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ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas, 25 August 2023

Patricia Karvelas: This week’s school NAPLAN results have caused some alarm, showing around one in three students aren’t meeting the grade in critical areas like literacy and maths. Funding, teacher standards, they’ve all been flagged as issues and the government says it’s working on a path for major school reforms. But will it be enough to reverse the classroom decline? Sarah Henderson is the Shadow Education Minister and she joins us this morning. Sarah Henderson, welcome.

Senator Henderson: Patricia, really great to join you.

Patricia Karvelas: One of the fundamental issues the data shows is that inequality leads to worse outcomes. Children from poorer, regional and indigenous families are clearly the most and worst affected if you look at the data. How can we fix that?

Senator Henderson: Well Patricia first of all, these results are alarming. As you say, one in three students are failing NAPLAN and we are going backwards as a country, and there is no doubt that there are particular concerns with those from low SES or disadvantaged backgrounds as well as indigenous children in particular. But I have to make the point that a child’s postcode does not define their success at school, and we’ve seen some great examples – when the right teaching methods are used in the classroom, students thrive. And that’s why I have called on the government to work closely with the states and territories to mandate the introduction of evidence-based learning and teaching, such as explicit instruction, the teaching of phonics. Because in the schools which have adopted these practices the children, despite being from disadvantaged backgrounds, are really flying. Schools like Marsden Road Public School is a great example in Sydney where they’ve absolutely turned around their NAPLAN results, despite 90% of children coming from a non-English speaking background, many quite disadvantaged, through a really robust focus on the type of teaching which works. 

Patricia Karvelas: You said that it’s not about funding, but when schools in poorer and regional areas are clearly facing worse outcomes, it does show that money is part of the story, isn’t it?

Senator Henderson: Oh look, of course funding is important and very proudly under our government, we invested some $318 billion over ten years. And in fact Patricia, over two decades there’s been a 60% increase in schools funding, but we’ve seen this decline. So while funding of course is important, it is not the defining factor as to why standards are going backwards. For instance there is a school in Canberra, the Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School, and the Catholic school system in Canberra and Goulburn have adopted explicit instruction. They’ve got no additional funding, no additional resources, but they’ve fundamentally turned around their results because of the way they are teaching their children. And at Good Shepherd for instance, three years ago they were all in the red – as in below expectation in their NAPLAN results – and now they have leaped and they’re now at the expected result. So they’ve gone into a different band altogether. And the principal made the point – we’ve done absolutely nothing, we’ve got the same wonderful teachers, we have the same resources, the same school buildings, the same funding envelope, but the thing that’s really changed is the way we teach, and that’s really fundamental. I have to say Tasmania, the Liberal Government in Tasmania has decided that they are going to mandate explicit instruction in their classrooms by 2026. And I really, hope and trust that that’s the direction that all states and territories will go. 

Patricia Karvelas: Look, was it a mistake then that you didn’t mandate it when you were in government? Because we’ve seen some of these results accumulate under your own former federal government.

Senator Henderson: Look, this is a very big challenge right across the board and we did in fact make a whole range of changes to the curriculum in concert with the states and territories. And as, of course, one of the big challenges for any federal government is the states and territories run our schools, so we always have to work very, very closely to make sure we get the outcomes in classrooms. But we did do a range of things in the curriculum, such as including the requirement to teach phonics, such as including the importance of explicit instruction. But there is no doubt that we can do more Patricia, no doubt at all. And that’s why the evidence is now in. I mean, La Trobe University is doing incredible work with its NEXUS program, for instance. It has done all the research to demonstrate what works. The Australian Education Research Organisation, which we established very proudly, has all the evidence to show what works. So yes, we do need to take this further, we do need to mandate explicit instruction in every single classroom, but we also need to look at the environment. So for instance at Marsden Road, just an incredible school, the principal Manisha Gazula, is amazing. She resisted the New South Wales Department of Education’s requirements that they move to open classrooms because she could see it didn’t work, it led to greater disruption. And just a few weeks ago in New South Wales, the Minister announced that there will be no more open classrooms because that type of environment does not help children to learn, particularly in primary school. So the Coalition is really interested in what works, we will support any good idea, but certainly the science is in, the evidence is in, we know that this method of teaching really works, children thrive and that’s why it’s absolutely critical that this be mandated.

Patricia Karvelas: I spoke with the Education Minister earlier this week. He said he’ll be looking at the 20% federal government funding cap. Would you be open to that changing in terms of the funding mix?

Senator Henderson: Well, of course, as we know, the Commonwealth has met its obligations under the Gonski funding model. We are seeing some big issues with some of the states and territories – for instance in the Northern Territory, currently the Northern Territory only delivers 59% of the 75% of funding that it is meant to deliver to public schools. So I have to say that the big issues are with the states and territories. We won’t make any further commitment, I certainly can’t make any announcement on your program about what we may or may not fund, or what we may consider in the future. But I think the big challenge is introducing the evidence-based teaching and learning into our classrooms. I have to say Patricia, we have magnificent teachers in our schools, but they need to be supported by the best methods of teaching and learning, including even teacher coaching. I’ve been to some schools where on a Friday the teachers don’t teach, they actually sit with coaches and they review what they’ve done for the week, they look at what’s coming up, they refine how they’re teaching and they work together, and it’s just some brilliant models we’re seeing in the classroom. But this needs to happen in every single Australian classroom.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Senator Henderson: Really great to talk to you, thanks so much Patricia.

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