Education Nation | Day Two Session One | Minister Simon Birmingham

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@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.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jjubjyw on 11 June 2016. Slide Thirty-five.

 

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.

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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.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h7nolqd p.85 on 11 June 2016

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.

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Minister Simon Birmingham speaking to the Rethinking Reform Delegates at Education Nation. 8 June 2016

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.

Education Nation | The Great Debate

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

In the build up to Education Nation (#EduNationAu), The Great Debate, a showdown about public versus private education, was billed as one of the headline acts for the event, featuring two speakers who typically take opposing views. Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) was arguing for the side of public education against Dr. Kevin Donnelly (@ESIAustralia) who was, of course, arguing for the side of private education.

As promised on Twitter, I have recorded and included here the full audio of the debate. The only editing done to it was to bring the audio levels roughly into alignment as some sections, particularly during the questions from the floor, were rather quiet in the recording.

The Great Debate was structured as follows:

  • Opening remarks from Dr. Zyngier followed by Dr. Donnelly.
  • Five minutes of rebuttal from Dr. Zyngier followed by Dr. Donnelly.
  • Question and Answer which were asked in a turn-about fashion to Dr. Zyngier and Dr. Donnelly:
    • Two questions submitted prior to the event
    • Questions from the floor.

TheGreatDebate

Dr. Zyngier opened by talking about the negativity towards public schooling being a product which began with the Fraser Government in the 1960s, who introduced public funding for private schools, creating a sense of entitlement and privilege for the few and is an anti-democratic notion. Public funding of private education has continued since then and has resulted in a constant expansion of the private education sector.

Dr. Zyngier then invoked Joe Hockey, currently the Australian Ambassador the United States, who, as Treasurer in 2014, was quoted in the media as saying…everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting. The age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun…” but, in fact, the public funding private education is about to outstrip public funding of public education vis-a-vis the funding per student amount.

david-zyngier_education-nation-2016-sydney-400hThis constant growth in public funding of private education has, Dr. Zyngier argued, resulted in a growing perception of private schools as being better and played a role in the residualisation of public schools. There is now a growing disparity between funding and this should be seen and felt as a national shame as there are significant consequences for our children. There is a widening disparity in resourcing for students at different ends of the socioeconomic status (SES) scale.

The priority for the Government should be full public funding for public education to help ameliorate the lottery of birth which resulted in parents having a choice, however, the choice was only available if parents could afford the choice. Stephen Dinham (OAM) was then quoted as having said that “It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons.” Rresidualisation feeds further residualisation, was the message I was hearing at this point.

Dr. Zyngier at this point changed tack, asking the audience who had flown on a long-haul flight overseas, and who had travelled by economy class, business class or first class. There were fewer hands up for the higher classes of course, and Dr. Zyngier made the analogy that as those who choose to fly in business or first class do not expect those in economy class to subsidise their flight, why should those who choose to send their children to a private school expect the rest of us to subsidise that choice. I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a business and education is an investment in the future.

jamie-dorrington_education-nation-2016-sydney-400h-400x300I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a profit-based business and education is, or should be seen as, an investment in the future. It also seems a stretch to me to argue this point, particularly given that, as Jamie Dorrington, the Rethinking Reform MC remarked, that the airlines would likely argue that the upper-class prices, in fact, subsidise the economy class prices.

Dr. Zyngier argued that this is in fact what does happen in Australia, with public funding of private schools acting as a subsidy for the lifestyle choice of the parents and that we have the highest level of privatisation of education in the OECD. Dr. Zyngier continued by pointing out that countries in the OECD such as the United Kingdom and the United States, though they have privatised education institutions, and perhaps some of the most well-known educational institutions in the world, do not give any public funds to those private education institutes whatsoever.

In closing, Dr. Zyngier made two points; firstly, he noted that Australia has been reported by the OECD as having very high student achievement results as well as significantly different learning achievements between the students at either end of the SES scale, which should be concerning to us all.Secondly, and his final point, we need to come to an agreement about what it means to have a public education system, which, to me, sounds like a national conversation about the purpose and goals of education. Maybe I am just hearing what I want to hear, though.

kevin-donnelly_education-nation-2016-sydney-400h-400x300At this point, Dr. Donnelly took the podium to make his arguments and opened by listing off the adjectives typically used to describe, including misogynistic, homophobic, and extremist and proceeded to share some of his background with the audience, revealing that he grew up in Broadmeadows, Melbourne, as a child with a father who was a member of the Communist Party, whilst he and his brother were members of the Eureka Youth Movement, which he indicated was the Youth Communist Party, and that he had “…a good Catholic mother” which resulted in, as I can only imagine, some interesting discussions at home. He then commented that he did not want to be antagonistic or vitriolic today, which, I daresay, caused some disappointment amongst the audience

Dr. Donnelly then spoke about how Australia has a tripartite education system and that this arrangement has had consensus from the major parties for some years now, and he quoted then Minister for Education Julia Gillard as saying that “…I am committed to parents’ rights to choose the school that is best for their child.”

Dr. Donnelly, remarkably, called Gonski funding a myth and said that needs-based funding had been around a number of years, which generated a number of raised eyebrows in the room. He went on to comment that the ten-year period from 1998 saw a significantly large increase in enrolments in the private education system, and that those enrollments were predominantly in the low-fee paying schools, and that while this voting with their feet movement had slowed down since 2008, the Catholic and Independent education systems received little overall funding in the 2012/2013 budget from the Government.Additionally, argued Dr. Donnelly, high-profile schools such as Kings and Melbourne Grammar are, in fact, outliers in regards to the education fees and resourcing. and that the Australian Education Union

The Australian Education Union should be arguing, commented Dr. Donnelly, not necessarily against the stances of the parties regarding the Gonski funding model, but against those states who did not ever sign off on it. He continued by noting that Julia Gillard, then Minister for Education, signed off on twenty-seven different agreements with various state education bodies, which means that there are at least twenty-seven different funding models in place.

Dr. Donnelly then broached the argument from critics of private education that private schools only get the good kids, or those with high academic ability, and discussed research that demonstrates that the SES status of a student’s family only contributes approximately fifteen to eighteen percent of the academic variance and that the Government has spent billions of additional dollars on education without seeing the expected growth in learning outcomes. He also argues that the public selective schools, selective for academic or sporting or any other reason, are a contributor to the residualisation of public schooling, but that they do not get mentioned, with private education being an easy target

A paper by the OECD which Professor Geoff Masters (@GMasterACER), CEO of ACER (@ACEReduAu), quoted in a recent paper which indicates that Australia is second only to Denmark in regards to intergenerational mobility and that another OECD report from 2008 ranked Australia as one of the most socially mobile countries.

Dr. Donnelly closed out his opening arguments by calling for a move away from the acrimonious debate and to look at high-performing schooling systems and ask what works there that might work for us in Australia, with a move towards a decentralised education structure with increased school autonomy and choice to create the flexibility and diversity in our schools to encourage schools to be innovative.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/zkpya7z on 11 June 2016.

 

At this point, Jamie Dorrington asked Dr. Zyngier for his rebuttal comments, however, I will leave the rebuttal from both Dr. Zyngier and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the questions from the floor, for you to listen to, as I would like to explore what we have already heard in a bit more depth.

From conversations with a few people in the room after The Great Debate, there was a feeling that no-one was actually going to change their mind based on any arguments presented today, and that there were going to be a large number of Donnelly-haters and people in the room who would support Dr. Zyngier purely based on what Dr. Donnelly has previously written and said in the media, and who would not actually be interested in hearing what he was saying. I have also heard that someone was told by their Principal they would not be given permission to attend Education Nation purely because Dr. Donnelly would be speaking.

Irrespective of what you think of Dr. Donnelly, this sort of closed-mindedness is not healthy for education debate in Australia. That sort of thinking creates an echo-chamber, where you hear only what you want to hear which creates a stagnant environment and does our students a disservice. Dr. Donnelly (and Dr. Zyngier, for that matter) made some very sensible comments today.

  • We need to move this divisive debate.
  • There are greater areas of importance to learning outcomes that we can address far more productively.
  • Parents have a right to choose the school for their child based on any range of reasons.
  • Public selective schools play a role in residualisation

I do not advocate, let me make it clear, for all of Dr. Donnelly’s views. Personally, I am still working out what my own views are on a range of topics related to education, and trying to work out who I am as an educator and where I fit in the scheme of things. This means that whilst I have made my mind up about some areas, I am open to hearing ideas from all quarters. I engaged in the Twitter conversation that was going on during The Great Debate (you can actually my laptop keys at one point in the audio!) and the reactions I was seeing were a range of adjectives between positive and negative, but I saw some that attacked the man and not the argument which is shameful and contributes nothing.

Dr. Zyngier, as I mentioned, also made some great points in his argument.

  • We need to reach an agreement as a nation about what it means to have a public education system, which sounds, to my ears, like he was on the same page as Dr. Donnelly.
  • Residualisation feeds residualisation
  • The focus of Government education funding should be public education.

Both men threw out numbers, statistics and made references to research with no citations provided. Neither man changed anyone’s mind. The debate, though interesting, and generating a lot of interest, contributed nothing to the overall debate about education in this country. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Donnelly when he said that “we need to move on from this debate and its acrimonious nature.” The discussions about the impact of a child’s SES background depends on which research you read, is what I drew from that facet of this argument.

We need to move on, there are important issues that need to be addressed.