SUBJECTS: Productivity Commission report
PETER STEFANOVIC: Well, schools will have to reach tough new academic and student wellbeing targets after an alarming new report found 90,000 Australian children are failing basic literacy and numeracy tests.
Joining us live now is the Federal Education Minister Jason Clare. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. So just elaborate on this. What are the rules for schools?
JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: We’ve got a good education system, but it could be a lot better and a lot fairer. And this report makes that blisteringly clear. I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your mum and dad are, or where you live, or the colour of your skin, but we are at the moment. The report tells us that if you’re a kid from a poor family or from the bush or you’re Indigenous, then you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. And that problem is getting worse, not better.
The report’s pretty damning. It says the plan the former Government put in place four years ago hasn’t worked. And part of that is because they didn’t set clear, concrete targets and didn’t put in place the real sort of practical reforms that are going to help us to meet those targets. And this agreement will do that.
STEFANOVIC: Sure, okay. So what are your clear and concrete targets that you want to achieve?
CLARE: The sort of targets they’re talking about in this report are not just how many students finish the HSC or equivalent, but how do you set a clear target for reducing the number of students who aren’t meeting basic literacy and numeracy standards and, in particular, for those children from poor backgrounds, from the bush, and Indigenous children that aren’t meeting those standards. That’s where the gap is getting worse. I think I might have spoken to you about this last year. We’ve seen some real improvements in literacy for primary school kids in the last decade. Primary school kids today are reading about a year ahead of primary school kids 10 years ago.
But we haven’t seen that translate into high school – the improvement is not there. And we’ve also seen the gap grow bigger over the last 10 years in the reading skills of primary school kids from poor backgrounds and wealthy backgrounds. A decade ago it was about a year behind; now it's about two years behind, and it gets worse with every year of schooling.
So what this report is saying is set real targets and put in place reforms, fund them but make sure that the reforms are linked to the funding and that you target it to the schools where it’s needed most. One of the things this report tells us is that if you’re a child from a poor background and you go to a disadvantaged school where there’s lots of kids from poor backgrounds, then you’ve got less chance of catching up in literacy and numeracy. Now that should tell us something. That should tell us that we need to zero in on this and make sure that the funding and the reforms that they fund are linked to those schools to help those kids catch up.
STEFANOVIC: Right. So, I mean, I come from a poor background. Many others do as well, Minister. And, you know, I came out of it okay. So how much of this has to do with parents who aren’t engaged? And my parents were engaged, but how much of this has to do with that fact?
CLARE: Yes, it’s part of it. And the report tells us that it’s not just what happens in school; it’s mum and dad as well. It’s a whole bunch of things that can affect a child’s readiness to be focused at school. Covid has taught us that. You know, the fact that attendance rates at school last year were way down is because of the fallout that we’ve seen over the last few years from Covid.
The report tells us that the mental health of children is a massive issue. It’s one of the reasons why we’re investing $200 million extra this year in practical programs and the funding of counsellors and psychologists to help children who need a little bit of help to get back on track.
The report tells us three things: one, we need to invest in things that will help kids falling behind; two, we need to invest in the sort of things that will make our teachers more effective; and three, we need to invest in the sort of programs that are going to improve the wellbeing of some of the kids that we’re seeing in schools – the teachers will tell you this, mums and dads will tell you this – where their wellbeing has been affected in the last few years.
STEFANOVIC: Okay. Given this slide has been happening for a while now, can you realistically turn this around in one term?
CLARE: Well, you talk about a slide. Let me just zero in on one part of this. You know, we’ve seen in the last decade a pretty significant slide in attendance rates at school. I said we’ve had a drop in the last 12 months and a big part of that’s Covid. But this has been happening now for 10 years, and it’s amongst boys and girls, primary school and high schools, city and the bush as well. We know why attendance rates dropped last year – because of the impact of Covid – but when I ask people why have we seen attendance rates drop over the last decade, all I get is crickets – we need to fix this, turn that around as part of this. That’s why I said yesterday that this will be an item when Education Ministers meet next month. We need to look at why this is happening and what we can do about it.
STEFANOVIC: Okay. So have you got a time frame on when you would like to see this turned around realistically?
CLARE: We’re going to talk about that when Education Ministers meet next month. On the bigger challenge here about making sure that we lift literacy and numeracy standards, that we fund schools properly and that we link that funding to reform, in the next few weeks I’ll announce the members of an expert panel who are going to build on the work that we find in this report and give us the information we need to make sure that we’re linking funding to real, practical reforms and set concrete targets to make sure that we improve the literacy and numeracy that we’re seeing in our schools to make sure that more children meet those standards and that we’re directing funding to the schools and the students that need them the most.
STEFANOVIC: You’ve got to be ruthless to cut funding from schools who don’t achieve those targets.
CLARE: I don’t think it’s about cutting funding to schools. You know, you said you come from a poor background. I went to a school that we used to call a disadvantaged school. You rip funding out of that, you’re not going to achieve better outcomes. This report tells us that. If you’re a poor kid who goes to a disadvantaged school, it’s hard enough as it is. So I think what this report tells us is set serious targets but also make sure that you invest in reforms to help the kids in those schools. That’s what this report is telling us. And this expert panel is going to help me and other Education Ministers to develop the reforms that are going to make a difference in those schools and other schools right across the country.
STEFANOVIC: That’s the Education Minister Jason Clare. Appreciate your time, as always. We’ll talk to you soon, Jason.