Jasmin Midgley: Today the Government has released figures showing how our school-aged kids are faring. The figures are taken from the Australian Early Development Census. It hasn’t been going for too long. This is the third time the survey’s been conducted, and it goes every three years. Senator Simon Birmingham’s the Minister for Education and Training. Good afternoon.

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

Jasmin Midgley: What are some of the key findings in this census?

Simon Birmingham: Well as you rightly say, this is the third such census, and so it’s captured data from around 300,000 Australian children in their first year of school last year. What it’s found is that around four in five are adequately prepared, across a range of capabilities, to start school, but that means around one in five do have certain vulnerabilities, whether it’s in their physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional security, language or cognitive skills, or overall general knowledge. So a number of challenges that children face, and some of those we’re seeing improvements in, but some of them are ongoing challenges.

Jasmin Midgley: So around 300,000 students. Is that everyone in that age group?

Simon Birmingham: That essentially does capture the student body for those starting school at the same time, so we’re really talking about five year olds, broadly speaking, right around the country last year. The data is encouraging in the area of language and cognitive skills, where we’ve seen improvements across both the 2009 and 2012 census levels and this latest figure for 2015, and particular improvements in Queensland, which is notable for your audience.

Jasmin Midgley: Okay. So that was- I was going to ask how much of a difference was there. Why did this start back in 2009? What was driving it?

Simon Birmingham: It’s really about giving a good snapshot of how capable and prepared kids are to start school, and from that that can really drive not just overall research into how it is that we can better prepare children to succeed at school, but also really tailored local programs. Because this data is so comprehensive, it can be broken down to regional areas and can enable local communities, councils, and schools to work together in addressing some of the challenges in their local area. And of course, this really is about early intervention. The better prepared children are when they start school, they happier they are when they start school, and the more successful they will be throughout their schooling life and the less we’ll have to face expensive interventions along the way.

Jasmin Midgley: So does this all really tie into things like starting the prep year, or what age kids start school, that kind of thing?

Simon Birmingham: It does, and one of the reasons that the researchers were explaining to me today that we’ve seen this lift in terms of language skills for students starting school in Queensland in particular is that back in 2009 there was a relatively low take up of preschool or kindergarten or prep for students across Queensland, but that has grown dramatically over recent years, from about a 30 per cent basis to around 70 per cent basis, and so they’re really seeing that enhanced outcome. So it’s a tick for what are record levels of Government investment in early learning, preschool, child care services, and ensuring that they are supported, and the Turnbull Government is supporting around $3 billion of extra funding in that area over the next few years. But there are of course a lot of home factors and parenting factors that come into play here too, and in some of those areas we still see big challenges.

Jasmin Midgley: Some of the results- I’ve had a look at the website today, and some of the results from cities and suburbs here on the Sunshine Coast. Caloundra, for example, has a higher percentage of developmentally vulnerable – I think you put it – children, than the Australian average, but it is about right in terms of the Queensland average. So how much impact will this kind of information have on policy making and then the distribution of those resources to specific sort of suburbs or cities?

Simon Birmingham: As I say, it can really be applied at a good strong local level, and today when I launched this data, I did so at a school in the northern suburbs of Adelaide – an area that is of low socioeconomic status – and they had some really challenging figures in that community through the 2009 and 2012 censuses. But this year we’ve seen that turn the corner, thanks to some really targeted local interventions in the school community, providing services that start from the very earliest stage of the child’s life, having paediatricians and other support services provided out of that school, and helping parents who may not have had the best of experiences themselves as a child and the best of parenting as a child to do a better job with their own children.

Jasmin Midgley: And how do you collect this data?

Simon Birmingham: So this data is collected and overseen by an expert panel of those with expertise in child development and awareness, and obviously they’re working very closely through state education departments and non-government schooling sectors to ensure that it is consistently applied across the board, and obviously using some of the expertise and insights of teaching staff.

Jasmin Midgley: But actually on the ground, how do you do it? Actually sort of at the chalkface – great term I heard recently – how do you collect the data? Are you getting the kids to sit an exam? It’s- how are you actually determining those five areas that you mentioned earlier?

Simon Birmingham: So these are more about observations of children, and observations that are heavily reliant then on the observations of their teachers in that introductory year. It’s not about testing in a NAPLAN-type way, but instead getting a good understanding of the children’s capabilities as they set out on their schooling life.

Jasmin Midgley: Does that make it a little bit subjective, though?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t think so. We see quite a lot of consistency across most of the data through the different years of the census being undertaken, and consistency across different socioeconomic quarters, and so on right around the country. I think this is quite robust, and really is quite world-leading in terms of the information it provides, as I say. Not just researchers at a national level, but the ability of communities to know whether it’s the emotional maturity of their children, the social engagement skills, or the physical wellbeing that are areas that require greater focus in the future.

Jasmin Midgley: So next one, 2018?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. The Government’s committed to continuing this, because of course, over time it will give us an even richer source of data in terms of the trends across different communities. As I’ve said, this time we’ve seen positive trends in some areas, and importantly a closing of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to some degree, but a big, big task still ahead of us in areas like that. 

Jasmin Midgley: And Simon, while I’ve got you – Simon Birmingham is here, he’s the Minister for Education and Training – we’ve been speaking to a lot of teachers over the last couple of weeks and months here on ABC Sunshine Coast, teachers who are disillusioned with the profession; teachers who are leaving after only being in the job for a couple of years. What are you doing to address those concerns? We’ve heard a lot of them here on the ABC over the last little while.

Simon Birmingham: The bulk of our teachers do a fabulous job, and as a Government we’ve been certainly very focussed on how we can support the quality of our teachers, support our teachers as practically as possible as well. The review of the national curriculum which we undertook did set about trying to simplify that where possible so that there is greater opportunity for teachers to focus on the things that they really need to do, and giving greater support through that national curriculum for teaching some of the basics in the early years, like phonics and phonetic awareness, and helping teachers to understand some of what is going to give them the best outcomes in their classroom, and therefore of course the most satisfactory experience in terms of teaching. Ultimately of course, the employment of teachers is something that state governments and non-government schooling sectors undertake, but we’re trying to provide resources and support in an environment where we have right now record levels of funding going into our schools to help teachers do the best they can. 

Jasmin Midgley: Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned the state government involvement, because a few of the concerns that we’ve heard really revolve around the national curriculum and the roll out of that, and about how teachers are feeling like they’re being asked to do more with less – or you know, more of those responsibilities and things like that. So how often are you speaking with those State Government agencies?

Simon Birmingham: Well I speak with state Ministers, and through them or with them at the Education Council that brings us all together, at least a few times during the year. But importantly, I think what we achieved as a Government – a Coalition Federal Government  on our election – was a review of where the national curriculum was going, and did allow us to try to focus in a bit more in terms of what it is targeting, so that we tried to de-clutter it in ways where we possibly could. No doubt that there is perhaps more that can be done in future initiatives in that space in future years, but I think the changes that have been made do lighten some of the load on teachers and enable them to focus really on those specifics and important things kids need at the outset, such as simply learning how to read.

Jasmin Midgley: Do you hear some of that feedback though? Like, does it make it all the way to your office?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, and I try when I’m out and about to get into schools and visit schools. Whilst we’re not as a Federal Government responsible for running schools and running the education system, we obviously provide leadership and coordination in a number of ways, and I’m very keen to make sure that’s informed by experience from the ground.

Jasmin Midgley: Simon, thank you so much for so much your time this afternoon. Appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, thank you. Cheers.

Jasmin Midgley: That’s Senator Simon Birmingham on ABC Sunshine Coast. He’s the Minister for Education and Training.