Interview with Andrea Burns on 6PR

  • Minister for Education
  • Leader of the House

ANDREA BURNS: Well, academic rankings for WA schools came out yesterday with more girls’ schools in the top 10 than boys’ schools, and more private schools in there than public. The results cap off the end of what's been a fairly tumultuous year in education here in Australia, with uncertainly over the Gonski Reforms and more specifically, the funding. As you've heard in the news, today Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a major overhaul of the curriculum and he joins me now. Minister, good afternoon.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Thank you for having me.

ANDREA BURNS: Parents are going to say that we don't need another talkfest about education, that we actually need action. How quickly is this latest overhaul going to take effect?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well we haven't announced an overhaul just yet. What I've announced today is a review of the four subjects that currently make up the national curriculum – English, history, maths and science. I've asked them to report to me by mid-year, and I'm hoping to work closely with the state and territory ministers after that to see if we can implement improvements, if the review suggests improvements, in 2015. It's very important of course that we put students as our highest priority in terms of education, and so what they are taught – the curriculum – is the most important thing we can get right, along with high quality teachers. So today is a very positive step forward in addressing one of the policies and promises that I took to the election, which was that we would put curriculum, teacher quality, principal autonomy and parental engagement at the top of our priorities.

ANDREA BURNS: When you look at the subjects that you're looking at though, that –  they're probably the four main subjects that you're talking about – many would say that that is a fairly significant overhaul.  What do you see as the failings of the current curriculum?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well there's been quite a bit of criticism of those four subjects in the national curriculum over the last few years. Criticisms have ranged from it being too rigid, too prescriptive right through to the necessity of having themes. For example, your listeners might like to know that the national curriculum has three themes through every subject: Australia's place in Asia, Indigenous Australia, and the third theme is sustainability. Now there's some question as to whether things like Indigenous Australia and Australia's place in Asia are part of the maths curriculum, for example, and I think that is a good question so we need to ask those questions, make sure that we've got the best and most robust curriculum we can have for Australia in the 21st century.

ANDREA BURNS: I know that Australia has certainly been lagging behind some of our close neighbours for years now. Is it the curriculum that needs to change or do you see that the differences are a little more cultural?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: There are a number of things that need to change. We need to engage parents very deeply in their child's education, which hasn't been the policy of schools or governments over the last few decades. We need to have a big emphasis on the quality of our teachers, so that the who is teaching is just as important as what they're being taught.  The proof of the pudding that the funding is not the main issue in education is that we've actually spent 40 per cent more on education in the last 10 years, and yet our results have gone backwards. Other countries in the OECD that spend less per student than we do get better results than we do, so you have to look beyond that to the other issues, and today is a very positive step to making sure that we focus on other things besides just money.

ANDREA BURNS: I know that one issue that you have cited this morning is that many students are reaching university level and they're still – their literacy is at a remedial level – that they're needing help to bring it up. This is an issue that our Member for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan raised a couple of months ago. Don't tell me that you're listening to Alannah, are you Minister?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Look Alannah is unusually on the same page as the Government when it comes to the necessity to call a spade a spade about the school system. Now I didn't hear her say a lot during the Labor government it's true, or even her own State Labor government when she was a member of it but I welcome anybody – I welcome anybody – who wants to get the best results possible for our students, and therefore the best economy, the best society that we can be.

ANDREA BURNS: You say you want to take the politics out of education in your piece this morning, yet the Prime Minister's on the record claiming the history curriculum favours Labor and the unions, while ignoring the work of Coalition Prime Ministers. Isn't that a contradiction?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well it does, unfortunately, in the national curriculum emphasise the role of the trade union movement, the Labor movement and…

ANDREA BURNS: But isn't that just part of history?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well sure, and there should be just as much concentration on the benefits of Western civilisation in the history curriculum, as there should be on the truth about the way we treated Indigenous Australians for the last 200 years. Now what I want the curriculum to be is true. Certainly we need to know that the treatment of Indigenous Australians by the early colonists, right through to the current time, has not always been as good as it should have been. But our students also deserve to know where we've come from as a country and if they've got to know where we going.  You must know about Australia's background as a Western civilisation-based society if you're going to have any concept of why we're the kind of country we are today.

ANDREA BURNS: How quickly do you think we'll see a difference in standards in our schools?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that sort of question is how long is a piece of string to be honest, it's a…

ANDREA BURNS: No, but I mean how wide a parameter have you put on this? How quickly will you have results from this, and how do we know this is just not going to be another thing that's going to stretch on forever like Gonski did?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I'm very passionate about a robust curriculum and about teacher quality, and I have three years before the next federal election to do everything I can to get better results for our students, and I have to work with all the state and territory ministers to bring that about because they own and operate all the schools, so I intend to work with them. I'm sure that if this review makes sensible recommendations about changing the curriculum for the better that they will want to also get the best curriculum possible.

ANDREA BURNS: Minister, I thank you for your time this afternoon.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Always a pleasure.

ANDREA BURNS: Education Minister Christopher Pyne there.  Interested in your views on this, give me a call – 922 11 882.

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