Radio Interview with Thomas Oriti – ABC News Radio – Wednesday 23 August 2023







THOMAS ORITI: Australia’s national standardised testing results are out today and show one in three students, they’re failing to meet expectations in basic literacy and numeracy. Under new more streamlined assessment criteria, the number of students in the poorest performing category, that is “needs additional support”, has roughly doubled to one in 10. About two-thirds of students rated as “strong or exceeding” literacy and numeracy expectations with another 23 per cent “still developing”. The results also show a disproportionately large number of Indigenous students and those from rural areas, in that category of “needs additional support”.

To discuss the results of this year’s test, we’re joined now by the Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare. Minister, good morning to you.


ORITI: Thanks for joining us. Could I just ask you first, because we keep hearing this line this morning, there were tougher tests this year, tougher testing requirements, tougher assessment. Why was it important this year to change that standard that students are expected to meet?

CLARE: NAPLAN is different this year than previous years. The test was brought forward from May to March. We’ve also put it online. And where in previous years students were assessed into 10 different categories, we’ve reduced that to four different categories. But, as you say, as part of this, we’ve raised the minimum standard that students are expected to meet. We’ve done that deliberately so that we can use NAPLAN to better identify the students who are falling behind and who need additional support. The obvious next step is to make sure we provide those students with that support.

ORITI: I don’t want to dwell on this too much but why change the time? What’s the point of changing it from March to May? Why would that lead to a huge difference?

CLARE: Well, it does make a big difference believe it or not. It means that, effectively, students are being assessed on what their learning was like the year before because students have only been at school for a couple of weeks by the time they sit that test in March. So, you’re assessing a different student, effectively, at a different point in time. This was a decision made by previous governments a couple of years ago, but it’s taken a while to put that in train, and it came into effect this year.

ORITI: A lot of attention this morning obviously on the doom and gloom of this, but I think it’s important to focus there are a lot of students doing very well as well, but we had the CEO of the Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, David de Carvalho, earlier this morning. He said because of that tougher criteria you’ve just told us about, there’s naturally going to be more children in that bottom category. This was expected. Would you agree with that?

CLARE: That’s right. That’s what we expected to happen. As I said, we did this deliberately. Thomas, we’ve got a good education system. But it can be a lot better, but it can be a lot fairer. The thing that worries me is that in that bottom category, as you say, one in 10 children below the minimum standard, but one in three Indigenous children are there, one in three children from poor families, one in three children from the bush. And more worryingly than that, is that if you’re in that bottom category, chances are you won’t get out of it.

There was a report released on Monday that indicated that only one in five children who are in the bottom category when they’re in third class are out of it by the time they’re in year nine. And the inevitable result of that is that children drop out and don’t finish high school, and we’re now seeing that happen as well. In the last six years, in public schools in particular, we’ve seen a drop in the number of students finishing high school and, as you know, as everyone listening to this knows, it’s more important to finish school today than it was in our day. It’s more important than ever before because most of the jobs being created in the economy require you to finish school and then go on to TAFE or to uni.

ORITI: It makes me want to ask, though – about a decade since Gonski. I mean, these were reforms that were supposed to, I guess, fix that polarisation, as you say, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, kids from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s been sort of ten or so years. It doesn’t seem to have happened. What’s gone wrong?

CLARE: The work that David Gonski started hasn’t been completed. Part of what David was talking about is providing additional funding to students who need it, from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a disability, who live in remote parts of Australia. But David also recommended a funding level per student and, at the moment, non-government schools are funded above that. They’re on track to be down to that by the end of the decade, but public schools aren’t. No public school right across the country, apart from the ACT, is on track to be at that level over the next 10 years or so. In fact, they top out at about 95 per cent of it, so there’s a five per cent gap.

We said before the election, and I’ve repeated it since, we need to work with the States and Territories to close that gap. But we also need to close this education gap, where you’ve got children from disadvantaged backgrounds being more likely to fall behind at school. Next year is our last best chance to fix this, to finish the job David started. But I’m not interested in a blank cheque. I want to make sure that this funding is tied to the sort of things that are going to help children who fall behind in primary school to catch up and to keep up and to finish high school.

ORITI: I want to ask you about that time frame in a minute, Minister, but just on what you mentioned a minute ago, I mean, does this not further raise that issue of a reallocation of funds? If we’re talking about students from poor socio-economic backgrounds not doing as well, is it not time to really properly re-address that idea of taking money away from these richer private schools that get those taxpayer dollars and giving them to those poorer public schools, particularly in, you know, remote areas, the urban periphery, where people in, you know, socio-economic backgrounds necessarily live?

CLARE: Thomas, reallocation is not going to fix this. The amount of money that you have identified in non-government schools if reallocated to public schools doesn’t close that gap. It’s a significantly larger amount. And, as I said, non-government schools are on a track now to be down to that level by 2029. The real problem is that public schools aren’t and it’s billions of dollars that need to be invested here to fill that gap, but I want to make sure that that money is tied to the sort of things that are going to make a difference here, that are going to help close this education gap.

One of the things that we’re seeing evidence of now that works is catch-up tutoring, and it’s rolling out in Victoria and New South Wales, partly in response to the pandemic, but we could potentially industrialise this across the country, where a child that’s identified by these tests, or by a teacher in a class, that’s falling behind, instead of being in a class floundering with 30 kids, is taken out of that class, during class time and is with one teacher and a couple of other students. The evidence that I’ve seen in my community in Western Sydney and in places like Alice Springs is that in the course of 18 weeks, by being in that small catch-up class four times a week – in the space of 18 weeks you can learn as much as you would otherwise learn in 12 months.

They’re the sorts of things that we’ve asked Dr Lisa O’Brien, the former head of the Smith Family, to look at for us. She reports to us, to Education Ministers, at the end of October. We consider her report in December. And those recommendations will be used by Education Ministers in the negotiations we have next year around funding.

ORITI: Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s what I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned the issue of non-government schools not until 2029, negotiations next year about funding. No doubt that extra tuition you were talking about, that requires money. I mean, what do these results tell us, though, about the urgency to deliver on these reforms and do we really need more NAPLAN results under a different tighter assessment regime to tell us what was going on here? I mean, the gap is not closed.

CLARE: I hear you. We’ve got to take action now. We are taking action now. A couple of weeks ago I announced changes to teacher training, which are a fundamental part of this.

ORITI: That’s at a university level, yeah?

CLARE: Exactly right. And if there’s teachers listening to this, they’ll more often than not tell you that they didn’t feel prepared on their first day at school as a teacher, that what they were taught at university about how to teach children to read and write wasn’t up to scratch, that the prac wasn’t up to scratch either. A couple of weeks ago, we announced the biggest changes to teacher training in more than a decade. That’ll make a difference. That will make a difference.

ORITI: Sure. That’s for tertiary. Sorry, to interrupt. That’s at a tertiary level obviously for teachers coming into the system, but what can schools do to offer this additional support now, for students who are struggling now? I mean, are there immediate solutions and not just training new teachers who are ultimately going to come on deck?

CLARE: That’s part of it. Part of it is changing NAPLAN to better identify these students. Part of it is the work that teachers are doing every day. Let’s not get lost in this conversation how fantastic our teachers are. They’re making a difference in children’s lives every day. I see it as a parent not just as a minister so I don’t want to – 

ORITI: Important not to go down that path of saying the teachers are to blame either, right?

CLARE: No. I’m not interested in bad-mouthing teachers. You will never hear a bad word out of my mouth about teachers. They’re fantastic. We just need more of them and we need to provide them with better support. That’s what the changes to teacher training are about and that’s what the changes we need to make to the National School Reform Agreement are about.

The Productivity Commission put out a report recently that said the problem with the National Agreement at the moment is there are no targets for where we need to be, and there are no practical reforms to get there. Well, the next reform will. It will have the targets we need to set and it will make sure that we close this funding gap that I talked about a moment ago that public schools experience, but we tie that funding to the sort of things that are going to help these children that have fallen behind.

ORITI: We’re almost out of time. Just to put this in perspective a little bit more, Jason Clare, how are we seeing Australia fare on an international level when it comes to these academic outcomes? Is there a way to be able to tell that?

CLARE: We see on international tests that Australia is declining. It’s always difficult to compare Australia to other countries because not all countries test their entire student population. NAPLAN data over the course of the last, say, 15 years shows some areas of real improvement like reading. We’ve focused on the negative, let me give you one positive.

ORITI: Please. That’s important too. What’s going right?

CLARE: The average eight-year-old today reads at about a year ahead of the average eight-year-old 15 years ago. That’s good. That shows that what we’re doing in primary school, in kindergarten, Year 1, Year 2, is making a difference. But here’s the thing that worries me. About 15 years ago, the gap in reading skills of children from wealthy and poor families was about a year. Now it’s about two years, and that gap grows with every year at school, so the gap is about five years in reading skills of children from rich and poor families when they get to high school.

And here’s the one that keeps me up at night: in public schools, in the last six years, we’ve seen a drop in the number of young people finishing high school, from 83 per cent in 2016 to 76 per cent last year.

ORITI: That’s a mammoth drop.

CLARE: That is mammoth. And, as I said, a moment ago, that is happening at a time when you’ve got to finish high school, because most of the jobs require you to go to TAFE and to university. And if we’re serious about fixing this, you’ve got to go back to what’s happening at primary school, you’ve got to go back to what’s happening in early education. Most of these children who are below the minimum standard aren’t getting a crack at preschool either. Less chance of being in early education.

So, what we do from cradle right through to university matters here, and that’s why I’ve undertaken serious reform to early education, school education and university, and higher education. We will see the output of that over the course of the next few months.

ORITI: And, as you say, the stakes are high. Minister, thanks for giving us the time this morning. Appreciate it.

CLARE: Good on you. Thanks, Thomas.

ORITI: Jason Clare is the Federal Education Minister speaking to us here on ABC News Radio across Australia. Thanks for your company this morning.