An Open Letter to the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham

Dear Simon,

It takes a village to raise a child.

Much gnashing of teeth, furrowing of brows and pointing of fingers has resulted from Australia’s performance on the recent TIMSS and PISA tests.

The TIMSS tests measure a narrow band of maths and science achievement for Year 4 and Year 8 students. They have been conducted every four years since 1995. PISA measures maths, science and reading of 15 years olds.

For those who have not read a newspaper or listened to any news for the past week, the results for Australia were not great. On TIMSS our students performed about the same as they did in the past three to six years. On PISA they performed significantly worse than  in 2006.

My first complaint Simon is that we exaggerated the negative. It has been reported that Australian Performance in Maths and Science on TIMSS is slipping. In fact it is not slipping. It is not improving either.

Is Australia doing worse in TIMSS? No, we are doing about the same.

Is our ranking slipping? Yes. Other countries are doing better.

Semantic maybe, but let’s not catastrophize more than we need to.

On the ABC news last night it said we had plunged from 13th to 28th in Year 4 Maths, 12th  to 17th in Science. The media cried, “We’ve now fallen behind Kazakhstan!

Yes, we were previously performing better than Kazakhstan and now we are performing worse than Kazakhstan. Why is everyone singling out Kazakhstan? Borat has much to answer for.

On PISA Australia performs better than the US and the UK and is significantly above the OECD average.

Mention some positives too Simon.

You said the results are “appalling”.

You said we need to move away from “just throwing more money” at education and look at what teachers are doing in the classroom.

Fair point. But Simon, you should look at the fine detail of the data. If we judged Australia’s performance on these tests by the results of ACT students, Australia would be in the top five in the world. When you include the NT, Tassie and all those low SES and rural areas in the data set, we slip quickly down the rankings.

Australia is a low equity county in terms of education. Our kids from advantaged backgrounds with highly educated parents do way better than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is more pronounced in Australia than in other countries and it is getting worse!

Gonski still matters Simon.

Inequity in the Australian education system is a massive problem. These international studies like TIMMS and PISA, and  our own NAPLAN, continue to highlight the growing gap in educational attainment between the haves and have nots in Australian society.

Sometimes people need hard data to see the picture more clearly.

Here are the six secondary schools in the local area where I live. We are 100km from Melbourne.


You can see that most high income families send their children to non-government schools. 

Notice that indigenous students are also concentrated in the government system.

To compound  disadvantage even further, the amount of money spent on education in a private school is more than at the government school. It is a classic case of the the rich getting richer. We are putting more resources into the most advantaged students.

The conservative governments argue that wealthy parents have a right to spend their money on their children’s education to give their children the best they can afford.

I agree, but the government shouldn’t then chip in as well to widen the gap between rich and poor. In the Australian education system that is exactly what we do. 

To quote the PISA report, “Generally speaking the smartest countries tend to be those that have directed more resources to their neediest children.”

Look at the table above. In Australia we do the opposite!! Not smart Simon.

As the Education Minister in charge, you need to do something to fix this.

And while you are at it, instead of jumping straight into the teaching profession as the only cause of these poor results look more broadly. Just blaming teachers for the TIMMS and PISA results is like saying doctors are wholly responsible for the overall level of Health in Australia. Teachers are one part of the picture. The other parts of the picture seem to have been completely overlooked.

Students and parents need to lift their game too.

In fact the whole village needs to get on board here.

Look at the Asian tigers at the top of the PISA and TIMMS tables. When their kids do badly at school Asian parents are ashamed. They take responsibility. They do something about it. They hire tutors; they insist their children put more effort into their studies. When I visited Singapore recently there were maths homework books and tutorial centres at every train station. Being educated, doing really well at school, is central in their lives. Central to the culture of the society is personal responsibility and hard work.

In Australia when students do poorly it is the teacher’s fault, or the school’s fault or the government’s fault. We need to change this attitude.

Simon your comments are not helping, in fact they are reinforcing this victim, “blame the teacher” mentality.

The PISA report has given you a good checklist for the agenda at the next Ministers for Education meeting.

Here it is …

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have:

  1. acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective;
  2. directed more resources to their neediest children;
  3. enrolled most children in high-quality preschools;
  4. helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement;
  5. applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Good luck Simon.

Get the village behind you.

Rob Monk