Radio Interview with Patricia Karvelas – RN Breakfast – Wednesday 23 August 2023

SUBJECTS: NAPLAN 2023 Results; Sexual assault and harassment in universities; The Voice 

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The steady decline in educational standards amongst Australian students has been a growing concern for policymakers, teachers and parents alike. But even so, today’s NAPLAN results showing one-third of Australian school students not meeting new minimum standards are alarming. Australia’s education sector from the classroom to the lecture theatre is in the midst of a significant shake-up. 

Jason Clare is the minister for education leading this reform, and he’s our guest this morning. Minister, welcome back to RN Breakfast. 


KARVELAS: One in three students are failing literacy and numeracy tests. Are you shocked by that number? 

CLARE: I’ve said a number of times we need serious reform in education. This report makes that blisteringly clear. In that final category, the fourth category, where we’ve identified one in 10 children who are below what we used to call the minimum standard, but not just that, one in three Indigenous children are in that category; one in three children from poor families or from the bush are in that category. And it’s worse than that, Patricia, because we also know that if you’re below the minimum standard when you’re in third grade you’re more than likely to still be below the minimum standard by the time you’re in Year 9. Only one in five children get out of that category. As a result, many of them don’t finish high school, and that’s at a time where most of the jobs being created in the economy require you to finish high school and then go on to TAFE or university. This is serious and requires serious reform. 

KARVELAS: According to the union, public schools educate most of the students with higher needs, and yet get only 1.3 per cent – are funded, rather, to the schooling resource standard. Is that good enough? 

CLARE: What they’re saying is right there. Most disadvantaged children go to public schools. That’s where it’s most acute, most widespread. These are the sort of schools I went to when I was a child. At the moment, non-government schools are funded by and large above the level that David Gonski set and they’re on a path to go down to that level by the end of the decade. But public schools aren’t. Apart from the ACT, no public school anywhere across the country is on track to be at 100 per cent of that level over the course of the next 10 years. They’re on track to get to about 95 per cent of that. We need to fix that. 

We said in Opposition, and I’ve repeated it in Government that we need to work with the States and Territories to make sure every school is on track for full and fair funding, that we fix that funding gap, but not just that. That’s not good enough on its own. We need to fix this education gap. We need to make sure that we’re tying the funding that we agree to next year with States and Territories to the sort of things that are going to help a disadvantaged child in a school like the one I went to who’s falling behind – and these results identify those children – to catch up in primary school, to keep up in high school and then to finish high school. 

KARVELAS: So, after this report which gives very clear evidence of failure, what will you do in your next funding agreement to ensure that the states are obliged to address this? 

CLARE: A couple of things we’re already doing, Patricia. We’re already making big changes to teacher training. I announced that a couple of weeks ago. You had Professor Mark Scott, on a couple of weeks ago. They’re important reforms. Teachers tell us by and large that when they start teaching, they don’t feel ready to teach children how to read or do maths or they don’t feel like they’ve got the necessary skills to manage a disruptive classroom. So, there’s big reform we need to make right at the start to teacher training. 

There are changes we’ve made to NAPLAN, that you now see the evidence of today, to better identify the children that need additional support. The next step is to provide those children with additional support. We’ve appointed Dr Lisa O’Brien, who is the former CEO of The Smith Family, along with a panel of experts to provide us with advice on what we should tie funding to in the next agreement where they’re actually going to make a difference in these children’s lives, that are going to help them to catch up where we’ve identified that they’re falling behind. 

An example of that is catch-up tutoring that you see rolling out in trials in Victoria and New South Wales where, for example, if a child’s falling behind in a classroom full of 30 students, you take them out of the classroom – one teacher, a handful of students. The evidence shows that over the course of 18 weeks they can learn as much as they would otherwise learn in a year. 

KARVELAS: So, yes, you’re right; that’s being trialled. And so, what will you do to dramatically expand that so that it’s happening all over the country to try and catch these students up? 

CLARE: I said at the Press Club a couple of weeks ago, what would happen if we industrialised that, if we did that in every school, in particular, in the most disadvantaged schools? What sort of impact would that have? I see it in my own community in Western Sydney. I’ve seen it in Alice Springs as well. Part of what Lisa’s work is about is, what should we be investing money in and part of the work I’ve got to do with State Education Ministers and Territory Education Ministers next year is making sure that in the funding we agree to to make sure that every school is properly funded, that we tie that funding in the agreements we strike to the sort of things that we know are going to work. And it strikes me that one of those things is catch-up tutoring. 

KARVELAS: And how quickly can you roll out at that industrial level that you talk about, that catch-up tutoring? Because these results, there’s already a lag with these results. That means these students, a third of them, are currently right now going to school today languishing. They can’t afford to wait. 

CLARE: Well, it depends on the agreements we strike next year. But you’re right, we can’t afford to wait. And that’s why this work is so important. 

KARVELAS: So, there is a sense of urgency. Should this be brought forward? 

CLARE: We’re already rolling out the teacher training reforms. That’s happening right now. We’ve made the changes to NAPLAN to better identify these children that need help. Now we’ve got to provide that help. That’s what the work that Lisa O’Brien and the team are doing. This is our last, best chance to get this right. At the moment, public schools aren’t funded at the level they should be. Yes, we need to make sure that they are, but not just that. We need to make sure that we spend this money on the things that are going to work. I’m not interested in writing blank cheques; I’m interested in making sure we invest this money in the sort of things that are going to help children like the child I was in a disadvantaged school. These children are falling behind at higher levels than other children across the country, that we invest this money in the sort of things that are going to help them. Because that’s what they need. It’s what their families need. That’s what their communities need. That’s what our country is going to need in the years ahead. 

KARVELAS: In 2017 the Turnbull Government introduced commonwealth funding caps of 20 per cent for public schools. Is that cap something you will abolish to make up the shortfall? 

CLARE: That’s something we’ll look at as part of these negotiations with the States and Territories. As I said, we’re looking at this gap of 5 per cent. Over the course of the next decade or so, public schools are currently on track to only get to 95 per cent of what David Gonski said they should be at. 20 per cent of that is Commonwealth funding; 75 per cent of that is state funding. And we’ve made a commitment work with the States and Territories to fill that 5 per cent gap. So, depending on how those negotiations land next year, that may require changes to legislation in order to address that cap. 

KARVELAS: And is it your view that the case has now been made for changing that cap? 

CLARE: The case is clearly made that we need to fund our schools fully and fairly, public and non-government. But the case has also been made by this report today that we need to make sure that we link that funding to the sort of things that are going to help children who fall behind at school. That is my chief concern here. The evidence shows – not just the report today but the report on Monday – shows that only one in five children who fall behind in third grade have caught up by Year 9. Now, if you fall behind and you stay behind, you’re more likely to drop out. 

I’ll tell you what keeps me up at night: a report came out recently that showed that over the last six years, the number of children in public schools and the number of children from poor families finishing high school has dropped. Six years ago, in public schools it was 83 per cent of children finishing high school; last year it was 76 per cent. And as I said a moment ago, this is happening at a time where you’ve got to finish high school and then go on to TAFE and university, otherwise it’s going to be harder and harder to get a job and build a career and do everything in your life that you hope to do. And we’re seeing a drop in the number of children finishing high school. 

And the answer to that lies in what we do much, much earlier than that – in primary school and before that, which is why the work Dr O’Brien’s doing is important to make sure that future funding is linked to the things that will fix this. But it’s also why the work that Professor Brennan is doing with the Productivity Commission to build a truly universal early education system is critically important, and the work that I’ve asked Professor Mary O’Kane to do on our university system. Because you see the impact of this right through the education system. One in two young people in their 20s and 30s has a university degree today, but not where I grew up, not in poor families. It’s only 15 per cent. And if you’re an Indigenous young man today you’re more likely to go to jail than to university. And if we’re serious about wanting to fix this then it’s what we do in our schools and what we do in early education that matters. 

KARVELAS: Yeah, there’s great anxiety about where we’re going on this, Minister. I want to change the topic before I let you go. Experts are calling for a specialised taskforce on sexual assaults in universities. So far, you’ve announced a working group. Will you implement a taskforce to hold universities to account? 

CLARE: Yeah, it may be one of the things that comes out of this working group. Claudia Long, a fantastic ABC reporter, has been leading the work on this, and I thank her for it. I’ve been speaking to organisations like End Rape on Campus and Stop who have been advocating for this and been really affected by the point that they’ve made – that we’re just not doing enough in our universities to take action where sexual assault occurs, where sexual harassment occurs. 

Now, it occurs everywhere, in our homes, in our businesses, in our parliaments. But where it occurs, we’ve got to take action, and universities aren’t just places where people work or study; it’s places where people live. I’ve heard stories of people living in the same dormitory where the perpetrator is around the corner. That’s why the Accord led by Mary O’Kane said we need to take action on this. There’s a working group that I’ve set up with Patty Kinnersly the head of Our Watch, to help inform that. And I’ll get recommendations on what action we should take before the end of this year. 

KARVELAS: Minister, just before I let you go, the referendum date will be announced next Wednesday. There’s a statement that’s been released. You know, it’s quite clear that that will be – we don’t know the date because that’s when it will be announced, but are we now about to enter officially the referendum campaign, and what does that mean for the government’s attention? 

CLARE: The Government will stay focused on the things that matter for all Australians, the cost of living, the cost of these children falling behind at school and making sure that they catch up. We can do more than one thing at once, and over the course of the next few weeks we’ll make the case to the Australian people that here is a chance to change Australia for the better. To make history, to put our history in our constitution, to recognise the fact that Australia didn’t start when Captain Cook got here a bit over 200 years ago, and to make the point that – as I said a moment ago – if you’re a young Indigenous bloke today, you’re more likely to go to jail than to university. And by doing things differently we can change that. Patricia, decades of good intentions haven’t changed that. Billions of dollars have been invested. I think that tells us that if we’re serious about wanting things to change, we have to change not just what we do but change the way we do things. There’s everything to gain here and there’s nothing to lose. And it’s my hope, my faith, that the Australian people will see that and vote Yes when the referendum is held. 

KARVELAS: Minister, thanks so much for your time. 

CLARE: Good on you. Thanks, PK.