Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
When I read that Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham (@birmo) would be speaking at Education Nation, I was intrigued as to firstly, whether he would actually attend given that there is an ongoing election campaign at the moment, and secondly, what he would actually say. When he arrived, you would not know that he was five weeks into an election campaign, and looked fresh and energetic. Minister Birmingham spoke for approximately twenty minutes and then took questions from the floor for about ten minutes before leaving. Overall, I think he did well to avoid any overt political campaign rhetoric, other than one small comment, which was not in itself particularly inflammatory or accusing of the Opposition, before moving on. He also made some very sensible and thought-provoking comments. I have included here the full recording of his address, with the only editing being the introduction from myself, and a slight adjusting of the audio levels to make them more consistent throughout.
Minister Birmingham began by relating a personal anecdote involving his daughter, Matilda, showing the persistence and enthusiasm of five-year-olds, before relating that he was glad to hear of the discussions that were taking place within Education Nation. He added that as a father, he was confident that he could provide the best for his daughter, but that as the Federal Minister for Education and Training, that his focus to be on ensuring the best for all students across the country.
He then said something which I get the impression was rather unexpected, and which I found quite heartening.
“We have a good [education] system and a lot to be proud of. We need to celebrate our successes more than we do. In general, we are above OECD averages [on a range of measures] and our system is underpinned by a good basic foundation.”
This was a refreshing message to hear, and to be realistic, it should not have been entirely unexpected; he is in the midst of an election campaign and speaking to a room full of educators, it was unlikely he would give a negative message about education. The measures that he indicated we are above the OECD averages included education funding, literacy, and numeracy results, however, he did acknowledge that there is always room for improvement
Minister Birmingham spoke about the long tail that we have and the falling results of students at the top end of the academic scale and that the challenges of education are largely well-known and understood, which does not make resolving them any easier. Our PISA results, Minister Birmingham commented, have dropped, in both real and relative terms and while they are not the be all, they are an important indicator that does need to be monitored.
We were then reminded that ten years ago, the iPhone and Netflix did not exist and that Facebook was in its infancy at one year old. We do not know, he continued, what the world will look like in ten years and what the world will look like for our students in the future when they graduate, however, we do know that they will require a richness in varied skills and learning, which sounds rather similar to the now famous Alvin Toffler quote shown below.
Minister Birmingham said he welcomes the discussions taking place at Education Nation and that his commitment is to make sure that Australia is driven by evidence that is credible and reliable and that appropriately reflects what can best improve student learning outcomes. This, he continued, will be supported by two key goals. The first will be to continue delivering the basics on which all learning now and in the future is based upon, though he didn’t elucidate further as to what, exactly, that meant. The second is to prepare students for the dynamic world they will be entering into as young adults. Minister Birmingham added an additional thought to this. Typically, he told us, the two goals are considered in terms of either/or, however, they should be considered as complimentary goals.
It was here that we heard a modicum of election rhetoric, Minister Birmingham reminded the audience how much funding the Turnbull Government would commit to education, however, and I have respect for this, he also noted that while there were differences between the funding both parties had committed to, under either party, there would be an ongoing increase to education funding. Irrespective of your political stance, it would have been easy for him to make negative comments about the other side, yet he actually paid them a modicum of respect. A politically astute and rather sensible choice.
He continued past this, commenting that funding would continue to be distributed on a needs basis and that they would be working to address the challenges that education faces, specifically reading, writing and science, working to set minimum standards of achievement. This confused me a little, as I thought we already had minimum standards, as laid out as part of NAPLAN, if nowhere else. He spoke about the need to identify clear targets and address reading levels at a young age, to identify and learning difficulties in our children earlier in life.
There will be fourteen measures put in place to lift STEM rates, including additional training and support for teachers, early years support, and the lifting of ambition for graduating students to encourage more to enter into STEM-based Undergraduate programs, though there was no mention of specific steps to ensure these occur.
His next point, the need to address and fix NAPLAN and the way it is implemented in order to foster richer data that is more quickly and easily accessible to teachers in order to make it useful and usable, was one which I believe surprised a few. NAPLAN, from what I have heard this election campaign, has had little attention in this vein, so it will be interesting to find out more about what that looks like if the Turnbull government are re-elected.
We need to ensure, Minister Birmingham told the audience, that students receive one year of learning for one year of teaching and one way that this will be attained will be an improvement in the quality of initial teacher education (ITE). This is an area that does need to be addressed, as there are significant skills that teachers need that were not included in my own ITE, which I have written about in the past.and which I suspect are not an isolated issue.
Debates surround educational policy are typically painted as binary arguments; we hear about public versus private education, or about STEM and coding versus traditional subjects, or about direct instruction versus experiential-based pedagogical practices. Minister Birmingham said that these all sit in a grey zone and that we should, in fact, be looking to give autonomy to our teachers, our schools, and our students to make contextualised and evidence-based decisions for the benefit of our students’ learning outcomes. Which of course brought to the fore the point that not all evidence is equal and that we need to be aware of the prejudices inherent in research, whether from the researcher or the commissioner of the research.
Minister Birmingham closed with an idea that I suspect gained him respect throughout the room. He spoke about what he would do, what issue he would resolve; if he could wave a magic wand and fix any single issue or challenge that faces education. It would not, he said, be within schools that he would look. It would, in fact, be in the home of students, to improve the home lives of students where improvement is needed. Minister Birmingham said that whilst teachers provide the greatest influence on a student’s learning outcomes within a school, outside of the school, it is the home life which provides the biggest influence.
The session was opened up at this point to questions from the floor, which I will not cover in this article but will leave for you to listen to in the audio above.
I thought Minister Birmingham’s comments regarding a desire to address and improve the home life of students interesting. I have heard colleagues from both government and non-government, and from early childhood, primary and secondary, all make remarks about students whose home lives negatively impact their learning outcomes.
Thank you, as always, for reading this far, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Minister Birmingham’s address.
If you have missed any articles in the Education Nation Series, you can find the full list of articles here.