BIRM­ING­HAM

Com­mit­ting to an ed­u­ca­tion re­form agenda – from the high chair to higher ed­u­ca­tion

The Australian Education Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - CAMERON DRUM­MOND

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.

Im­age: Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

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