Luke Grant:The Minister said he’s open to the idea yesterday, let’s see how open. Here he is on the line. Senator, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Luke and good morning to your listeners.

Luke Grant: So let’s go quickly first to this Safe Schools program. A lot’s been made about how the disaffected right bullied yourself and the Prime Minister into making a change, and I don’t want this conversation to be about that. You’ve obviously agreed with some of your colleagues that there were areas that needed to be looked at, fixed, removed, whatever. In particular, what concerned you?

Simon Birmingham: Well what concerned me Luke was whether or not all of the resources that were being developed were appropriate for the age of children they were being presented to. Whether or not all of the weblinks and so on that were associated with this program were done in the best way possible and the safest way possible, being very conscious of online safety for young Australians. They’re the types of things that bothered me, and look, frankly, I agree with your introduction. I made quite a number of comments yesterday when announcing this, that people who want to make and play politics out of the safety of our children, and our kids’ education, really need to back off and find other things to have their political squabble over. That, in the end there were those on one extreme who said this program was perfect, you don’t need to touch a single thing. There were those on another extreme who said you should axe it, you should cut all funding, you should ban it, you shouldn’t do anything. And we took a path through the middle of it, said, of course the objectives of this program to encourage tolerance in schools, to stamp out homophobia, to provide support to kids who are grappling with issues, are objectives we should stand up for and that But equally, children have a right, and parents have a right to know that they won’t be exposed to age inappropriate materials or concepts that are beyond their years. So we’ve sought to get that balance right by really fixing the problems with the program, by ensuring then that it’s a resource that teachers can choose to use if they wish in the future.

Luke Grant: Yeah, that’s a good thing. Answer me this then. Was it a mistake? Because I think this program was introduced by the then Abbott Government. Was it a mistake to even have this program in there?

Simon Birmingham: Well the contract for this program, and it’s a bit of an unusual one in this sense, in that it’s contracted out of the Government to another body for a four year period. The contract was let by the previous Labor Government, however the first resources for the program came in under the Abbott Government. So in this sense, the actual decision to have it, the legal contract and funding agreement were all stuck by Labor. It’s had criticisms before, certainly over the last couple of years. They came to a, I guess, more of a heightened peak in the last couple of months because of some new resources that were released late last year that would have been started to be rolled out in schools this year potentially. That’s why the criticism reached a new height and that’s why we’ve acted at this particular time to step in and say, okay, there needs to be new conditions and new safety measures put around it.

Luke Grant: Yeah. It seems that members of the party who had concerns, I think particularly Mr Christensen in Queensland, and whilst he seemed delighted with your reaction, as I was hearing him talk he kept repeating the word gutted, and I thought my god, you’ve just given a line to the ALP press release and I wasn’t disappointed to find that word used several times. Let’s move on from that to this other idea of having schools there for longer. Something like 80,000 students we learn today are looking for after school care. Are schools potentially a solution here?

Simon Birmingham: We should only extend the school day if it’s going to be of educational benefit to children. Yes there are other demands and challenges around of course after school care and child care for families trying to juggle work balance and family balance obligations. The structure of our school day needs to be first and foremost driven by the wellbeing of children. Now there are- it’s widely acknowledged that Australia has a very full curriculum, often said an even flooded curriculum. We took some steps earlier in this term of Government to review the national curriculum and to try to scale it back at least in some ways, to declutter it a little bit, to make sure that teachers are focusing on the basics and kids are learning the things they need to. And it’s important to emphasis, in relation to the topic we were discussing before. There’s no expectation that teachers spend a mandatory amount of time on a program like the Safe Schools program. They work out how to pick up resources out of a program like that and work it into a curriculum as they teach it around health and safety and wellbeing and tolerance and so on. So, look, I’m open, it really is of course something that could only be pursued by the states and territories, but I’m open to conversations about how the school days could be better structured. What we’re seeing overseas in some places is a more formalised period at the end of the school day that’s dedicated to sport and art and some of those other activities so that you’re not trying to drag out the school day for children, expecting that you’re going to be achieving great academic and theoretical steps late  in the day when kids are getting tired. But that perhaps you can do more of some of the other important parts of the curriculum and other activities bolted on at the end of the day. That may well be worth looking at, but of course they all come with fairly hefty price tags once you’re talking about these things.

Luke Grant: Yeah, indeed. This idea of Melbourne’s Templestowe, a public high school, which has flexible learning hours, children can choose to study between 7.15 and 5.15. That sort of thinking, to my mind anyway, is somewhat revolutionary. But is that something that parents should expect to be more mainstream years into the future?

Simon Birmingham: I think we do need to realise that young people are in many ways maturing a little earlier than perhaps they used to. In preparing themselves for university, or training, or work after school, they need of course to have exposure to the types of different hours and different work practices and structures that come with post-school education or  work. The thing with secondary level, you may well more see more schools experimenting with those types of programs because it could well work better for families but also in preparing the kids for their post school life.

Luke Grant: There’s another story today about men shunning careers and teaching. Apparently, retirement has driven the proportion of male teachers to a record low. We want more blokes to teach, surely.

Simon Birmingham: We do – at least I think that is a real concern. Of course, it’s been a trend for quite some period of time and we really need to seek to elevate the regard and the perceptions around the role of teachers. We’ve put in place a number of reforms over the last couple of years to try and raise the standards and the bar for those going through university in a teacher qualification so that we end some of these debates about whether or not teachers themselves have adequate literacy or numeracy standards when they finish. We want everyone to have confidence that teachers are some of the most literate and numerate and capable individuals of the population so that it becomes a career that is worth aspiring to. We’re equally ensuring that future primary school teachers do have more specialisation, especially in maths and sciences and such fields. And they’re fields where it becomes even more important to try and attract a mix of genders in, because those young girls do very well when they do study maths and sciences. I guess the challenge is – and perhaps this is part of the problem we have – that young girls don’t tend to study maths and sciences as far into their studies as they do. Equally, we’re not getting as many boys into schools and hence we’re having problems with maths and sciences in schools. So we need to get boys who are studying maths and sciences to also study teaching, to be specialist maths and science teachers in their schools, just ideally as we want girls doing that as well, but I think it is obvious that we have too few girls studying maths and sciences in schools, too few boys studying teaching in universities, and they’re two things that we both need to lift to fix both the gender mix of our teachers over time but also the mix of them in and in their qualifications to study in specialist areas like maths.

Luke Grant: One quick one before you go. We’ve got the Golden Slipper on at Rosehill in Sydney today so I want you to imagine that I’m asking you to tip a horse in a two horse race. Simon, the first race is called General Election and the other horse is called Double Dissolution. Now, you can’t sit on the fence here, who’re you tipping?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] I wish you were interviewing my good friend the defence minister Marise Payne because she’s also a bit of a punter so …

Luke Grant: Oh, is she?

Simon Birmingham: … she would have leapt straight into telling you who her tip for the Golden Slipper was. I’m afraid I’m not that well versed. Look, I – in many ways it depends how the Senate behaves. I don’t want to sound like I’m completely sitting on the fence, although I’m sure you expect me to

Luke Grant: Yes.

Simon Birmingham: But, we’ve put priority on ending union corruption, on getting the Australian Building and Corruption Commission, the building industry watchdog re-established so that we have somebody to make sure that we don’t have building sites held to ransom in the way that the Trade Union Royal Commission has found. Now, if the Senate in the short period of time that will be available passes the ABCC legislation, then there’s probably not much need for a double dissolution. But, if it’s not dealt with, then obviously the chances are heightened and that’s where you’d probably put your money

Luke Grant: Okay, well that indicates to me that perhaps I should be backing general election, but my gut feeling is that the house will come back early, the budget will be early, the Senate won’t get its you know what together, and we’ll go early to the people. But, you know what, I’m a punter so I’m likely to get it wrong. I’ll defer to your greater knowledge.

Simon Birmingham: We’ve seen the Senate not exactly get its act together in a number of ways during this term and it’s because of the dysfunction of the Senate voting system that we had those marathon sessions this week and that thankfully have now reformed Senate voting and next election when voters go to fill out their Senate ballot paper, they’ll get to choose where their preferences go, not some backroom party operator.

Luke Grant: Good to talk to you, have a great weekend.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure. Thanks, Luke, anytime.

Luke Grant: Thanks a lot. That’s Senator Simon Birmingham.