You’re a Griffith boy, helped work your family’s farm as an irrigation rice farmer, and became a solicitor before heading into politics in the late ‘90s. What drew you to politics?
I was always interested in current affairs and what was going on in my local community.
I was very interested in the idea of influencing events around me, especially in regional areas.
Being an MP is fantastic because you get to do such a broad range of work – from being a Minister in the second largest portfolio in government, to helping out, in one case, an elderly lady who had a dead cat under her house.
The cat was starting to smell but she had no family to help out so she rang my office in Griffith.
We managed to find someone to get rid of it for her. Small things make a big difference in people’s lives.
You’ve been in the role a long time - since April 2011. NSW Teachers’ Federation president Maurie Mulheron says in reference to you, ‘He consults with everyone, but is captured by no one’, other key stakeholders in NSW education regularly tell us ‘he just gets it’. What is key to your success?
There is no great trick to it. It’s about listening to every point of view and sticking to facts and evidence. We never make up policy because it ‘sounds like a good idea’.
Everything we do is based on evidence, data and advice from experts, particularly teachers and principals.
I also like to triangulate the advice I receive.
That is, I rarely take the advice of just one person or group, or the department or Board of Studies, Teaching and Education Standards for that matter.
I test their advice with practitioners to make sure it will work in the classroom. One of my mantras is that “if an idea doesn’t work in schools then it doesn’t work”.
What have been a few of your proudest achievements as NSW Education Minister?
Being the first state to sign the Gonski agreement in 2013 was a huge achievement.
It wasn’t just about additional funding but also how those funds were allocated across government, Catholic and independent schools to target disadvantage in a more focused way.
The work we have done in rural and remote communities like Walgett, Wilcannia and Brewarrina has been challenging but very rewarding.
Seeing the huge positive change in children in places like Moree East when I visited in October was uplifting.
Our Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan has driven strong cultural change in primary schools across all sectors.
I am often told that the relationship between the three school sectors in NSW has never been as positive, constructive and cooperative as it is now, I’m proud to have helped drive these groups closer together.
You’ve been critical of a recent Federal Productivity Commission report into Australian schools as being a waste of money, and basically non-inclusive of Gonski funding from 2014. Given recent OECD data indicating Australia is slipping in maths and science, and Minister Birmingham’s assertion that simply providing funding dollars is no solution, do you think the final two years of Gonski should still be rolled out by the Turnbull Government?
I do think the full Gonski should be rolled out. One thing that disappoints a lot of people in education is that reforms aren’t given time to take effect.
Those countries that are powering ahead in the various measures started significant reforms many years ago and stuck to them.
The worst thing we can do is take a certain path for three years then change it again because PISA results don’t go up.
That’s just silly and not supported by the experience of countries we seek to emulate.
What needs to be done to reverse our slipping standards?
Australia needs to agree on what we want our education and societal outcomes to be and then hold ourselves to that standard.
I’m not sure as a country we want to be like Japan, South Korea and Singapore when we consider the social effects of ultra high-pressure schooling that occurs in those countries.
Great results, but at what cost? Some people think the problem in Australia is a failure to teach the basics.
Whilst the basics are essential, and we do focus on them, PISA and TIMSS don’t test the basics.
They test higher order skills.
So we need to ensure we have the basics but that we stretch our students in those higher order skills like critical thinking and problem solving.
It’s the application of knowledge where the real test of learning happens and they are the skills children will need in the future.
Moving forward, what are you most hoping to see happen in NSW education in the coming months and years?
The new NSW Education Standards Authority is a great development for education in NSW. It looks after curriculum development, teacher accreditation (professional development), and assessment.
All three of these feed into each other so I look forward to the new Authority offering up policy advice to government to take on some of our key challenges.
One of those challenges is improving our results in writing in NSW. Another is the dip in performance we see from Year 7 through to Year 10.
Importantly we need to continue with our efforts to raise the status of the teaching profession so we continue to attract high achievers into teaching.
In your time as Education Minister, have you met any really impressive people?
I must include David Gonski in this list. For a man who has had every success in business, community service and philanthropy, he remains incredibly humble and down to earth.
His historic report was simply ‘the facts’.
No ideology, non-political, just the facts about Australian education as he and his panel saw them.
A group of people that get a special mention are Kindergarten teachers.
They are true miracle workers. Taking those little children who come to school bright eyed but sometimes with challenging issues to have them reading and writing within a year is a true miracle.
Having had two of my own go through Kinder recently brings their amazing work to life to me in an even more personal way.
In what little leisure time you have, what do you enjoy doing?
I am a very keen cyclist so I do as much mountain biking, road bike riding and time on the trainer in the garage as I can.
The kids enjoy riding as well so I try to ride to school with them as often as possible.
Other than that the trampoline gets a good workout at home.
What career ambitions do you still want to fulfil?
This is the best job I could imagine. All politicians sacrifice family for their work, so I would spend more time with my wife and children.
I’m enjoying my current job too much to give much thought to anything else.