Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide Breakfast with Matthew Abraham
First day of school; Year 1 national literacy and numeracy check; The United States’ immigration policies
08:45 AM

Matthew Abraham: Well, not school drop-off for the very, very first time but, South Australian Liberal Senator and Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins us. Welcome to ABC Adelaide, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Matt. Great to be with you and I hope it’s going well for all the other mums and dads out there.

Matthew Abraham: Yeah, and you’ve, first year for year one, is that right?

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. Our eldest is into year one this year and our youngest is four and hard at it at kindy. So all going quite smoothly though this morning, happily. 

Matthew Abraham: I know you were in the ABC studios very early this morning. Does that mean that you polished the shoes and did the lunches last night, or did you outsource that?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] That means that I wasn’t as big a help as my wife perhaps had hoped so would be on the first morning of school, but I got back [inaudible].

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] It does sound a bit slack to me, frankly. 

Simon Birmingham: Yeah know look, it’s a terrible excuse to say I’ve got to go and do an early morning radio interview, but I did get home to make sure the teeth were brushed and shoes were on and to help with hair and some of those final things. 

Matthew Abraham: Now, I suppose a bit of the added pressure for children starting school, you are looking at testing children for literacy very early now. You’re bringing this forward. Can you explain what you are planning to do there?

Simon Birmingham: What we’re proposing is, is nothing like a NAPLAN test or those types of formal writing assessments, but it is to say that we should equip teachers and schools with a common assessment tool around phonic skills, literacy and numeracy skills for children, about 18 months into their education, so halfway through year one. So there’s a common assessment that allows a teacher in a one-on-one personal engagement with a child to know whether they’re up to standard for that age level. And of course if they are falling behind or off the mark, to then make sure that intervention and assistance is provided so that we don’t continue to have too many children slipping through the net without the literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed. 

Matthew Abraham: But how is that going to work with very young children?

Simon Birmingham: So there is already a …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] After just about a year of formal education?

Simon Birmingham: Yep. So there is already a model that the UK have rolled out – a phonics check that they undertake there – and it is teachers sitting down one-on-one with each child and getting them to read certain words, sounds, the phonic skills of managing to deconstruct words in terms of the individual sounds and then put those words together from those sounds, which are really important for the literacy development of children. Dyslexia advocates have long called for this type of early-ed skills check to identify kids who may be dyslexic or have other problems. Evidence-based expert reports going back as far as 2005 have called for it to be introduced to Australia and we, as the Turnbull Government, think that it’s about time we put that type of process into play. 

Matthew Abraham: If there’s a problem, though, that is identified, where’s the money to help out?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the funds of course- we have record levels of investment in Australian schools already. There’s about $16 billion that went to schools from the Federal Government last year, and that will grow to more than $20 billion by 2020.

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Labor’s education, Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek says, in The Australian, there’s a new test for six-year-olds would never make up for the $30 billion of cuts to schools, which Labor claims the Government caused by its failure to implement the Gonski model of needs-based funding.

Simon Birmingham: Well, of course Labor will say that, and yes, they promised to spend even more, but funding is at record levels and it is growing each and every year into the future above inflation, above enrolment growth. So, there’s real growth going into our schools …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] Is that because there’re more children, is that growth in funding because, as the Opposition says, there are more children enrolling in school and teachers’ wages have gone up?

Simon Birmingham: No, well …

Matthew Abraham: [Talks over] So obviously there’s going to be more money needed. 

Simon Birmingham: As I just said, growth is above enrolment, so funding growth is above enrolment projections and above inflation and of course wage growth levels are at an historic low just at present. So there’s quite significant funding. But the important part is, with record levels of funding, surely we need to ask the question of how do we use that more effectively, given many international assessments over the last couple of years have shown that performance in Australian schools is at best stagnating, at worst slipping backwards, especially in these core skills of literacy and numeracy and if you don’t get them right in the earliest years, then the foundation stones for success later on just aren’t there for children. 

Matthew Abraham: You’re listening to Simon Birmingham. He’s a very senior Liberal in South Australia even though he looks about 12. He is Federal Education Minister. Simon Birmingham, moving off the education topic onto a broader issue. What’s your response to US President Donald Trump’s executive order, which has effectively put a very rapid freeze on a flow of citizens from some seven Muslim-based nations into the US?

Simon Birmingham: Matt, it is concerning. Australia has long had and still has, and I hope always will have, a non-discriminatory immigration policy ourselves. We, of course, have really strong safeguards in place that ensure scrutiny, that stops anybody who may have terrorist links, connections or risks, or be it risk of breaking Australian law or breaking visa conditions, from getting a visa and entering the country. But that is done, of course, on an assessment of the risk of the person, not blanket-banned by nationality and I think that is a world’s best practice approach. 

Matthew Abraham: It shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it? He promised to do this.

Simon Birmingham: Well, he said lots of things during the campaign and I guess people are trying to work out exactly what it is that he’s implementing and how he’ll go about it. We as a Government will continue to do our best to work cooperatively with the US as we always have. But we will set our own policies and our policies are firmly non-discriminatory with all the types of safeguards that I spoke of before. 

Matthew Abraham: It’s just, some people might, some of the observers might say, well, if your Government had done what it had promised to do on some key policy errors and followed through on it, then you wouldn’t have had to change prime ministers so often.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, we have been, I think Malcolm Turnbull has been very clear in sticking to all of the promises that he made and took to the last election. We’ve had great success in getting many of them implemented already through the Senate and we’ll keep working hard on that with important reforms in areas like improving literacy and numeracy standards for Australian school children, which was something we announced at the election and which we are now working – as we were discussing before – with principals, teachers, dyslexia advocates, speech pathologists and the like to develop.  

Matthew Abraham: Simon Birmingham, thank you, he’s speaking I think from the grounds of his children’s school. Federal Education Minister, South Australian Liberal, very influential player in the South Australian Liberal Party and nationally, who has just done school drop-off for his year one student there. Lovely, his first born.