Richard Glover: Simon Birmingham is the Education and Training Minister. Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Richard and good afternoon to your listeners.

Richard Glover: Vulnerable in what way? What do we mean by that?

Simon Birmingham: Well Richard, this is data out of the third national census we’ve undertaken of children in their first or foundation year of school. And so last year, around 300,000 young children were assessed in this regard across five different categories, and those categories range from physical health and wellbeing, through social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills and general knowledge. So a range of different factors that attempt to have a look at really the readiness of children for starting school, and their vulnerability in terms of whether or not they will succeed at school.

Richard Glover: Now, you’ve had some good outcomes actually with things like physical stuff, and even some of the cognitive abilities. The less good results are around emotional maturity, really.

Simon Birmingham: So some really positive results in terms of language and cognitive skills, which have shown improvement since the 2009 census and since the 2012 census. So steady gains there, which is a demonstration that the record levels of investment we’re putting into preschool, early learning child care is probably really paying dividends in terms of some of those skills. But yes, there are some challenges elsewhere. While a gap closing between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, there’s still a wide gap there; a strong gap between lower socioeconomic groups and those in upper quintiles, and of course, yes, some challenges in terms of the social competence and emotional maturity – especially amongst boys. 

Richard Glover: In fact, that gap between the rich and the poor is growing bigger. Quoting from the report: over the period, the gap between the proportion of developmentally vulnerable children in the most disadvantaged areas relative to the least disadvantaged areas widened across all five domains. 

Simon Birmingham: The gap has grown to an extent, and we did see in that area where I said there was really positive gains around language and cognitive skills, improvements across every single category. So that’s very encouraging, and strong improvements there in those lower socioeconomic categories too. But yes, there’s a real gap, and it’s in areas that perhaps really do impact more on the home. It’s important to remember here we’re talking about children in their first year of school, so we’re discussing what those children are like in terms of the foundation when they get to school and the challenges they have. And sometimes this comes down to absolute basics like whether or not children are well rested enough, if they’re getting enough sleep, their diet and whether they’re getting a nutritious breakfast to start the day – some of those real challenges in the home environment.

Richard Glover: And when we talk about social competency, it’s things like being able to play with other children, knowing that when the teacher says shush you shush – it’s stuff like that, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, those areas of social engagement are critical measures in relation to children, whether they are respectful in their relationships to other children and their teachers. And whilst of course every five year old is boisterous in their own way, there’s a certain level of behaviour that is expected.

Richard Glover: Okay, but this is before they turn up to the school gate. So what can Government do, what can the country do if they’ve just got parents at home who are not giving them those things?

Simon Birmingham: What’s very useful about this census is that because it’s comprehensive in looking at children across the country it can be broken down into localised areas. And the school where I launched it at in Northern Adelaide today is a great example where they’ve taken the data over the previous cycles and they’ve applied it to programs that are now run out of that school community well before children start school, so that the paediatrician services are provided from the school community in tandem with occasional care services and child care services. And they’re really trying to help get parents who may have had less than positive experiences themselves growing up into the school environment earlier, and to get them access to the support services, where they can perhaps better understand things that the rest of us might take for granted as being really important to the development of their child, and they can access the help that’s required.

Richard Glover:
Okay, more parental support and more breakfast probably. You know, just finally, is part of the problem that some people are sending their children to school really early, really young, and some might say in order to avoid child care costs, whilst some are delaying it perhaps too much in order to give the child an academic advantage?

Simon Birmingham: Most of the states have moved to some fairly uniform rules around when children start school, and so that’s, I think, got us to a point where fundamentally children start school around the age of five. They might be a few months shy of that at the time they start, but they will be basically five at the time they start. I don’t think the starting age itself is a problem in that respect. It really is about whether or not the home environment is supporting what should be going on in terms of preschool services, in readying children to have that resilience to be able to succeed at school.

Richard Glover: Okay. I mean, more proof that a dollar spent early is $10 saved later. 

Simon Birmingham: I think that’s a very true adage, and absolutely that the more we can address these issues before we get children into the school environment the less we end up having to spend on interventions and support that become very costly and difficult to administer later on. 

Richard Glover: Good on you. Thanks for talking to us. 

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure.

Richard Glover: There’s Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education and Training, as the competency of the little five year olds going into school is studied and some changes over, but still yeah, big gaps between the rich and the poor, and maybe getting a little bit bigger as well.