Education minister Simon Birmingham talks exclusively to The Learning Press
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
In the lead-up to this year’s election, The Learning Press will carry a series of interviews and Q&A sessions designed to help readers get better acquainted with the people shaping Australian education.
The first is with federal education minister Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham was handed one of the highest profile roles in Australian politics when Malcolm Turnbull won the Liberal leadership spill last autumn.
From the calm backwaters of a junior ministry, he was propelled into the wild rapids of the front bench - paddling a canoe holed by his predecessor’s abrasive run on education funding.
Keeping his head above water will require some frantic manoeuvring around the hazards of escalating student debt, a contentious early years policy, and the biggest school and university spending reforms in a generation.
Kate Jackson questions the man charged with Eskimo-rolling the coalition out of trouble and into a position to win the next election.
You are the federal minister for education - do you ever experience a ‘pinch me’ moment that you have one of the most high profile jobs in Australia?
My nan was a school teacher and quite often when I walk into a school or early childhood education centre or university, I think about the conversations we used to have about the power of education.
It’s clichéd to say that the job is an honour, but it is and it’s critical to make the most of the opportunity it provides to make a lasting difference.
You have a young family and a huge job. Do you get to spend enough time with them, or is that one of the trade-offs of having such a high profile position?
I always, at the very least, make a point to speak to my wife and daughters every day.
When I’m home that also includes bedtime reading with the girls because even though we are all increasingly time poor, I know that just 15 minutes a day of reading to each other can have a huge impact on their literacy skills - not to mention it’s a great way to unwind for me!
We’re recently ran a promotion asking people to name their favourite book. If you were on a desert island with one book, what would it be and why?
War and Peace (the 1225-page tome by Leon Tolstoy) - because it would be important to make it last.
More seriously, it’d provide plenty to think deeply about.
If you could invite anyone for dinner, living or dead, who would it be?
Theodore Roosevelt - a great reformer, leader and raconteur.
Does your public school experience shape your approach to the job and do you think it gives you more affinity with public school arguments?
I think I was the beneficiary of mostly excellent teachers and engaged families, and they exist in every part of the school system.
We want to give more support to teachers, principals and parents and our Students First policy highlights their value and importance to lifting outcomes.
That means improving teacher quality, boosting school autonomy and leadership, encouraging parental engagement, and strengthening the curriculum.
The evidence shows these four priority areas make a real difference to the quality of a child’s schooling and how well they learn.
Do you set the portfolio agenda? To what extent are you autonomous and is the vision for education yours, Malcolm Turnbull's or a compromise of differing views?
The Turnbull Government is one that is consultative and cabinet-driven.
Malcolm not only describes his ministers as his principal advisers but he lives by that creed, making it a truly collaborative approach.
That means that ultimately it is Cabinet that makes the big calls but the relevant members of frontbench are given the scope they need to do what’s best for the country.
If budget restraints weren’t an issue, would you see the Gonski funding reforms as a positive model for Australian schools?
We ought to invest all that we can afford to spend and need to spend to achieve the best outcomes for all students and our nation.
There’s no point pretending money is limitless, which is why we’re focused on getting the most value from our school investment by addressing teacher quality and the direct correlation that has to lifting student outcomes.
You have some major policy decisions due in 2016 and 2017 that will markedly affect the lives of thousands of young people in Australia. Do you feel the pressure of getting them right, or are you confident of always making good calls?
Since taking on this role I’ve always said I would be a consultative minister who will sit, listen and learn as we work together to strengthen the education system so that it supports the great minds of tomorrow.
I’m looking forward to working through the areas that need to be addressed – reforming child care and early education, focusing on lifting student outcomes at school and ensuring we continue to have a world-class higher education system with greater transparency for students.
I know that one person never holds all wisdom and seek to make decisions based on evidence and expertise.
You have intimated the Government is unlikely to fully fund Gonski, despite the fact that it polls very well with voters in marginal seats. How do you counter the ALP's popularity on education funding?
Spending more money on education sounds popular but it’s more important to do what’s right.
We need to discuss what actually lifts student outcomes, as we know that our slipping international rankings have come about despite funding growth in education of more than 100 per cent in real terms between 1987/88 and 2011/12.
Australia’s education spending is at record levels and is above the average amongst OECD countries, yet since 2000 we’ve slipped from 4th to 14th in the OECD’s rankings of reading literacy, 11th to 19th in mathematics and 8th to 16th in science.
Real improvements will only come about by real action, not by just throwing money at the situation and continuing the status quo as Labor is proposing to do.
That’s why we’re focusing our record $69.4 billion investment in schools on strategies we know will improve student outcomes - improving teacher quality, better engaging parents and families, strengthening the curriculum and increasing school autonomy to encourage stronger links with parents and the community.
Do you feel our education system is equitable?
Overall, yes, but there are parts of the system that we can improve.
The latest international assessment by the OECD found Australia to be ‘highly equitable’, providing students from all socioeconomic backgrounds with similar educational opportunities.
While we may do very well by international comparisons I know that there is still a gap for some students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It’s why we fund education in a way that is targeted to those schools and students that need it most and why in everything we do there are special measures to support, for example, students with disability, low socio-economic schools, Indigenous students or regional schools.
What’s your favourite way to relax and unwind?
I’d like to say watching the Adelaide Crows storm home in a victory but those games can have the opposite effect on me too…I’m going to stick with reading to my daughters as my failsafe way to relax and unwind.
Politics is the art of the possible. Do you think that university deregulation will ever ‘fly’ as a concept for the Australian public?
The Turnbull Government continues to believe some reform in higher education is necessary to ensure our universities are world-class and that we can continue to afford to provide equitable access to all.
That means supporting innovation, providing pathways that enhance equitable access and supporting federal budget sustainability.
Is it hard to have to cater to viewpoints in the Liberal Party that you obviously do not share - such as over Safe Schools?
While I may not always agree with my Parliamentary colleagues from different sides of the debate, I understand and respect that there will often be a diversity of opinions on different issues.
I think we can all agree that no child should feel unsafe at school.
Looking at the passionate responses we saw on both sides of the debate I’d echo what the Prime Minister said, that everybody should remember we’re talking about children and they should use caution in their language.
Your early learning funding reforms seem like sound policy to us at The Learning Press. Is it frustrating to have what you know is good policy challenged and undermined?
Well thank you, can you have a word to Kate Ellis and Bill Shorten?
They’re the ones stalling the reforms that would give Australian families more affordable, accessible and fairer child care and early learning opportunities.
Our reforms are based on the Productivity Commission’s recommendations and feedback from families and services and represent $3 billion in additional support for child care and early learning, targeted to those families that need it most.
I am determined to ensure that those who need to access care the most get the greatest access and those who need the most financial help to do so equally get it.
Who do you think is the most capable MP in opposition and why?
I think someone like Gary Gray (the Member for Brand, WA) who has continued to stand up for his belief in Senate voting reforms.
When Gary leaves politics at the next election, the Parliament and Labor will be all the worse for it.
If you were to receive a report card for your first six months in the job, what would it say?
There are good reasons why students don’t get to mark their own papers or write their own report card, so I’m happy to let others reach their own conclusions on that front.
What I would say, however, is that every time I get to drop my kids off to school or visit any of our nation’s educational facilities I’m reminded not only of my responsibilities as a parent but also as a minister in the Australian Government.
I want my children, who I know grow up in more fortunate surrounds than some, and all Australian children whatever the challenges they or their families face, to benefit from a high quality education that helps them learn, grow and develop as individuals and prepare them well for the future.