Michael Pachi: …And to tell us more about this we are joined by the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Now Senator Birmingham thanks for your time

Simon Birmingham:  G'day Michael, Natalie and listeners, good to be with you.

Michael Pachi: Now I believe you've had a look at these findings from this research, what would you like to see parents do to improve their child's literacy?

Simon Birmingham: This is concerning research showing that 20 per cent of all Australian children and 30 per cent of those from disadvantaged background start school behind the eight ball in terms of their vocabulary and their understanding of words. And so it's really important that parents cease the message from this which is really a simple one. That's to take the time to read with your children. Spend a little time ideally each day, 15 minutes a day, reading stories to your children from the very earliest stages and then of course as they get older help them to understand what the letters and ultimately the words means – because really we can't just leave it all for teachers or early childhood educators, we've got to get a good start in the home wherever possible to start with.

Natalie Peters: Now you say parents need to take more responsibility, what do you do in those areas of perhaps disadvantage where the parent perhaps isn't equipped to help the child properly, is it just 15 minutes a day or, you know, what if people can't find that 15 minutes a day or aren't equipped to help their child in that way?

Simon Birmingham: I appreciate that parents and people's lives are incredibly busy but it really is important to try to carve that time out and of course some people do have very difficult and challenging circumstances. But there is help out there, both guidance that can help people in terms of what they should do to help their child develop and as a federal government we released last year a learning potential app, an application so parents can download, personalise it to their child and that will at each different age suggest different activities and things you can do with your child to help with their literacy, their numeracy, to help keep them engaged and have fun along the way as well. But at a more practical and local level what I'd really encourage parents who might have some hesitancy about reading with their child or otherwise is to get alongside to a library, talk to the librarians about the type of programs that are available in those local libraries and you'll find there are many different occasions where you can go in, sit as part of a group where stories are read and those types of activities occur. So there's definitely help out there either at a big national level or at a local level that I'd really encourage parents to take up and see if they have any hesitancy about how to go about better engaging their children in the early years. It really is a simple as picking up a good book, a nice easy child's book and starting to read it with them.

Natalie Peters: And you say 15 minutes a day. What kind of difference can that make for a child by the time they reach kindergarten?

Simon Birmingham: The research shows that for children who do get that 15 minutes a day read to them and of course that stacks up to be nearly 500 hours of reading time before they get to school, that can possibly advance their learning capacity by up to six months when they start school. Equally the research shows that children who get to school and struggle with their literacy skills, who don't have a good vocabulary to start with, they will struggle to catch up. No matter how hard our teachers and our school system works, it is a struggle to try to catch kids up who really start from a lack of basics in terms of actually knowing words, understanding what those words might mean, even if they can't write the best or understand how to write the alphabet, if they know and understand words, that helps with their literacy but it helps with all of the other areas of learning as well.

Michael Pachi: And Minister can you tell us about this Learning Potential App which I know has already been launched but you're planning to do a bit more with it tomorrow, how does that work?

Simon Birmingham: The Learning Potential App has been downloaded by more than 100,000 Australians, it's well more than that now, and what parents are able to do in downloading the app is to enter their child's details and name and date and birth of their child, and then it customises the advice to you in terms of the type of information that it suggests you might be able to do with your child. Basic things like making cookies with your child in terms of how to engage them in counting – counting the measuring cups that are going in, the teaspoons of different things that are going in, right through to more elaborate suggestions for older children of what you might be able to do to help them with their literacy and numeracy skills and suggestions of where you can get other information to help your child out. So clearly it's been one of the most popular applications of an educational sense that went on to the market last year. It's provided by the Federal Government free of charge to download and any parent can access Learning Potential from the Apple store or any of the general application programs or simply Google it and you'll find links from the Education Department website.

Michael Pachi: Now Senator Birmingham as we know the new political year starts in earnest this week, Labor trying to make education an election issue obviously among other things, and today we had the Opposition leader Bill Shorten he released a video spruiking Labor's credentials on this issue. Let's have a quick listen.


Bill Shorten: A focus on every child's needs, better trained teachers, every school, every child. Let's make Australian schools the best. Labor, we'll put people first.

[Excerpt ends]

Michael Pachi: Now Senator Birmingham, Bill Shorten is virtually in every shot of that video. What do you make of it all?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Yes well I was about to say listening to that extract where it seems to focus on putting children's needs first, the cynic in me thinks from what I hear of it that it's more about putting Bill Shorten first and probably about trying to save Bill's leadership from threats from Anthony Albanese or others. But seriously though what Labor is trying to do is kick start the political year for themselves through what is a promise of great largess in terms of their spending commitments that they're making and this seems like very much the same old Labor Party. They've committed last week $37 billion worth of new spending which they're saying will go into schools funding. But the problem is they're not able to detail how they'll ensure that money is spent wisely, how they will make sure it is spent in a way that genuinely improves student outcomes and whilst it sounds instinctively nice to say we'll spend lots more money in schools, the reality is that since 1988 state and federal governments have doubled in real terms the amount of money that's been put into education. So taking inflation into account you're still seeing a doubling of funding going into schools and over that time enrolments have only increased by 18 per cent. But the sad part is, performance as a nation in terms of the literacy, numeracy and science outcomes of our students has gone backwards over the same timeframe. So we've put lots more money in, we're getting poorer outcomes and it seems as if Labor just wants to repeat those same old mistakes rather than saying we'll take a step back, work out what are the things we need to do to best lift student outcomes and then structure funding around those activities.

Michael Pachi: But you do have to appease the states as well. If you look at New South Wales you've got the Education Minister there Adrian Piccoli a Nationals MP, so from the Coalition side of the fence, he's welcomed Labor's commitment of this extra $4.5 billion to pay for the last two years of the Gonski funding and that's money that the Coalition scrapped when it came to power in 2013, so have you spoken to Mr Piccoli? How do you appease someone like him who is from the Coalition side of a political fence?

Simon Birmingham: Well the states will always welcome extra money going their way and the states are of course the largest operator of schools in Australia and of course they're the ones with the primary responsibility for running schools and in fact provide the bulk of the funding to schools. I understand why states would be happy to see promises of extra money because that makes it easier for state budgets, but we of course have a massive debt at a federal level that we've created largely under the Rudd and Gillard years and which we are trying to work very hard to reign in and an unfunded promise of $37 billion really is not something the nation can just take on the chin at present because it suits Bill Shorten's policy, we have to make sure that we apply common sense in these things. 

We are already delivering record funding into Australian schools at the Federal Government level and we're committed to growing that funding year on year. But what I want to make sure is that unlike the Labor Party we don't think that funding is all that matters and instead when we're looking at school funding agreements from 2018 onwards with the states and territories and non-government schooling sectors, that we really work out how it is that we can best direct funding in a way that lifts student outcomes. They think first and foremost about how rather than what Labor's doing which is thinking first and foremost about how much they're spending.

Michael Pachi: Now you're a South Australian Senator, what do you make of this stoush between Federal Labor and the South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill? Today on Sky we had Tony Burke referring to him as ignorant for daring to criticise Labor's education policy. It's quite interesting that you've got a senior Federal MP, Federal Labor MP criticising a fairly senior Labor MP even though he is on a state level, but he's the Premier of a state.

Simon Birmingham: Michael, Jay Weatherill who is the longest serving Labor Premier in the country is somebody who I haven't always agreed with, that's for sure, but Jay has been pretty clear on a couple of fronts lately. One was in relation to this school funding where he said quite clearly that there is no coherent plan from the Federal Labor Party to actually pay for it. And that's dead right. There is no coherent plan of how to pay for it. They're saying that they have savings measures they'll apply to it. They're the same savings measure that Labor said they'll apply for every single spending promise they make and of course you can't keep spending the same dollar over and over again, so it is quite an incoherent approach they have to budgeting which is what drove the nation into debt in the first place. 

The split though between South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill and the Federal Labor Party is stronger than just that because it really emerged over the tax reform discussions where the Turnbull Government got Morrison in charge of the Treasury job is taking a holistic approach to looking at how we make our tax system as efficient as possible to be able to grow the economy and create more jobs in the future and we've been very open and wise I think in saying that nothing is off the table in that regard, so we're willing to look at all aspects of the tax system, but anything that we choose to do we will take to the people at the next election. So if it involves changes to the GST or company tax or superannuation taxes or income taxes or all of those things, any changes we will take and put to the people at the next election in a very transparent way. Labor by contrast is simply ruling things out and that's what Jay Weatherill is rightly criticising.

Michael Pachi: Yeah. Now Senator Birmingham just before I let you go I did want to ask you about this opinion piece that Amanda Vanstone, fellow South Australian, she's penned for the Fairfax papers, it's in the Sydney Morning Herald and Brisbane Times, basically she says that people like Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop and Philip Ruddock should quit politics before bitterness sets in. Do you think that Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop, Philip Ruddock they should go and give someone else a chance to contest what are essentially fairly safe blue ribbons seats?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think it is always important that a party has a program of renewal and I have no doubt that at next election we will see some Liberal MPs who are retiring. In my own home state, Dr Andrew Southcott who served for 20 years, he's retiring at the next election, and we've got a wonderful young woman Nicolle Flint who is running in place of Andrew at the next election. [Indistinct]…

Michael Pachi: [Interrupts] But how about Abbott, Bishop- yeah but how about Abbott…

Simon Birmingham: …New South Wales…

Michael Pachi: Yeah, Abbott, Bishop and Ruddock.

Simon Birmingham: …the party is working through its pre-selection processes there. Now Tony has flagged that he is running again…

Michael Pachi: So is Bronwyn.

Simon Birmingham: Tony has much to contribute to public life whether he's inside or outsider of the Parliament. I think as a former prime minister we should respect Tony's decision there. Bronwyn and Philip and the party in New South Wales will make their calls about what's appropriate for their seats and I wouldn't want to push long servants of the party in Parliament out but of course renewal is important and I trust that across the country we will see some good new younger candidates just as we're seeing in South Australia at the next election.

Michael Pachi: Okay, Senator Birmingham thanks for your time this Sunday evening. Best of luck for the parliamentary year ahead.

Simon Birmingham:  An absolute pleasure. Any time guys.

Michael Pachi: Good on you.

Natalie Peters: Now do you read to your grandchildren? Are you doing it 15 minutes a day- or your children, 15 minutes a day, five times, seven times a week? Give us a call and let us know if it's impossible. We're already getting lots of feedback on Twitter about that. Some saying that really it's up to teachers to be doing that. Give us a call 131873.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:                   James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                    Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media:                                                    media@education.gov.au