Sarah Tomlinson: But first today, the Minister for Education and Training is visiting schools and preschools on the Eyre Peninsular, and a little later today in Whyalla. He spoke with Deane Williams when he was in Port Lincoln, and Deane asked him about the very young children he met in the city yesterday and whether he could visualise where they would be in, say, 15 years’ time.


Simon Birmingham: Well I have a five-year-old at home, my little daughter, so dealing with those very small children is something I’m quite accustomed to –whether it’s at home or nowadays at work as the Education Minister. And look, it is an unknown world in some ways that children of that age will enter into. Yes we know that there will be large parts of our economy, like agriculture in a region like this, that will still be an essential part of South Australia for the definitive and unforeseeable – and indefinite future. But for children like that, what type of skills they will need is a more open question as we’ve seen the rapid change in technology. And what we really need is for our education system to equip them with the basics, equip them with an interest and a curiosity, particularly in areas of science and technology, and from there hope that those fundamental skills and that interest and curiosity drive them to succeed through whatever they will find when they eventually enter the workforce in 15-ish years time.

Reporter: With the population being more and more on the move, I guess, these days than ever before in history really, they could end up anywhere couldn’t they? I mean, in jobs in capital cities, they don’t necessarily young people these days stay put in a region.

Simon Birmingham: People of course are much more mobile, but also by the time they are leaving school and looking at a post-school educational pathways, they will find that many things will be open to them without necessarily having to leave their home as well, that the increased availability of tertiary studies online from universities right around the world will be far more common place when they’re leaving school than it is today. So yes, we could see these students end up anywhere, doing anything, working anywhere, but conversely they could well be staying home still doing anything anywhere.

Reporter: Or going back, or going away, getting some training at university and then coming back home again.

Simon Birmingham: Of course, and that’s a very common thing, particularly in remote communities and regional centres, and Rowan Ramsey, who I’ve been with on this trip around Port Lincoln, and Whyalla, and Port is one of our regional members who is very passionate about ensuring that young people and constituents from localities like this are able to access post-secondary schooling and given the support required to be able to go to university. And that’s a real challenge that I know many families grapple with from regional and rural areas, and it’s one that our Government is keen to try to work our way through and do what we can to assist in those circumstances.

Reporter: The Member for Grey, Rowan Ramsey, is with us in the studio Simon Birmingham. Rowan Ramsey, what was your impression today visiting the schools and the kindergartens in Port Lincoln?

Rowan Ramsey: Really good engagement, I think Deane, I — particularly impressed at the primary school and some of the lessons we actually sat on towards the end of our program there where kids getting back to phonetics if you like and the ways words are structured and sounds, and this was at year three level, and I thought gee that’s actually looking pretty good. Some classes that we dropped in on where kids were reading a newspaper, they were looking at an extract from a newspaper and picking out the difficult words, the relevant words before they got there and discussing what they’d be and then how they come into that piece of composition. That was good, the high school – you’ve got to be impressed. I think there’s a lot of good kids out there, a lot of good teachers, and the preschool this morning was very interesting so, and good passionate people there I think. So across the board I think Simon’s a better one to ask than me, this is my patch, obviously I’m going to be pretty proud of what people do, but I was.

Rowan Ramsey: Simon Birmingham, it’s one thing to get students to school in the first place, but student retention in regional Australia, is it keeping up with that in capital cities?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve certainly seen a growth and a lift in student retention, and that’s important. And I guess what we saw at the high school today was both a commitment to keep students in the school system and to support them even when they have gone a little bit off the rails, and also the creation of opportunities outside of the pure academic stream. And import – practical skills when they’re supported as part of their training to engage with local businesses, to get real world experience, and that’s the same for students at the Port Lincoln High in the Barramundi program supported by local industry and that engagement with aquaculture businesses – all of which doesn’t mean that those students have to go on and get jobs in aquaculture or get jobs in hospitality, but it means they’ve got more practical work experience that will be valued by employers when they finish school. And it means that they’re encouraged to stay at school because there are different areas of interest for them that keep them there right through to the end, but give them practical skills that can help them in whatever their post schooling training or work life may be.

Reporter: One further question about today’s schools, and that is do we have enough respect, across the community, as far as the wider community’s concerned, the parents of students, the students themselves, do we look up to our teachers, and… and I guess see them being in a responsible position in our society in our communities?

Simon Birmingham: I think in individual circumstances yes we largely do, most people speak well of the teachers they encounter, whether it’s the teacher of their children or their grandchildren, or generally speaking teachers they meet in the community. Yet at a macro, or broader level there is perhaps a sense of concern about the quality of our teachers. Now we’re acting to try to address that, not just by the reforms I mentioned before around specialisation of teachers, but also by putting some minimum standards in place so that before a trainee teacher graduates from university they will be tested for their own personal literacy and numeracy skills to ensure that in future everybody can have confidence. That those teachers are among the top 30 per cent of all Australians for their personal literacy and numeracy skills, and therefore know what they’re talking about when they go into a classroom to teach our children.

That’s about just providing a basic level of comfort, but yes I think more generally we need to celebrate the fact that teachers do a remarkable job generally in supporting young people through not just academic learning, but a whole range of wellbeing and welfare issues for those students as well, and that we do want to attract our best and brightest young people into the teaching profession to be able to provide that inspiration to new students in the future, so that they are well equipped to deal with whatever our changing economy may bring by way of work opportunities in the future.

Reporter: And whether students are engaged in school or not seems to have a strong connection with what’s happening at home, and the parents there of course. And how important is it for the parents to be engaged with, not just their children, but their children as students at school, and with the school itself and the teachers?

Simon Birmingham: Well the two largest impact factors in relation to a student’s outcomes, the first is absolutely parental engagement, and the second is teacher quality. So the home environment, the engagement of parents, is the largest factor in terms of where a student will end up. So it’s critical that parents recognise they have a big role to play, and that we appreciate that schools and teachers can only make up for so much, and that we really do need to get parents involved from the earliest stages.

Now we released, around about a year ago now, an app that can be downloaded called Learning Potential that is there to help parents with ideas about how they can engage from the very earliest years. Because we know from research and the latest early childhood development census that around 20 per cent of people, young children, start school with insufficient vocabulary with which to succeed, and if they start school with those types of deficiencies it’s really hard to catch up, and it makes the learning experience a negative one overall. So if we can address these issues before a child gets to school then there’s much more opportunity they’ll succeed and fewer costs of course in interventions for that child.

Now we’re proposing, the Turnbull Government, to invest around $3 billion extra in childcare and early learning over the next few years, and that’s an important investment in helping children to develop those types of skills before they start school. But ultimately that parental responsibility is essential, and it really is critical that parents do grab hold of the information that’s there, whether it’s engaging at the local library, looking at resources online, just sitting down reading to your children…

Rowan Ramsey: [Interrupts] I was going to say more reading at home by parents.

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely.

Rowan Ramsey: Reading aloud, reading to the kids.

Simon Birmingham: Simply reading aloud of course is a great way to build vocabulary, then teaching styles around phonics and phonetic awareness are things that teachers can pick up in a school environment, but if they start with a child who has a good broad vocabulary and an understanding of certain words then it’s a much simpler equation for them.

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Sarah Tomlinson: That’s the Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham. He’s visiting Port Lincoln and Whyalla today, and of course speaking with the ABC’s Deane Williams.