Nesha O'Neil [Australian Childcare Alliance]: Welcome to Top Ryde Early Learning, we're delighted to be able to be hosting our Local Member John Alexander and the Federal Minister for Early Childhood Simon Birmingham to talk about their second round of the Early Learning Language Applications Program. It's been a fantastic program here at the service. We've had all of our children, all of our four-year-old preschool aged children, engaged in the trial pilot program over the last year and they've really enjoyed it, really benefited from it. As you can see they love the application. It's particularly good for this age group because the app is designed to follow each child's learning as they are progressing at their pace, it's really interesting for them and the children who are good at sitting down for an hour and getting immersed in something they can do or for the kids who only get immersed in something for 10 minutes or 15 minutes and then go and do something else and then come back can learn at that pace as well.

The children don't see it as learning or education. They are just really excited about the games, about the Polyglots, about the little- new things and they get really excited every time we get to download an update and have new exciting adventures for the Polyglots to go on so they go on an island adventure or something else and they learn new things that way. We're particularly excited about the opportunity that a STEM program might be developed because getting those skills embedded in children in a pre-school age is going to be really valuable for them as well. Any questions on that, on our experience?

Question: Well, – it's obviously not designed to make them fluent in the language but what kind of things are they learning? Are they learning basic communications and have you actually found that the children are repeating those languages, in Indonesian in this case, to each other?

Nesha O'Neil: Absolutely. So, it's not designed at making- it's not an academic learning program, it's much more of an immersive learning program so they're learning bits and pieces. The important thing for them is to lay down the neural pathways for learning a second language. A lot of the children here are multilingual, in my other service they are not. So, the program is the first exposure they've had to a second language and studies have shown that laying down those neural pathways at this age means that no matter what language they try and pick up later on, be it the same language or a different one, they'll pick it up a lot quicker and easier. They absolutely chat away to themselves, they sing songs, in this case, in Indonesian. They sing to each other in Indonesian, they say hello and goodbye. It drops in and out of everyday language as they're going around the yard. So, yeah, they've made it a part of their life. Anyone else?

Question: Why do you think it works so well?

Nesha O'Neil: I think the app was very well developed in terms of keeping children's interests. It's very interesting for them and very engaging and that's what works well with this age group. When we're planning our- the rest of our educational program we have to make it interest-based for the kids. It's no use sitting them down and saying okay, now we're going to learn about volume. We have to look at, you know, what they're interested in, what they are fascinated by and then lay the learning outcomes over the top of that. So- and this is something that they're very interested in and engaged with. The program itself isn't just repetitive and boring, it actually goes off in different ways in different areas and they can choose which pathway they're interested in, if they're interested in the beach or the island or whatever it is for them.

Question: Do you think – as a teacher, do you think that if the same sort of games were applied to things like maths and science, you could get the same sort of response?

Nesha O'Neil: Absolutely. I think it's going to take- it's a lot harder and I think it's going to take quite a lot of thought and development around getting a good app that's just as engaging. But this app itself is very engaging. If it wasn't the iPads would have stayed on the shelf all year, the kids wouldn't have picked them up. We actually had to limit the amount of time the kids were allowed to pick them up and encourage them, to, you know, go outside and run now, stop learning. So, if it wasn't engaging they wouldn't have done it. So, hopefully the STEM one will be just as engaging for them. Yep, good okay. So, I'm now going to introduce you to John Alexander our local federal member who's helped launch the program for us and has been watching with interest over the last year.

John Alexander:  Nesha, thank you very much and when we first talked this morning I asked how it was going and the answer was super awesome. So, you've got a more adult talk now but I think super awesome is right. And the comment from the kids time and again was it's easy and it's fun. It's not like learning and it's been made fun and it's so obvious that they're enjoying it and learning. I think the important thing from our point of view is that this is a most multicultural area of Sydney and you look at the mix of the kids here and they're playing and engaging with each other and I think that's fantastic and now as a country, we're picking up the languages of our region to be specialising in Indonesian I think is just a wonderful thing and it's setting up the ability to learn language and improve languages as we grow older. So, this really is the future.

So, without a further do, welcome to Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training. Happy New Year and welcome to the multicultural capital of Australia.

Simon Birmingham:  Thanks very much JA and thank you for having us here and to Nesha, thank you so much for having us here at the Top Ryde Early Learning Centre and for sharing with us your experiences with this wonderful program and thank you all for coming. I love nothing more than an occasion where journalists can get their shoes off and get in the sandpit. So, thank you guys.

Look, this is a wonderful program that is providing great opportunities for pre-schoolers right around Australia and has enormous potential to transform the way early learning takes place. Everybody knows and understands that children have an instinctive love of technology. The challenge is how we put that use of technology to good use and to ensure that it has developmental advantages for those children. And by this type of program we are actually finding ways to do that to not just ensure that they're getting good learning opportunities but they're getting really well advanced learning opportunities that actually take it to a whole new level in terms of their developmental capabilities. 

By providing the opportunity for preschool age children to start to learn a second language, they're not only getting that exposure to a second language but as you've heard from [indistinct], they're getting great developmental capabilities as well that really do boost their capacity as they enter schooling. Over the last year we've trialled in 41 sites around Australia, this Early Learning Languages Australia program and it's given the four and five year olds the opportunity to learn languages such as Indonesian, Chinese and Arabic and others that are really supporting those children in terms of their capacity. Over the next year we're going to expand access so that around 1000 sites who applied to be part of the initial pilot can equally access this application and have the opportunity to provide these opportunities to their children while we also develop additional supportive resources for early learning and preschool teachers and for parents to support their application of this.

In addition, we're transforming the way we potentially teach science and maths to young children in the future by going down a similar pathway of using technology to help with their utilisation and development of science and maths skills, the same as we're doing in this language space. So all up this is a great success and a great step in a journey to make sure than in future we're using technology to help our youngest students in our schooling and education system develop language skills, develop maths and science skills, and be the best they possibly can be equipped to go on to their schooling and their futures.

Question: How much would an expansion on this cost, and can we expect to see these iPads in every childcare centre, preschool centre throughout Australia just on the languages first, or what's the rollout going to look like?

Simon Birmingham:  Well many, many preschools already have different types of devices and iPads that they use in different ways, and so really what we're focusing on now is how we develop the apps and the technology, and do so in the lowest cost way to ensure it can be rolled out across the board. That's why I support, in terms of investing in resources for preschool teachers and for parents is so essential, so that what we really have is a product that can be picked up and used in any preschool with minimal cost and minimal assistance, and that's what we're working over the next year to develop, so that we are utilising the existing resources of preschools, the technology that many are already investing in, and just giving them the tools to take that to a whole new level.

Obviously the exact cost to roll out across every preschool in the country is something that we'll assess when we get the full implementation study through the course of this year, but I'm confident that we can find an effective, low cost way to make this accessible to every single preschool in the country.

Question: Why is so important to focus on STEM to apply this sort of learning [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham:  Ah look, languages as you've heard can really expand the mind; science and technology, engineering and mathematics are of course areas where we have enormous economic growth and potential for new jobs in the future. What we've seen across both languages and maths is a decline in terms of outcomes at the year 12 level, and to try to arrest that decline, it's really important that we start in the earliest years of learning to build the foundations. Of course this is just one part of the measures that are underway. In terms of teacher training, we're undergoing processes to make sure that teachers will specialise in maths or science or languages in future, so that those primary school teachers can pick up the type of foundation we're trying to build in preschool and provide an even better opportunity through the schooling life of a child to get the best possible outcome in languages, in STEM subjects. 

It all feeds into the Government's Innovation Agenda, and that's why we put the extra $6 million in funding to develop a similar app for STEM subjects that can really provide that foundation for young children, four-year-olds to have science and maths skills as they start their schooling lives.

Quite interesting, so you were saying that there's a drop-off in the old year 12s that you were seeing, and this is designed to stop that from happening going onwards?

Simon Birmingham: Since the 1960s we've seen the number of year 12s who complete a language drop from around 40 per cent to around 12 per cent. There's been a massive decline in terms of the number of senior secondary students completing a language. We're keen to try to reverse that, and by starting here at the youngest age, you're providing a basis and a platform that hopefully children can build upon throughout their lives.

Question: And is this designed to sort of allow Australia if you like to keep up with the innovation plan of the Government?

Simon Birmingham:  It's central to innovation to give children the best capability in maths and science, and central to Australia's place in the world to give them the best foundation in language skills, especially the languages of our region such as Indonesian and Chinese.

Question: The Turnbull Government has started the year dealing with ministerial scandals, while Bill Shorten's talking about the cost of living. Are you on the back foot heading into an election this year?

Simon Birmingham:  Well I'm here talking about how we'll provide capability and resources to support our youngest Australians to get the best start in life. I'm not hearing any policy ideas from Mr Shorten. 2015 was meant to be his year of big ideas; he was a void then, and he's starting this year with no new ideas to speak of either.

Question: Is the Turnbull honeymoon period over?

Simon Birmingham:  I think we've seen a great boost of optimism around Australia. People want to see Australia succeed in the future, and I want to see four-year-olds and pre-schoolers succeed and have the best foundation to start their schooling lives.

Question: Minister, when will the next federal election be held?

Simon Birmingham:  I expect the Government to run full term.

Question: It has been a bit of a shaky start in relation to your Cabinet though; you’ve lost some senior members of the Cabinet now. Where does this go from here? Are we expecting to see a reshuffle announced within weeks?

Simon Birmingham:  Well Mr Turnbull has outlined the acting arrangements for the two junior ministries that are vacant, and that will be addressed by him in due course.

Question: On Jamie Briggs, do you think that his career can recover after the Hong Kong scandal?

Simon Birmingham: Jamie's a long-standing friend of mine; I have full confidence in his capability as one of our most energetic and committed and hardworking local MPs to represent his electorate in the future. He's paid a price for his mistakes, which he's acknowledged by resigning from the Ministry. I think really it's time for us to move on from this issue and focus on the real issues that matter to Australians, such as how we provide the best educational opportunities to our children.

Question: Bill Shorten's talking about the GST today; do you think there's a case to raise the GST so that the states can pay for school funding?

Simon Birmingham:  I think there's absolutely a case for us to have a look at tax reform in a complete way, which is what the Turnbull Government is doing by being mature and sensible, not ruling things in or out, but looking at the entirety of our tax system to make sure that it can grow our economy as effectively as possible. I think Mr Shorten is being grossly irresponsible by ruling out matters in relation to tax reform without giving a comprehensive and sensible look, which we're undertaking through the tax reform white paper process.

Question: How could the crisis that's impacting the Chinese share market affect Australia's national economy, and can anything be done to protect our economy from that?

Simon Birmingham: China is critically important to Australia, but we also have a much deeper economic relationship with China now than we necessarily had in the past. Yes, the mining and resources sector is essential for China, but the China Free Trade Agreement opens up new opportunities for food exporters, services industries into China, and of course China is our most important market for international students. So I'm confident that whilst China may be facing some economic pressures at present, there are many new opportunities that will allow Australia to continue and to grow its economic relationship with China in the future.

Question: And just on Gonski, have you heard from any state education ministers about funding for the final two years of that program?

Simon Birmingham:  Look, I've spoken with most of the state education ministers, and have spoken to them about the process we'll go through to consider school funding for the period from 2018 onwards. It's important to understand that nothing had changed in relation to school funding, that the Turnbull Government is delivering record funding into schools. We're committed to school funding growing year on year into the future. What we want to do is sit down with the states and territories and non-government sector and ensure that from 2018 onwards we have a sustainable, affordable package of school funding that is fair to all, is needs-based, and ensures that we have certainty beyond just a two year horizon. Thanks everybody.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:                   James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                    Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media: