As Australia’s youngest students in most states and territories turn up to their school classrooms for the first time this week, many parents and families will be waving goodbye at the school gate knowing that in three significant reports at the end of 2016 our education performance had been shown to at best be plateauing and at worst declining.
This performance in the recent national and international reports raises red flags not just for these families but importantly for policy-makers. These results require action now.
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 focusing on how to most effectively use that money.
Since Ken Rowe’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, we’ve had evidence to show that one part of the solution to declining results is the early identification of students struggling with reading and writing. Of concern, a consistent finding of the three reports from last year showed that the gap between our brightest and struggling students continues to widen.
Enough is enough. That’s why the Turnbull Government is delivering that early identification. We’re working with a panel of academic, health and education experts to establish a ‘literacy and numeracy check’ – a light-touch assessment for Year One students that will gauge, among other things, their ability to pronounce and ‘decode’ words.
Importantly, this literacy and numeracy check is deliberately targeted at identifying those students who are starting school behind the pack, so teachers can intervene and give them more specialised attention.
Those same test results highlight the urgent need to stop so many children drift unsuccessfully through school, and so this check, including a focus on phonics, will be one of the first of our reforms ready to hit classrooms.
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We must stop so many children falling through the cracks.
There are already people demanding more training for teachers and remedial programs for students. But there are plenty of examples of schools and hardworking teachers using literacy basics such as phonics to help their students struggling with reading.
Bentleigh West Primary School in Victoria for example, has rolled out their own version of the UK’s ‘phonics check’ and combined with a teacher cohort that has learned how to better teach literacy, has seen significant improvements in the literacy skills of their students.
For those people who claim that testing in schools doesn’t help lift results - a phonics check not only clearly identifies struggling students, but it also ensures our teachers are armed with the most effective pedagogy to then help those students. This means we can catch them early and prevent them falling further and further behind.
Bentleigh West’s example proves that with strong school leadership, the right testing tools and improved teaching support and skills, we can make a difference to students with a back to basics approach that does more than continuing the status quo and pretending that just throwing more money at the problem will fix it.
Ken Rowe’s report in 2005 and the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group in 2015 pointed out that we need to do more to support our current teachers and teaching graduates in all aspects of proper phonics and literacy pedagogy. That’s something I take very seriously and I have asked this group of principals, speech specialists, academics and researchers to specifically look into the way we teach phonics, reading and numeracy in Australia.
We have already made changes but there is more that can be done. That’s why since we came to Government in 2013 we’ve been delivering reforms to teacher education including tougher standards for teaching courses to be accredited, implementing a test of the literacy and numeracy skills of new teachers to ensure they’re in the top 30 per cent of the population and ensuring closer relationships between training providers and schools.
The Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy we outlined last year builds on those reforms and includes measures to ensure we have higher proportions of specialist literacy and numeracy teachers, we raise the minimum standards expected of school leavers and that teacher salary progression is linked to the Australian Institute of Teaching and Learning’s Professional Standards for Teachers, rather than just length of service.
We're focused on quality measures that evidence shows boost student outcomes, make a difference in the classrooms and how we best support our hardworking teachers.
We know that a strong level of funding is necessary and must be targeted at the students who need the most support, but what’s more important is how you use the record levels of funding we are delivering to make a positive difference to our school education system.
Simon Birmingham is from a family of teachers, he is the father of two young girls in preschool and primary school and he is the Federal Minister for Education and Training.