Tom Elliott: All right, our next guest, as I mentioned earlier, is the Federal Minister for Education and Training, the Honourable Simon Birmingham, Senator for South Australia. Senator, good afternoon. 

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Tom, good afternoon to your listeners.

Tom Elliott: Now I have a media release in front of me with your name at the top of it, and it says – as far as I could tell – that roughly one in five children are not actually ready to go to school. Is this correct?

Simon Birmingham: Well broadly, Tom, what it shows is that one in five certainly have some degree of vulnerability in terms of their readiness for school. So it’s not to say that they aren’t ready for school, but that there are particular challenges they face in starting school. This data’s derived from the release today of the Australian Early Development Census, which is the third time since 2009 that we have surveyed and assessed essentially all of the nation’s schoolchildren in their first or foundation year at school. So around 300,000 schoolchildren looked at last year who were in their first year at school, assessing them across five different categories, from physical health through social competence, emotional maturity, language skills or communication and general knowledge.

Tom Elliott: Is this possibly- I know we sent our daughter to school when she’d just turned five, and some people said that was too young. Is it because there’s a trend of people putting their kids in younger at school?

Simon Birmingham: No, that’s not necessarily the case, and indeed, what we’ve seen is that there’s been some positive growth in terms of the capacity of children around their language skill and cognitive skills, and that would suggest that the record levels of investment that we’re making in early learning and child care and preschool support is paying dividends and actually helping children develop some of those skills early on, but that there are still some real challenges around physical health and wellbeing and social engagement. That really comes down a lot to some of the home environment and support for children to help them socialise as well as – frankly and sadly – some of the basics about making sure that kids get a good night’s sleep, are well-rested, and have a nutritious breakfast before they get off to school.

Tom Elliott: So are you trying to say to parents like, just do the things that you should be doing, like feed your children, make sure they have enough sleep, get up at the right time, that sort of thing?

Simon Birmingham: Those are really important messages: that children do need stability in their lives, ideally during those early years, they need sound structures to help them, and they do need to be rested, healthy, well-fed before they get into the classroom, and that that all really helps with the learning experience.

Tom Elliott: Can I say- I mean, those sorts of things to me sound like a statement of the blatantly obvious. Do we need a Federal Government report and you coming out to talk about these things to tell parents that they should feed and rest their children properly?

Simon Birmingham: Well, perhaps we shouldn’t need it, but unfortunately there are problems out there, and the numbers show us that we do have challenges for around 20 per cent of children in terms of their vulnerability starting school, and that it’s not just an academic problem, and the better we can really focus on helping parents and helping communities address these problems early on, then the less really expensive problems and interventions you have through the school system or in other ways you have later on in life. So one of the good things about this data is because it’s comprehensive, it’s able to be broken down into local community segments, and there’s some good examples of communities who’ve introduced earlier programs to get parents who may not have had particularly happy or positive experiences themselves growing up better engaged in accessing the many services that are available early on and better socialising and helping their children so that they are ready when they start school, and some of those communities have shown a turnaround based on previous census periods.

Tom Elliott: Okay, can I just quickly ask about one particular stat which caught my eye? You looked at the differences between boys and girls across the country, and look, tomorrow’s International Women’s Day, and we’re constantly told how women aren’t the equal of men, and women have all of these issues and lack of pay and super and all the rest of it that keeps them behind the status of men, yet I was amazed to see when it comes to whether or not you’re ready to go to school, 85 per cent of girls are ready to go to school, only 72 per cent of boys. Now that says that boys are starting well behind the eight ball.

Simon Birmingham: Tom, it’s long been acknowledged that in areas of emotional maturity and social competence, boys develop a little more slowly than girls, and that’s just a fact, and researchers have found that for a prolonged period of time.

Tom Elliott: Have you noticed that in Federal Parliament?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs]. The theory is they catch up during their schooling years, but perhaps I’d best let some of my female colleagues in politics comment on that. So we shouldn’t be too concerned about some of those differences, and in some ways, as I said today and one of the researchers pointed out to me, that difference isn’t just- that difference should be seen as almost a quality check in that the data is accurate to the point of what research has long told us, that boys will have slower developmental pathways early on but catch up more during schooling. But of course there are particular areas where boys perhaps have greater challenges, especially in some of those areas of social engagement, where it’s really important that we make sure that they understand the need for positive and respectful relationships early on, that they’re supported to make sure that they engage with other kids and with their teachers in a manner that really helps cultivate an environment of learning, not just for them, but for everybody around them.

Tom Elliott: Thank you, Senator. Senator Simon Birmingham there, Federal Education Minister.