Simon Birmingham: Statistics show that 20 per cent of all Australian children start school with substandard vocabulary. They don’t understand, or know enough words to be able to kick off at school and succeed. Not just in reading or writing, but in all of the things that are required at school. And whilst we can do much in school education to help lift children up, and whilst our early education and child care providers do a lot in terms of early learning, in the end, teachers can’t do everything. Parents have to do their fair share too. And it’s really important that parents step up to the mark and make sure that they engage in the home environment, in terms of reading to their children, engaging and playing with their children. But the simple act of reading is perhaps the easiest thing that every single parent can do to help establish the foundations that their children need to go on to a successful school education. Parental engagement is perhaps the key in terms of the link of what we can at lowest costs do to best lift school education outcomes, and what we would encourage every single parent to do is take 15 minutes a day, read to your children, because that could add up to nearly 500 hours of reading that your children have enjoyed and learnt from before they start school.
Question: How disappointing are these figures that 20 per cent aren’t ready for school by the time they get there? How disappointing is that?
Simon Birmingham: It is concerning, and of course there are many issues that teachers have to face in terms of dealing with students with disability, students with special needs. And it’s really essential that for those students who have the capacity and the ability to learn, that they get the right start in life, and that start is best provided by parents reading to them, engaging with them, so they build up the words, the understanding, the vocabulary that is essential to make sure that they’re well placed to be able to read, learn and engage in all aspects of school life.
Question: Do you think it’s alarming, the research?
Simon Birmingham: It shows that we really need parents to do their part, alongside teachers and the rest of our education system. We cannot expect teachers, schools, childhood educators to do all the heavy lifting. It’s essential that parents play their role too. I love reading with my children, every night that I’m home in Adelaide, and I hope and trust that every other parent who knows that reading is the right thing, can make the time in what are busy, challenging schedules, to be able to sit down and spend that time reading, and establish that vocab to help their child’s education.
Question: [Indistinct] on this before, but it’s of cost benefit to the Government to increase this rate isn’t it?
Simon Birmingham: It is absolutely beneficial to governments, tax payers, the school system, our teachers who are dealing with many issues in schools already, but of course it’s of most benefit to the children themselves because the evidence shows that children who start behind the eight ball when they get to school usually stay behind the eight ball throughout their education. So it’s very hard. No matter how much we invest, or how hard our teachers work, to catch children up if they don’t start with the right grounding. Which is why we need to make sure that parents do play their role, especially in those early years, and read to their children, talk to their children, help them learn new words, help them start to write. All of those things will get your child off to a flying start.
Question: Do we need to look at providing assistance to parents who haven’t got the time or don’t feel confident teaching their children to read and write prior to school.
Simon Birmingham: We’ve invested as a Government, the Turnbull Government, in providing more help to help parents understand what it is they can do. Our learning potential app has been downloaded by more than 100,000 Australian parents, which tailors advice, depending on the age of your child, on what it is you can do to help them learn, to boost their literacy and numeracy skills. So there are real supports that are out there, enormous support in every single local library around the country, that people can go and access, where they don’t just have to be the one’s doing the reading to their children, they can be part of parents’ groups and library clubs, where librarians will sit and engage and read with children as well. Many help services are available already and I’d encourage parents to make the most of them.
Question: Do you have anything else on the agenda for the Government?
Simon Birmingham: We’ll certainly be talking with state and territory ministers and looking at how we can further expand opportunities for parental engagement, and making sure that from that moment of birth right through those early years there’s support there and that people have a greater understanding of the service and information that is available to them. But in the end it really is as simple as going down to your local library, borrowing a few books, which won’t cost you a cent, and sitting down and reading with your children.
Question: Bill Shorten has fronted a campaign for Labor’s education package. Do you think this is a potential vote winner for the Opposition?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Bill Shorten’s ad campaign is more about saving Bill Shorten’s leadership than it is about helping Australian school children. In the end, what we know is just spending more money on schools doesn’t necessarily lift outcomes. What you need is the right curriculum, investment in teacher quality, and of course engagement of parents, which is what I’m here talking about today. All of those types of attributes can lift the outcomes for school children. Spending money isn’t the end, it’s just a means to get to a better end and what’s really essential is that we think about how we spend our money wisely. And what we’re seeing from Labor is the same old policies. Same old policies where they think spending money is the answer, rather than thinking first about how you wisely invest money to improve the outcomes. And I think the fact that Labor are now rushing off to run television ads about their education policy shows this has been rushed out with big spending promises to prop up Bill Shorten’s leadership, rather than anything to do with caring about our children’s education.
Question: This spending is nothing new though, it’s actually attached to a long review into what’s needed in the formal education system, the Gonski report, surely, it’s not exactly
Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Labor’s policy provides no real information on how they see this money being used to actually lift student outcomes. All it is is a $37 billion spending promise, substantially lacking in detail about how it would lift student outcomes. What we’ll do in terms of future school funding, is sit down with the states and territories and non-government schooling sector, and work out how we can most effectively invest in targeted ways that will actually improve student outcomes in the future. Not just promise money that the Federal Government does not have, given we still are confronting Labor’s billions of dollars of debt and deficit.
Question: But you’re leading a portfolio that the Government has cut funding in. That must be a concern heading into an election when Labor’s pumping up this amount of [indistinct]
Simon Birmingham: We are investing record funding in Australian schools from the Federal Government. We’re committed to growing that year on year, but we’re not going to make reckless promises with just huge extra sums of money attached to it. What we will do is make sure that where we promise money, it’s actually tied to outcomes, tied to real things where we know it will make a difference in student learning. Because the evidence shows us that since 1988 spending by state and federal governments on schools in Australia has more than doubled, and yet our outcomes in literacy and numeracy have gone backwards in that time. So we know that just spending more money doesn’t get better outcomes, because in fact we’ve spent more money and got worse outcomes over the last 20 years. What’s essential is that we actually wisely invest funds and commit to doing the hard yards of seeing where schools are actually applying funds in a way that gets students a better outcome and make sure that knowledge is translated across the whole education system.
Question: Do you expect cross-bench support for your [indistinct] child care rebate?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I’m very hopeful that we won’t just have the cross-bench supporting our child care reforms, but we’ll also have the Greens and the Labor Party supporting our child care reforms, because we’re investing some $3 billion extra to help Australian families who most need assistance in relation to child care. So we're targeting the investment of those who work the longest hours or who earn the least money, to make sure that they can get the support for child care that helps them to work, study or volunteer. It’s an incredibly fair reform that better targets our child care money, invests more and I can’t for the life of me see why any senator would not support it.
Senator Birmingham’s media contact: James Murphy 0478 333 974
Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
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