SUBJECTS: School funding and reform; NT Schools; NAPLAN; Childcare funding.

PAUL SERRATORE, PRESENTER: Well the Federal Education Opposition spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, is in the centre at moment. She's been doing a tour of Territory schools. She was out at Yuendumu yesterday and she's concerned that Territory schools are going to be worse off under Federal Government funding arrangements. She joins me in the studio. Tanya Plibersek, good morning to you.


SERRATORE: So why are you concerned about schools funding here in the Northern Territory?

PLIBERSEK: Well because Malcolm Turnbull's cut their funding. And the difference between Labor's original six year needs-based funding packages and what the Territory's ended up getting under Malcolm Turnbull is $70 million less over the next two years alone. Yesterday I went to Yuendumu school. It would have been $530,000 better off over two years. Today I'm going to Sadadeen Primary School and Centralian Senior College. Sadadeen would have been $420,000 better off and Centralian Senior College would have been $840,000 better off under the money that we had on the table. And I guess the thing that really troubles me about this is Malcolm Turnbull thinks that Northern Territory public schools are over funded. But the banks are underfunded. They're going to get a big fat tax cut coming out of the budget next week. I just don't see the logic.

SERRATORE: So you're saying that if Labor were in Government they wouldn't be cutting this funding?

PLIBERSEK: No absolutely. Malcolm Turnbull's cut $17 billion over the decade from our schools. We've said we will replace every single dollar that he has cut. So it's a very substantial difference. For the Northern Territory it's $70 million over two years alone. It's big money. The thing that's really nuts about this is Malcolm Turnbull changed the formula for funding. Under his new definition of needs-based funding, the Northern Territory public schools are over funded, because they get more than 20 per cent of their funding from the Federal Government, and he's said that the Federal Government's only job is to pay for 20 per cent of the cost of educating a kid in the public school system, 80 per cent of the cost of educating a kid in private school, but only 20 per cent in the public system, so the Northern Territory by his definition is over funded. Now this isn't the first time I've been to the Territory, it's not the first time I've visited schools in the Territory. I haven't seen many that I would call overfunded or any, to be fair.

SERRATORE: Well what did you see when you went out to Yuendumu yesterday?

PLIBERSEK: I saw a great community. I saw a community that's really taking charge of educating their kids, but not just their kids, their young adults and the older people as well, I think the literacy centre that they've got there, the learning centre where people are dropping in for lifelong learning is a terrific approach, but it's pretty hard on the staff and the parents at the school. If you cut $530,000 over two years, you can do a lot more good work with that, so I'm not in any way suggesting that the schools here aren't doing a terrific job with the resources they've got, but if you want teachers to have more time with children one on one, if you want teachers to really focus on kids who've been falling behind with their literacy and numeracy and really work with them in small groups, if you want to offer kids who are gifted and talented enrichment programs that really push them to make the most of their gifts, then this extra money would make a huge difference.

SERRATORE: Now the recent Gonski report says that children should be placed in classes based on ability rather than age. It's a model that's been used in the US for decades. Should that be a model that we go to for our education system?

PLIBERSEK: There's a lot of thing in the second Gonski report that are already underway, already happening in many schools or systems. There's some that would require a lot more work, so they do talk about a pretty substantial rewrite to the Australian curriculum, and they do say that teachers should be spending more time one on one with kids. We agree with that. We just say you can't cut $17 billion from the school system and expect teachers to spend more one on one time with kids. Now I think we have to be careful of any sort of streaming arrangement that makes kids feel dumb, because the truth is children do learn at different paces. The same child might be very strong in one area and need help in another area, and anything that identifies them as from an early age as having difficulties can really affect their confidence to learn.

SERRATORE: But I suppose in a place like the Northern Territory where there are a lot of other social issues. I mean, one that comes to mind is FASD and how that affects kids’ education. Surely there is a reason to be having these special education classrooms for such kids and it's not simply saying that they're dumb but it's simply saying that in terms of their ability they need to be looked after more?

PLIBERSEK: Actually what the report recommends and what we should be aiming for is not streaming children into different classes but teaching each child in the class at their ability level, so that you've really bed down the foundational skills, so you really make sure that kids know the basics and then you add the next bit of work and then you add the next bit of work and that teachers are able to really track children's progress along their learning and say "OK, I'm confident that this child knows this work now I'm going to extend them, set a task that is just a little bit out of their reach so they're pushing themselves a little bit but then they can get there and they get the confidence of mastering that new skill or knowledge". I think that is a good approach but it takes resources. If you are planning every child's learning, if you're saying "OK this child need something to extend them because they're getting a bit bored, the other kids haven't caught up to them yet" that take resources. So by all means let's treat every child as an individual, let's teach them at their level because every child can learn and every child should learn every day. But expecting teachers to do that with no extra help, that's just not realistic.

SERRATORE: Now as you would have heard in the news headlines, Tanya Plibersek, there have been some concerns about NAPLAN with the New South Wales Government calling for NAPLAN to be scrapped. Simon Birmingham was on AM earlier this morning saying he thought everything was working. Is NAPLAN working in your mind?

PLIBERSEK: Everything can be improved. This is a test that's been around for ten years and certainly I think we should be looking at ways that we can improve it. One of the things that really concerns me is that it's become very high stakes for a lot of parents and teachers, they're pushing kids, we're hearing stories about kids who can't sleep the night before and they're going to school with tummy aches because they're so nervous about the test. It should not be like that. This is a diagnostic test that is - this is what I say to my kids - this is not about testing how good or bad or clever or whatever it is you are, it's just us trying to work out the areas where we need to step up our efforts to teach you in that area. So we've got to take the high stakes nature away from it. But I do think it is really important to have something that tells us how children are progressing and something that tells us how schools and school systems are doing. By all means let's take the high stakes nature away but let's keep a diagnostic testing regime that helps us put our resources where we need to put our resources, to the kids and schools that need the most help and something that gives us confidence that our extra investment and extra effort is really making a difference for kids. I think it is crazy that some parents are hiring tutors for NAPLAN. It should not matter that way. In New South Wales one of the problems we have is that NAPLAN is considered when they're making decisions about entering into selective schools. Well that makes it a high stakes test so we do need to think about the pressure we are putting on kids as young as year 3 and year 5. I had pointed out to me that some of the literacy and language stuff in NAPLAN, if you're asking kids in remote communities about footpaths and umbrellas and a whole lot of things that are not really part of their day to day world, maybe you're not getting a true indication of how clever the kids are. Fine tuning by all means, but let's keep accountability too.

SERRATORE: Simon Birmingham was in the Centre a couple of weeks ago, he was touting the new childcare arrangements the subsidies and rebates. I know there have been some concerns from your side of politics in the past, do you still hold those concerns over childcare subsidies and rebates?

PLIBERSEK: For the lowest income families absolutely, because we know that a couple of hundred thousand people are going to be worse off. I think if you're working fewer hours that doesn't mean that early learning isn't important for your child. We know that the children who will benefit the most from early learning are sometimes the ones from the lowest income families and so seeing families drop out of eligibility for childcare because they're not working enough hours - that bothers me because it's about the kids. Childcare has to be about the children not just about the needs of parents.

SERRATORE: Tanya Plibersek appreciate your time this morning.

PLIBERSEK: Pleasure to talk to you.