Mr GARDNER (Morialta) (12:01): The Education and Children's Services Bill 2017 represents, in the minister's words, 'the most significant reform of education in 40 years'. Not everyone agrees with that. Can I say that there is quite a substantial history to this bill, which I will touch on for a little while. I will talk about some of the things we support and some of the things we might be moving some amendments to, and there are some things we have some questions about. Given that it is in fact a rewrite of the Education Act and the Children's Services Act, it does traverse some territory, combining both those acts into a new act.
It traverses some wide territory. I imagine that the scope of this bill covers anything to do with education. I expect that members might like to make their own contributions about the way that will be impacted by the scope of this bill. Let me start slightly in the broad because this is about the principles of how we are running our schools and what we are going to achieve for our young people in South Australia in the years ahead. What do we want to achieve? What is the purpose?
Frankly, our education system should be seeking and striving to be nothing less than the best education system in the country. Our schools should be the best in the country and our preschools should be the best in the country, whether they are government, independent, Catholic or anything else. The rising tide will lift all the boats, and we want the best for our children because what could be more important than their achievement and their future?
Our education system should embody excellence, advocate choice, engage parents and teachers and grow opportunities for our next generation.
Our families deserve access to the best schools and childcare in the nation, to build our children's [capacities and] capabilities and our State's future
In supporting the education choices that parents, care-givers and families make for their children [we believe that they] are the ones who know them best
[We believe that] education professionals need to be empowered, engaged and supported to ensure the best outcomes for their students
[We believe that] young people should be provided with the education and training opportunities they need to gain employment both in new and established industries [in the future]
Those are the words that Steven Marshall, the Leader of the Opposition, used in his '2036' document, a framework document underpinning the principles and reform agendas of a future Liberal government in South Australia if we take government at the next election on 17 March 2018. These are tremendously important.
In March last year, we released the '2036' document, which outlined some of that reform agenda. In the year and a half since and in the six months to go before the election, we will be outlining more of those policies. All of them are relevant to this bill, because of course the bill provides the framework through which government is able to take action in relation to these matters. The focus areas we have identified that a Liberal government would deliver to achieve this vision together are, firstly, to deliver the best schools in Australia by improving education outcomes and teaching standards. The document states:
We want our schools to be the best in Australia. When parents drop their children off for their first day of school they deserve an education guarantee: we will respect your children and ensure they get the best education.
We believe students’ educational outcomes should be the prime focus of our school system. There is no second opportunity when it comes to educating our young people—we need a system that encourages excellence from our child’s very first day of school.
Sometimes I fear that public policy debate can get hijacked into a false dichotomy in this area—that there is a choice between excellent educational outcomes or the wellbeing of and the looking at the child as a whole.
That is a false dichotomy because, in pursuing excellent educational outcomes, what you actually do is give children the confidence to achieve their best, whether they are somebody who is going to be a high intellectual, high-minded and high achieving, in their chosen field, whether they are somebody who is going to be an excellent tradesperson who is going to have the most outstanding opportunities for their life supported by having a terrific career in the trades and skills that we can support through having an excellent VET system in the school, or whether they are a student with special needs and special abilities who needs their best endeavours to be supported in a different way for them to achieve their best selves and have the best life possible. Or, if it is a student who is a kind person who is potentially in the middle ranks, achieving their best is still going to help them have a better life.
It is a false dichotomy to say that focusing on educational achievement and excellence is somehow doing anything other than also supporting a child's wellbeing. We believe, and we have seen, through achievement at schools that are the best practice, that by focusing on educational achievement you can absolutely also deliver excellent wellbeing and that by supporting the student's wellbeing you help them to be their best educational selves too. It is not one or the other. It has to be both.
We have seen student wellbeing programs at a number of schools in South Australia that have delivered extraordinary improvements in academic achievement. I was at Mount Barker High School recently with Dan Cregan, the Liberal candidate for Kavel. I spoke to the principal there who, over the last five years, has seen significant improvements in educational outcomes through focusing on student wellbeing as well as that educational aspect.
The point I wish to make here in particular is that if our standards, through testing, through results, are falling, then it is not good enough for the government to say, 'That's because here in South Australia we focus on the whole child. That's because here in South Australia we focus on student wellbeing,' because it is both. Wellbeing and academic achievement go hand in hand. There is always going to be a bell curve in terms of academic achievement, but if you focus on moving the whole bell curve up the scale and on improving student wellbeing for all of those students, those things go hand in hand.
In those states that might have better outcomes, whether it is in the NAPLAN tests or anywhere else, to say that they do not have any focus on student wellbeing I think is also disingenuous. Of course they do. Of course they have interest areas and focus areas in relation to supporting their students' wellbeing, just as we do in South Australia. We have so many great teachers and so many school leaders doing such a great job, but we should always be seeking the best because our children deserve nothing less. The Leader of the Opposition's '2036' document states:
We believe that through enhanced autonomy and flexibility, empowering principals, better engaging school communities, and improving the status and effectiveness of the teaching profession, the dreams of students receiving the best possible education in South Australia will become a reality.
The document goes on to the second reform agenda, which is in relation to returning decision making to parents, principals, teachers and local school communities. The document goes on:
We [in the Liberal Party] believe that school communities should have a greater level of control and flexibility to respond to the resourcing and specific educational needs of their students in a targeted way. Every school community is different, with unique challenges, strengths and potential. We believe the school community’s teachers, principals and families are best placed to understand the individual needs of their students, rather than bureaucrats.
School autonomy has been a catch phrase regularly thrown around in the public debate for 15 years. Different people mean different things by it. Clearly it has been identified as something that is a popular saying: it obviously polls well. I have not read polling on this sort of thing, but every education minister in state governments in the country talks about it. The Labor Party used not to, but the last few ministers have talked about enhanced autonomy. Things we will have to grapple with in the years ahead are: where are the areas where it is of significant benefit for there to be enhanced autonomy and where are the opportunities that are working as a system, particularly in relation to public schooling, that work best?
To give credit to the government, earlier this year they identified one area where schools having the autonomy to pay their own electricity bills was not providing any obvious benefit to the people of South Australia or the families of those schools, because you had a mechanism by which schools identified how much they would get, based on the size of their school and so forth, but those schools that had benefited from the provision of solar panels, or those schools that by their infrastructure needs and nature had higher electricity costs, potentially had to spend a much bigger part of their global budget on meeting those bills than might the schools that had those benefits.
By ensuring that that was one thing that the system could take over was a very sensible outcome. That was an area where autonomy was not providing value to those schools. In the years ahead it will be very important that we work with groups—national groups, groups like AITSL and groups like the stakeholder bodies here in South Australia and at a national level—and with our researchers to find the best ways to get the benefits of local decision making and principal and school autonomy to ensure that at the local level they can get value from having that autonomy.
However, I do note that this bill (and I will come back to this in a little while) makes quite profound changes to the current situation in the way that local school governance is managed. This is something that the Liberal Party has some concerns about, and I will be detailing those in a little while. In principle, empowered decision-making is important. I do not believe that the bill improves the situation with regard to empowered decision-making, and I think there are some improvements that the bill will need to have.
The third area the Leader of the Opposition identified in our reform agenda to achieve the best schools in Australia was to build more innovative and flexible school systems. Our children deserve a school system that responds to their needs, celebrating the individual learner and preparing them for a full and enriching life beyond the school gate. We want to create a system that is able to embrace all our students, strengthens their skills and encourages them to take risks and think laterally.
The school curriculum needs to be flexible to the needs of students whilst also giving them the skills they need to gain future employment. We believe that South Australian students deserve a modern curriculum that provides them with the traditional academic skills they need to gain employment, but also gives them the tools they need to grow and contribute to a transitioning economy.
Our school system must also look after our children who may require extra support due to disability or special needs. We believe that it is in the best interests of young people with special needs to provide the support they need to help them reach their full potential. We understand that parents and their children need to be empowered, and they deserve to have choices about which educational opportunities they take up. Options need to be available that meet the needs of the child to give them the best possible opportunities for their future.
I identify in the bill that we are talking about at the moment (and may well be talking about for some time this afternoon) that it has a provision that does not exist in the current act that enables the chief executive of the department to have a child's placement looked at without, necessarily, consultation with the parents, in direct contravention with our policy direction here. However, I do identify that, when this was raised with the principal and the officers, who were very kind with their time and generous with their support at the briefing I had with the minister and senior department officials last week, this was an area, whether it was inadvertent or something that was supposed to be picked up by regulations or through policy, for whatever reason, was not something the government intended to cut out of the bill.
I indicate that the opposition will be preparing amendments on this area. I received a letter from the minister yesterday (which I saw she signed in the chamber), and it came back to me within about half an hour due to a very efficient example of use of technology in her office. It is amazing what they can do these days. The minister confirmed that the government might also potentially be putting an amendment in this space. That is something where I think we can proceed without too much fuss. I will go to the specific clause later when I am going through the clauses.
We believe that schools need the flexibility to respond to the distinct needs of their students within their education pathway from the early years through to graduation. Some students are suited to studying traditional subjects in year 12; some may be more interested in starting a business, learning a trade or gaining the skills to enter a particular vocation. The state Liberals will support schools to respond to the needs and ambitions of their students whilst also encouraging educators to play to their students' strengths in order to build a generation of creative, intelligent, empowered and entrepreneurial young people.
We believe that teachers should be supported, encouraged and strengthened. Very few things are as important to our community as the impact that our teachers have on our students' lives and children's homes, the impact that children's teachers have on the classroom and the impact that school principals have in leading their teachers to educational excellence. These are the things that really drive our educational system and improve outcomes. Our teachers should be supported, encouraged and strengthened. By rewarding teaching excellence we will continue to lift the standard of teaching across the state. Better teachers mean better schools, which means better learning opportunities in young adults who are better suited to making their dreams a reality.
It is really important that we spend a moment on teachers. I think that the member for Fisher has a motion on the Notice Paper tomorrow, but I am not sure if I can even mention it—I am not sure what standing orders say in relation to that—as we have not moved it yet. I can at least reflect that World Teachers' Day is a tremendous opportunity, and I hope that members will reflect on this opportunity to talk about the excellent examples of teaching that we see in our local communities all the time, in our families and schools, and teachers in our families. The impact that those teachers have on those young lives is life changing, profound and absolutely necessary to a well-functioning society.
Australia is one of the best countries in the world. We clearly have some good teachers out there and we have some great teachers out there. We want to make sure that all our children across all our schools have nothing less than the best teachers. Where there is excellent teaching practice, that is to be rewarded and encouraged and made an example of as a shining light for others to follow. Where there are issues, we must address them because our children deserve no less than that as well.
The fourth area in the education chapter of Steven Marshall's reform document, the '2036' document, is that we will achieve our aspirations together by expanding opportunities for students to engage with training, skills and higher education and ready themselves for employment. Some of these areas are in relation to higher education skills, rather than in this bill. But in relation to this bill particularly, this chapter identifies that we will equip our young people with the skills and knowledge they need to successfully transition to training and further education to improve their career pathway options.
We believe that vocational training and skill creation is a crucial building block in the future economic success of our state, and it is critical that that VET sector is interacting with our schools in a positive way and that those students who are going to have a terrific career by pursuing VET opportunities and going on to trades and skills pathways are given every support and encouragement needed to do so. This idea that everybody needs to go to university to have a good job later in life is so far beyond ridiculous. I think, to our society's credit, people understand that, but I fear that there are still some people who think that the opportunity to go to a university to do a degree is something that every student must take to achieve success. No, of course that is not the case; that is ridiculous.
It is so important that the opportunities for VET pathways are supported in our schools because, frankly, there are many jobs in that area where people are going to have very successful and very happy careers and it will be a much better use of their time to do an apprenticeship than go to university. I enjoyed my university education, and I am very grateful for the opportunity I was given to do a Bachelor of Arts at Adelaide University. Maybe that suited my attributes, maybe it did not, but it was certainly something that my parents wanted me to do because they had not had that opportunity.
I understand that aspiration that parents have, but it is so important that we as a society understand that in fact we need the electricians, carpenters and plumbers. Think of the thousands and thousands of jobs that are going to be created in the decades ahead working on shipbuilding here in South Australia. Plenty of those jobs are going to need a good, skilled workforce. We want that workforce to come from our young people here in South Australia.
Finally, in relation to our principles document, we also understand that in order to be competitive on the international stage we need our young people to be finishing school with some language skills other than English. Increasingly, Western countries are refocusing on the importance of growing their bilingual workforce. By supporting our students to take advantage of opportunities to learn a new language, we will upskill our workforce and take advantage of our international trade links.
We have an extraordinary opportunity in South Australia with our multicultural community. Hundreds and thousands of South Australian speak another language because they have come here from a country that is not an English-speaking country. That is something that should be nurtured. Their children and grandchildren should be encouraged to learn that second language, not just to retain a link to their heritage and their home country but because it is an asset to our community, our state and our nation to have many people with bilingual skills. Many people have a head start if they have parents or grandparents who speak a language other than English.
This is a clear and present problem for the people of South Australia because 15 years ago, when this government came to power, 12 per cent of our students were studying a language other than English at year 12 level, which was then considered SACE stage 2. Now that has dropped to less than 5 per cent—4.9 per cent in fact. It has dropped profoundly in absolute terms, even as we now have a legislative obligation that children stay to year 12. So the number of year 12 students has certainly gone up, which might have impacted the percentage, but in absolute terms, in core number terms, the number has dropped by about half.
Of the 5 per cent of year 12 students who did a language other than English as a year 12 subject last year, about 200 of them—certainly it was a very substantial percentage of around 1,000 students—or 20 per cent of those students were Chinese students who had come to Australia from a Chinese-speaking country after the age of seven, so Chinese was clearly a first language for them and they were doing the subject designed for native Chinese speakers.
That is great. I am pleased. That is a cohort that I identified in my earlier remarks. We want people from non-English-speaking backgrounds to be able to use and leverage that opportunity to have two strong languages. That is good for our state, but it does identify a strong weakness we have in encouraging young people who are from an English-speaking background to pick up that second language. That is a deficiency that many states in Australia have and that many English-speaking countries around the world have.
Just because it is a problem that we share with many places around the world does not mean that it is not a clear problem that we need to pick up on here in South Australia. That is why in August the Liberal Party announced a suite of measures to improve the opportunities for language teachers to learn their trade, to incentivise students to undertake language studies in schools and to make sure that we can really focus on building our capacity as a community, as a state and as a nation to be able to engage positively with the world. And get this: it also improves academic performance more broadly. Learning a language other than English is a terrific driver for mental development generally, and understanding one's own use of English is improved from learning a second language.
Returning to the detail of the bill itself, the bill was identified as being on the cards some time ago. The current member for MacKillop, I believe—I do not recall the year, but it had a one in the front of it—was in parliament and chaired a committee that reviewed the education act under the Olsen government. We have had several premiers since then, but the act has not been reformed since then.
The act was introduced in 1972 and there is some older use of legislative terminology, so that is a reason to reform it. There are references in the current act to positions that no longer exist, and that is a reason to reform it. They are not substantial reasons but, as with all acts, they develop over time; they get added to, like renovating a house or adding an extension. It can be a good house and it can work well, but sometimes we benefit from just building a fresh house and, to stretch the metaphor possibly too far, so it is with this bill: we are knocking down the old Education Act and the old Children's Services Act and building a new education and children's services act.
While modern is newer, that does not always make it better and there are, as I said, aspects of this bill that are not necessarily perfect and will need some more work. What I am going to call the Williams review, which dealt with this issue when Malcolm Buckby was the education minister under the Olsen and then Kerin governments, suggested a number of changes. They even got to the point of producing a draft bill, but it did not come to parliament in time before the 2002 election.
Consequently, the new Rann government after the May 2002 changeover decided not to proceed. I believe Trish White was the education minister at the time and was subsequently replaced by Dr Jane Lomax-Smith. Under Dr Lomax-Smith's tenure as minister there were further reviews. The education department in South Australia has been reviewed as often as anything that I can think of. However, under the Hon. Dr Lomax-Smith's tenure as minister, there were proposals put prior to the 2010 election that would have given effect to some substantial reforms, at least in relation to issues to do with school attendance and truancy.
It is interesting that those measures were lauded in 2009 with great fanfare. The then minister and the then government got significant headlines and there were very positive radio interviews. In fact, I was on Leon Byner's show not that long ago and we were talking about it. Leon asked, 'Whatever happened to those reviews promised by Jane Lomax-Smith, those improvements to this by Jane Lomax-Smith in 2008 or 2009?' Of course, after the government won the 2010 election, the parliament having been prorogued and the education bill having lapsed, the government never got around to introducing it because I do not think they really believed in it.
However, there was some pressure in the media and there were some concerns. There were some examples of shocking cases of child neglect and abandonment that could have been picked up if the truancy aspect of the child's behaviour had been picked up on. The minister and the government identified that they would rediscover this purpose after 14 years in government, as it was then, and take some action on truancy, and we applaud that. We do not agree with all the measures they have taken, and I will get to that when we get to the detail in the bill, but we applaud that and it has now come into this bill.
There has been a range of other reviews and inquiries that the education department has undergone, even in the seven years that I have been in the parliament. In 2012, KPMG did a review of the health and safety services unit. In 2013, PwC did a governance review, stage 1, for the Department for Education and Child Development. Of course, the issues at the western suburbs school, which I will just refer to for the moment as the Debelle inquiry—although I promise you we will be talking a bit more about the Debelle inquiry in relation to this bill—was a royal commission into an absolutely shocking scandal that involved several ministers and a number of people in the department. I think that really had a profound influence on the way we view governance in schools and, of course, the handling of child protection matters.
We also subsequently had the Allen review of September 2013 into how to consider the recommendations of the KPMG review, the PwC review and the Debelle review and put that into practice. Of course, then there was the Pike review into local school governance, and there were some others as well. We had changes of CEO. We had the Premier evicting CEOs he did not feel were right for the position and doing an international search, and he came up with Mr Bartley, who came over and put education and child protection all in the same department, and that did not work out.
Finally, after another royal commission and after the pleadings of all the stakeholders who were asked—anybody who was asked said that the education department and the child protection department should not be together—the Premier put them aside. Meanwhile, we had further CEOs appointed. The international search that came up with Mr Bartley not having quite worked out, the department then was led by the former senior police officer, Tony Harrison, who has now been moved to the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion.
We are now in the situation where we have another CEO, appointed last year, Mr Rick Persse, who retains that position to the current day. There has been a lot of upheaval in the department. Late last year, nearly a year ago, after having promised law reform in the truancy space for some time, which I referred to earlier, the government finally said, 'Okay, we are going to have a bill that we will put out for public consultation to reform the whole of the act.' That was released and people could have their say on the website, and that is nice.
There were a number of stakeholders who indicated that they would have liked that bill to be directly drawn to their attention. Nevertheless, it was publicly released and a number of stakeholders had their say at that point in time. At that time, to try to gain an understanding of where the government was coming from so that potentially we could work with the government, my office made an approach to the minister's office and sought a briefing or a discussion to talk about it. However, the minister's office indicated that there was a public consultation process and that we could talk about it down the track once they had a bill to put to the parliament.
Through this year, we have been waiting for this bill. The consultation process was completed in the first half of this year and then we were waiting and waiting. Finally, in the last sitting week before the winter/spring break, the minister tabled this bill and gave her second reading explanation, which members can read for themselves. That is how we have reached this stage. The minister and her office kindly gave me the briefing last week regarding some of the details in the bill that we needed to clarify.
I appreciate that and I appreciate her office for their flexibility when we had a health issue at my end and needed to move that briefing, and we have had this week to look at it. I indicated that we have some amendments that we have given to parliamentary counsel. They will be ready next sitting week. I understand that it is the government's intention that we close the second reading debate this week, if we can, and deal with the committee stage next sitting week so that those amendments can be considered in full, as well as any potential government amendments that may follow. We are happy to work to that timetable.
I want to spend some time this morning on one of those reviews that I talked about—namely, the Debelle report—because it is tremendously important to the status of education in South Australia. I want to quote from one of the stakeholders who has indicated his particular concerns with aspects of the bill. The bill deals with everything in education. I will start by talking about governance because I think this is one of the serious issues where we need to improve the bill. Governing councils and parental engagement in local school communities is so important to achieving the best for our schools. It really lifts our local school communities when governing councils are working well in partnership with the principals with whom they are jointly responsible for management of the school.
The peak body for those governing councils—the umbrella body of which most of the governing councils of public schools in South Australia are members—is the South Australian Association of State School Organisations (SAASSO). I quote from a letter sent to me by their head, David Knuckey:
To look at this document, it's as if the Debelle Royal Commission never happened.
This Minister claims this is the biggest development in education in 40 years. This document sets parental involvement, community engagement, local control, transparency and accountability back 40 years….
It's disappointing that in a 9-page section on governing councils, on 8 of them the minister details how she may appoint, overrule, suspend, sack, gag, order, fine and limit the power of parents and volunteers. She also now enables DECD to do much the same.
Mr Knuckey goes on to write:
The purpose of local governing bodies or school boards is to ensure that every school can be tailored to the needs of the local community and the current population of students—rather than be dictated to by a central bureaucracy seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all model for public schools.
A government bureaucracy can have other objectives of a financial or political nature—while local parent communities are only concerned about their children's education. Also, as we have seen too often in South Australia, these bureaucracies can end up with poor cultures.
I will pause there for a moment to reflect on an example of this. I believe in 2011—and I am sure the member for Playford will correct me if I am wrong—the government instituted a budget measure. It was either in 2010 or 2011 that the government instituted a budget measure in which all of the co-located schools were forced to amalgamate. They included junior primary schools and primary schools, and in some cases primary schools and secondary schools, although the government did not proceed with most of the latter category. But the junior primary schools and primary schools, as a budget saving measure, were all forced to amalgamate.
There was quite a process that followed, and the act requires that process be gone through, but at that time the advocates for those schools—powerful advocates arguing strongly that their schools be looked after—were indeed the governing council chairs. While many DECD staff and some principals had the courage to speak out, it has to be remembered that it is difficult for such staff members to speak out publicly because they are employed by the department, by the minister. To criticise the minister or the government publicly on this is a significant step for them to take.
It is very important for the benefit and wellbeing of people associated with a school, who are employed by a school, that governing council chairs are able to speak fearlessly on behalf of the school community. In those cases, the government chose to ignore those calls of those local communities, but the democratic process requires that such advocacy be maintained and supported.
Clearly, Mr Knuckey identifies the importance of those local parent representatives in an advocacy space where the government's stated priorities at that time—I think the minister even admitted at the time that it was a budget savings measure—were those forced amalgamations. They were the government's priorities. Even if the decision does not go the parents' way in the long run, it is so important they have the chance to advocate so that they can get the best opportunity for their school, and some concessions were made. Mr Knuckey went on to write to me:
Having the local governing body independent from orders of the department makes them independent and their decisions transparent. This act ends this independence.
After the Debelle Royal Commission, ministers, the Premier, the CE of DECD and Justice Debelle condemned DECD in its treatment of the governing council. South Australia was told that the Weatherill Government would change the way it deals with parents.
Justice Debelle concluded that the parents on the council felt bullied and intimidated. This new act will only further this sense of being under the authority and autonomy of DECD.
Mr Knuckey then went on to identify some examples, some of which I will go into in substantially further detail. The principle that the opposition takes as a starting point is that, where this new bill changes the current act to remove powers from governing councils or their members and give powers to the minister that the minister does not have at the moment to direct governing councils and their members, we are very sceptical.
We are very likely to be moving amendments and seeking support in the other house if the government does not accept those amendments. It will give the minister the opportunity through the committee stage to explain why each of those new powers is being sought for the government. Frankly, as to some of these positions, it is hard to see why the government thinks it needs these powers to direct governing councils.
For example, the old act has a provision that the chair of the governing council should be a parent. It excludes categories of people to the point that a parent on the governing council must be the chair. The new bill has no such provision. I inform the house now that we are going to be moving an amendment to ensure that, as is the situation at the moment, a parent is able to be confident that they are going to be the chair of the governing council; in fact, that they must be the chair of the governing council. The current act has a provision that, in effect, means there is a parent majority on governing councils. The new bill creates so many exemptions to that as to, in effect, render that meaningless. We are going to be very sceptical of those exemptions and require that there be a parental majority.
There is, under this bill, a new set of powers for the minister. In clause 48, a new set of powers allows the minister to give broad directions to governing councils. In the briefing, we had a bit of a discussion about this. It was suggested that there might be disciplinary situations where this might be useful, but the framing of this section is very broad in the minister taking it on themselves to decide that action needs to be taken and directions need to be given to a governing council. We are certainly not satisfied at the moment that there are compelling reasons that these new powers should be included. We will give the minister an opportunity to explain that and give clear reasons why clause 48 is necessary, but as I say, we remain sceptical, and there are other reasons here.
I want to spend a moment dealing a little bit further with the Debelle report. It was, of course, a very challenging time, and the role of the governing council was one of the important matters Justice Debelle dealt with. One of the significant differences between this bill and the current act is the way disputes might be managed. Rather, it is not necessarily just between the current act and this bill, but what we would like to see in this bill are disputes within the governing council or indeed disputes between the minister and the governing council. Justice Debelle, at recommendation 22 of his report, said:
It is recommended that the Department establish a process of mediation for the resolution of disputes between the Department and the governing council of a school…
And the government says that they have completed that. The government's response says:
The Minister for Education and Child Development wrote to governing council chairs on 6 December and 23 December 2013 to outline the independent review of school and preschool governance in SA and to provide instructions associated with the specific recommendations of the Independent Education inquiry.
That is saying that some interim measures were put in place after the Debelle review and it was letting them know that the Pike review was underway and they could make submissions to the Pike review. The government's response goes on:
The public consultation on the Independent Review of government school and preschool governance commenced on 20 May 2014.
That is the Pike review. The response continues:
Submissions to the Issues Paper closed on 1 August 2014. The Hon Bronwyn Pike's Review Report was provided to the Minister…in December 2014. DECD has given in-principle support to the recommendations which are being implemented during 2015.
A dedicated Policy Adviser (Governance) has been appointed and commenced work on 11 May 2015. The Policy Adviser has responsibility to deal quickly with all inquiries, concerns and requests relating to the operation of school governing councils.
Debelle was in a situation where the act as it was said that the school constitutions or governing council constitutions had to have a dispute resolution mechanism. That was what they had, and then there were these issues in the Debelle report, which I will go on to after lunch, I suspect. Then Debelle recommended that we need a new process of mediation to resolve disputes between the department and the governing council of a school.
The minister and the government say that they have completed that, but what did they complete? They have the Policy Adviser (Governance) within DECD, who has been working there since 11 May 2015, who can be called. To put that very simply, the government's solution to a new dispute mechanism needed between schools, governing councils and the department is to have someone in the department whom schools can contact to see what the boss of that person in the department might do better. It is not an independent dispute resolution mechanism. It is certainly not what Debelle envisaged.
I will tell you another thing—we will get to it—it is not what Bronwyn Pike envisaged either. The Pike review talks about the need for mediation to be used, not having a departmental officer as the go-to person to resolve these disputes. An independent mediator suggested by Pike, a new review mechanism suggested by Debelle—we have none of those things. We have a staff member in the department whom school governing councils are supposed to go to to resolve their disputes with the government. It is not the way forward.
What does this bill do? It actually removes even the identification of any dispute mechanism at all. There is nothing in the bill about dispute mechanisms, as far as we can tell. If I am mistaken, or if there is in fact some draft regulation where the government is going to be identifying this excellent new dispute resolution mechanism, then great, the minister can say so in her second reading response, but it certainly does not appear at the moment.
Recommendation 23 of the Debelle report is probably even more problematic. Justice Debelle said it is recommended that provision be made to establish a fund from which governing councils can draw funding to enable a governing council to obtain independent legal advice when that governing council is in dispute with the department, and that the decision as to whether it is necessary or appropriate for a governing council to obtain such funding be made by the person who holds the office of the Crown Solicitor.
Debelle is very clear: you need to have a fund, a legal fund, so that when governing councils are in dispute and they need legal advice they can draw from that fund to be administered by the Crown Solicitor, because he is independent from the education department, and governing councils can draw from that fund to get advice. This would have been particularly important in the issue of Debelle. We will go into it but, fundamentally the governing council, if they had had legal advice independently, could have provided that legal advice to the department, who probably would have acted quite differently, because the legal advice that they had received was subsequently found somewhat wanting.
The government says that they have done this. It says 'completed by DECD' right here on this government's document identifying the government's response to the Debelle inquiry. It says that they have completed this. We went through this in estimates a bit, and it became clear that they have not. The government, in saying how it has been completed—I am not going to read the thing again; it is the same set of words that they used in relation to the previous recommendation—talks about writing to school council chairs. It talks about the Pike review and then it states:
A dedicated Policy Adviser (Governance) has been appointed and commenced work on 11 May 2015. The Policy Advisor has responsibility to deal quickly with all inquiries…
And so forth. This same policy adviser who is supposed to be the one to resolve disputes between governing councils and the government is also the one who is going to identify whether or not schools get the money from the education department to pay for their independent legal advice.
It is not an independent system, and the opposition will be seeking to introduce this Debelle mechanism as suggested by commissioner Debelle. We hope the government will rethink this, because they accepted the recommendation. They say they have completed the recommendation. What we would like now—and this bill is a perfect opportunity to do it—is for them to actually do just what they have said: complete the recommendation. School governing councils, to have the local autonomy and the authority that they need to deal with these situations, deserve this fund suggested by Debelle.
Here is the thing: we have 500 government education sites in South Australia, and most governing councils, most schools, will never have a situation like this arise in their existence, in their history or in their future. We hope that that is the case. We hope it would be unnecessary to draw from this fund, but we know that there are examples where it would have been drawn from, the example of the Debelle inquiry, to start with.
As legislators, we have a responsibility not just to legislate for the convenience of the government or for the neatest way of getting the smallest piece of legislation available. We have to think about what would happen in the scenario where things do not go the way that they should. We have to contemplate, if a situation such as arose in the Debelle inquiry, for which we have significant evidence, arose again, what would be the best way to deal with it. I have not heard anyone from the government argue that Commissioner Debelle's recommendations were poor or ill thought out.
Everyone in the government was falling over themselves for two years to agree to them all and to say, 'Yes, we made mistakes, but now we have taken on board everything that has been suggested. We know better now. We have learnt.' That is what they were saying. They were not saying that he was wrong; they were saying, 'We have done what he said,' but they have not. This is where we can fix it. We can fix it in this very bill, and I hope that we do. It is worth traversing some of the issues that led to the Debelle inquiry. I will quote a little bit from the inquiry, starting at paragraph 637, which relates to the role of a governing council:
637. The events at the [Largs Bay Primary School] draws attention to the role of governing councils in schools operated under the aegis of the Department and, more particularly, to the extent of the powers and functions of governing councils. At least four members of the Governing Council of the metropolitan school held the view that the school should send a letter to parents who had children in the OSHC service, if not also to all parents with children at the school informing them of the conviction of [Mr Harvey: he is convicted; he is in gaol]. Questions were being asked as to the extent of the powers of the Governing Council to send a letter. The principal of the school, acting on the direction of the Department, did not agree to send such a letter. It is relevant to ask what the position would have been had a majority of the members of the Governing Council resolved that a letter should be sent to all parents of the school informing them of the conviction of [Mr Harvey] and the principal, acting on the advice or direction of the Department, had disagreed with that resolution.
638. A number of separate questions have to be considered. They are:
1. Does a governing council have power to send a letter to parents to inform them that a member of the staff of the school has committed a sexual offence?
2. What mechanism is available to resolve a dispute between a governing council and the principal of the school?
3. By what means can a governing council obtain independent legal advice?
These questions then lead to the question what is the true extent of the powers and functions of governing councils in schools operated by the Department and to the further question as to what in truth is the position of the governing council. Is it a body that in fact governs the school or is its role more akin to that of an advisory body? Questions concerning the extent of the powers and functions of governing councils are not confined to [Largs Bay Primary School]. Evidence at this Inquiry demonstrated that governing councils at other schools have from time to time sought legal advice as to the extent of their role and responsibilities.
The Powers of a Governing Council
639. Governing councils are school councils established pursuant to section 88 of the Education Act.
That is the existing Education Act. It continues:
Although the Act distinguishes between governing councils and school councils, it does not spell out if there is in reality any difference between them. It is clear that in order to become a governing council, a school council must have particular provisions in its constitution. Beyond that, there is no apparent difference.
That is a matter that I think is satisfactorily resolved in the new bill. Indeed, through the Debelle inquiry and more particularly in the Pike report that followed, there is an issue to do with clarity that is at stake. Most of the suggestions in the Pike report make significant reference to the need for improved clarity of powers. I will come back to Debelle and address more of his issues in a moment, but I will now discuss the Pike report.
Former Labor Victorian education minister Bronwyn Pike was appointed to undertake this review for the government. I was wondering, as I reread her review, given this was going into the nature of governance and governing councils, did former minister Pike suggest that governing councils needed their legislation changed or that there was a deficiency in the old education act that needed to be improved? That was what was at stake. Remarkably enough, on pages 8 and 9, there is a direct answer to that question. Former minister Pike says:
Part 8 of the Education Act establishes a legislative scheme supporting the creation, operation and control governing councils. The legislation is flexible and adequate to support strong local governance and does not need amendment.
This is the review on which the government was going forward with its contemplation of changes as to how governing councils operate. The review says, 'The legislation is flexible and adequate to support strong local governance and does not need amendment.' It goes on to say that again in other ways. The report continues:
The legislation makes it clear that both principals and governing councils have an active decision-making role. The current governing council model constitution complies with the legislation and specifies four key areas – strategic planning, determining policies, the application of financial resources, and presenting operational plans and reports to the Minister and school community. However the legislation also contemplates that a constitution can be modelled and tailored to meet the exact requirements of a particular school.
The functions of governing councils are outlined in the Education Act and model constitution however respondents consistently asked for greater clarification of these roles and a clearer explanation of the powers and responsibilities of councils and the principal.
And it goes on in all the recommendations that greater clarity is needed and not by changing the act. It is very clear that the powers and the responsibilities in the act are fine. What they wanted was more opportunities for training and more resources given to governing council members to better understand their positions, perhaps resources such as Commissioner Debelle recommended and the government said they accepted, having a legal fund, for example. That resource is an opportunity.
Support provided to governing councils is what was requested. What the government responded with is this bill, which removes powers from parents and gives powers to the minister. It removes autonomy from parents and gives the opportunity to the minister to direct parents and local school councils what to do, to remove parents from the governing council, if necessary, and to exempt a school from the requirement that they have a parental majority on the governing council.
This whole question of whether a parent should be the chair of the governing council is barmy. Since I noticed this, I have spoken to stakeholder groups and principal representatives. I have also spoken at governing council meetings and I have asked the question of parents, teachers and principals: is there some issue with parents being the chair automatically of governing councils? Is there some better solution that is being talked about in schools or the education department that I have not heard of?
Everyone was very clear in their response: they said, no, the chair of a governing council should be a parent. This is the opportunity that parents have to contribute to the direction and governance of the school. While the partnership between principals, school leaders, staff and parents is critical—and it is critical that that culture is done very well—that partnership already has one power centre.
There is case law—Australian Education Union v Chief Executive, from 2007, I think—that established that, as a chief executive can direct a principal to do something, the principal effectively has a veto in legal terms in decisions of governing council, but at the same time the principal is managing the school's governance jointly with the governing council, which is the parent community's opportunity to apply their point of view. In schools that are operating well with governing councils that are operating well, everyone sees it as a partnership, as working together.
In my time on governing councils I have only very rarely seen votes take place where there has been dispute, dissent or acrimony. Occasionally, when we are talking about materials and service charges somebody might have a philosophical objection and it will be calmly talked about, understood and respected and a vote might be taken.
I remember when the Campbelltown Primary School and the Charles Campbell Secondary School combined to become Charles Campbell College votes were taken as to who would comprise the membership of that governing council. There were more governing councils from the previous two schools than were allowed on the new governing council, so, of course, there were some winners and losers there, but it was done in a positive way. Almost entirely for the most part, governing councils work in a positive, collaborative manner as a real partnership, and that is what we should be striving for.
The bill changes that power balance, which is already weighted towards the department having power over the parent body. It takes more powers away from parents by giving the minister the opportunity to direct them and to remove them, more so than they do at the moment. Of course, there needs to be some mechanism there and there is in the current act. In our view, the powers that the minister has at the moment are sufficient to deal with a problem that a governing council may have.
The clear direction provided by the peak body for governing councils in South Australia is that the direction this bill takes ignores the lessons of the Debelle inquiry and sets school governance back. The parents of South Australia deserve better than that. I think that by working together over the next couple of weeks, we will be able to improve this. I seek leave to continue my remarks.
Mr GARDNER (Morialta) (16:10): In my introductory remarks before lunch, members might recall that I was reminding the house of the context, which involved many reports and reviews over a long period of time, starting with the member for MacKillop's review when he was chairing that in the Olsen government era several premiers ago, several ministers ago, several CEOs ago and several departmental restructures ago.
When the minister in her explanation says that this is the most significant legislative reform in 40 years, or words to that effect, she of course does so confident in the knowledge that nothing has happened for the last 15 years, at least, that the government has been in place and that updating the act is something that could have been attended to some time ago. But now we are here updating the act, and we are very excited about it—five weeks from the end of this parliament.
I think I might have made a comment before lunch, but in case I did not I will make it now, that had this legislation been brought to the house in a timely manner, had the consultation document that went out at the end of last year gone out several months earlier, they could have had feedback by the end of last year. They could have introduced this bill in February or March, rather than in August—in the last sitting week before the winter break, with five sitting weeks after the break—then we would have had time to deal with amendments slowly and methodically and come to a landing that the whole parliament would have been very proud of. I hope we still have that opportunity.
I am looking forward to the minister engaging very positively, as she sometimes does, and hopefully we can deal with some of these points of contention. One of those reviews that I spoke about, a significant review that I think has had a lasting impact on the psyche of the people of South Australia, was the Debelle royal commission. The Debelle report makes a number of important statements, findings and recommendations that I fear the bill does not at the moment fully take into consideration and demonstrates a lack of understanding of some of the direction that Debelle was pushing the education department to take.
I am going to quote excerpts very selectively that highlight this issue because this is a very important document. As I said before lunch, ministers and the government were falling over themselves to say how strongly they were advocating it and how truthfully they were delivering on its recommendations. It is important to bring these things to the house's attention so that we can judge them against the bill that is before the house today.
We talked about the nature of governing councils and their relationship with the principal. Bruce Debelle, in relation to the functions of the principal, in paragraph 643 says:
It is unnecessary to set out all the functions of the principal in council. It is sufficient to refer to the opening words of clauses 6 and 6.1 [of the Education Act].
He goes on to say:
The functions of the Principal in Council are undertaken in the context of the Principal's joint responsibility with the Council for the governance of the school.
6.1 The Principal is answerable to the Chief Executive for providing educational leadership in the school and for other general responsibilities prescribed in the Act and Regulations.
The opening words of both clauses 5 and 6 state that the governing council and the principal of the school are jointly responsible for governance of the school. Standing alone, those clauses suggest that the governing council has quite extensive powers. The word 'governance'…as has been noted, both the powers and functions of a governing council must be exercised in accordance with the legislation, administrative instructions and the constitution of the governing council.
Thereby limiting the governing council, whereas the principal in exercising powers is, of course, directed by the chief executive. As Australian Education Union v Chief Executive DECS (2007) pointed out, a functionary must comply with those instructions. At paragraph 644, Debelle states:
The fact that a principal is answerable to the chief executive means that a principal is both accountable to the Chief Executive and is subject to the direction of the Chief Executive.
That is exactly what I just identified. Debelle goes on to say:
In addition, it appears that the intention of Regulation 42(1)(b) is that the matters listed therein are matters that are excluded from the powers and functions of a governing council. In other words, the principal is at liberty to deal with any of those matters independently of the governing council. This is a further limitation upon the powers of the governing council.
Without quoting the next paragraph, it is clear that, while these are limitations on the powers of the governing council, that does not need to be a problem. In fact, partnerships between governing councils and principals jointly responsible for the governance of a school can be something that enriches a school community and provides strong advocacy and encourages vibrancy and accountability in that school community. It is very positive, potentially. However, governing councils' powers are currently limited, and the problem that we are addressing is that this bill will limit them further. Debelle goes on at 648 to point out:
In addition to those limitations, section 96 of the Education Act [as it was] invests the Minister with power to issue administrative instructions to school councils.
And so it is in the new bill that we have us before us today, that similar administrative instructions can be put forward. At the time that Debelle was doing his inquiry, he identified that those instructions were lengthy and comprised 168 pages. Some of the powers that the minister had at that time included:
1. The Minister may direct a governing council to make amendments to its constitution.
2. The Minister has a discretion whether to approve an amendment to the constitution of a governing council.
3. The Minister has power to remove members of a school council for misconduct, failure or incapacity to carry out the duties of the office satisfactorily, or if irregularities have occurred in the conduct of the council, or for any other reasonable cause.
4. The Minister also has power to prohibit or restrict the exercise of the power of a governing council if, in the opinion of the Minister, it is necessary or desirable to do so.
This bill seeks to provide the minister with even further powers than those extensive powers. The point I make, and the point that Debelle makes, is that the minister's powers, the department's powers and the principal's powers are substantial in relation to governing councils. We want to encourage governing councils to take ownership and to feel ownership of their site so that parents can truly be represented in their school's deliberations.
Given the substantial powers that the minister, the department and the principal already have, why would we limit governing councils' powers further? Why would we reduce the scope of parental involvement in governing councils further than we already have? I think that there is a case that could be discussed about increasing the parental powers on governing councils from what we already have. What this bill does is diminish the powers of parents on governing councils.
It finally resolves, in Commissioner Debelle's comments, resolution of disputes and obtaining legal advice. Prior to lunch, I commented on the comments of SAASSO, the peak body for the governing council, on these matters. We will go back to Commissioner Debelle, and then I will leave the commissioner for the moment. In relation to resolution of disputes, at 654, Debelle states:
It seems that clause 24 of the model constitution is intended to provide a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. It provides that a school must participate in a scheme for the resolution of disputes between the governing council and the principal as prescribed in administrative instructions. However…[they provide] no…mechanism for resolution of disputes [and there is no] other administrative instruction regulating the resolution of disputes. In the absence of [that]…it would seem, therefore, that if there were a dispute between the governing council and the principal of a school, the dispute could ultimately be resolved pursuant to an administrative instruction from the Minister. I do not think that is a satisfactory situation. It gives the Minister power to override what might be a very valid position on the part of the governing council. It is clearly necessary for an administrative instruction to be drafted to provide a suitable means of resolving disputes. The Inquiry heard evidence that on some occasions, disputes between the principal and the governing council have been resolved by mediation. That would be an appropriate dispute resolution process provided that the mediator is a person entirely independent of the Department.
As we heard before, the response to Debelle that is identified on the department's website—and I have not heard that it is not the most recent response—identifies an officer in the education department to whom governing councils can go to discuss this matter if they want this resolved. That is the department's response to this specific recommendation and that particularly describes why it is important that the mediator be independent. The government's response is to have a policy officer, and this bill entrenches that power differential, unfortunately.
I am not saying it cannot be fixed; I think it can be fixed reasonably easily, and I hope that matter will be resolved in the amendments we put forward. It may well be that there are some examples that the minister can provide as to deficiencies in the current legislation, but I note that Debelle did not find those deficiencies and neither did the Pike review, as I quoted before lunch.
Debelle goes on to say in 655, in relation to obtaining legal advice (and this is the fund we discussed earlier):
Should a dispute exist between the governing council and the Department, the governing council may wish to obtain legal advice. On occasions, a governing council has sought advice on a matter where there is no dispute with the Department. The Department has then arranged for the governing council to be advised by the Crown Solicitor's Office. That is a commendable process. However, should a dispute exist between a governing council and the Department, it might be necessary for the governing council to obtain independent legal advice elsewhere. The funds of a governing council are, generally speaking, very limited. In many cases, a governing council would not have sufficient funds to pay for the cost of legal advice. One witness gave evidence that at one school the members of the governing council themselves paid for independent legal advice. There will be many governing councils who would not be able to act in that way.
The report then identifies, in relation to the case at the heart of the Debelle inquiry:
Had the Governing Council of [Largs Bay Primary School] been able to obtain access to independent legal advice, it would have quickly learned that there was no legal impediment to the sending of the letter to parents informing them of [Harvey's] conviction. The Governing Council could then have handed the legal opinion to the Department and in all likelihood, the Department would have sought advice whether the advice given to the Governing Council was correct. Had it done so, it would have quickly learned there was no reason in law why a letter could not have been sent to parents. The matter might have then resolved more quickly and more satisfactorily [for everybody].
That is why the opposition takes the words of Mr Debelle very seriously, but it is notable that the subsequent review of governance of schools, the Independent Review of Government School and Preschool Governance in South Australia by former minister Pike, makes some similar comments. On page 14 Pike writes:
From time to time there may be disagreements between the school or preschool governing council and the department. Whilst every attempt should be made for the parties to reach a mutually agreed position there may be times when this is not successful. If such a matter becomes a dispute, it is best dealt with by mediation.
It then describes what mediation is, and goes on:
On 23 December 2013, the Minister—
I assume, at the time, the now member for Wright—
established an interim process for the engagement of mediation services where the governing council of a school is in dispute with the department. It was deemed to be an interim process, as it was intended to be the subject of consultation through this review.
The report then talks about how good mediation is, saying:
A mediator cannot impose a decision upon the parties and it may be the case that an agreement is not able to be reached. In the instance where a dispute is unable to be resolved by mediation, further advice should be provided to councils about other avenues that may be available to them.
If the governing council of a school is in dispute with the department, there may be a need for a governing council to access independent legal advice.
On 23 December 2013, the Minister issued an administrative instruction specifying the process by which the governing council of a school can seek legal advice when in dispute with the department. The funding for any such legal advice will be drawn from existing departmental resources and will be automatic once the Crown Solicitor approves that the required criteria is met for the engagement of an independent legal practitioner. The Crown Solicitor is well placed to approve that independent legal advice be provided and that the department fund this advice.
It then goes on to talk about preschools, but I will mention it here rather than later:
With respect to disputes between a preschool governing council and the department, it would also be appropriate to develop a dispute resolution procedure.
And so forth. For all those reasons, the opposition supports the activation, through amendments to this bill, of the original Debelle suggestions, at least, in relation to disputes, the restoration of the identification of a dispute mechanism in the governing council constitution into the bill, but we are happy to talk to the minister if she has another way to put dispute resolution into the act. We are unclear as to why this dispute resolution mechanism was taken out of the act in favour of other things, and I think it is suitable that it be restored.
In relation to the implementation of the Debelle review, the KPMG report—this predates the Pike report—the PwC and the KPMG reports, the then minister, the now member for Wright, brought in Peter Allen, the Deputy Dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Governance, in September 2013 to do a further report. The Allen review identified a number of things about which, in retrospect, we might have a different view. I note in one paragraph on page 9, it said:
The breadth of the department's responsibilities is without parallel in Australia, and now includes early childhood care and development services for South Australian families, including local family day care, preschool education, children's centres, out of school hours care programs, plus health and well being services that support parents, carers and children; South Australia's public education system, with the goal of delivering world class primary and secondary education in all areas of the curriculum; the facilities and infrastructure for children's centres, preschools, schools, and regional offices; and a departmental workforce of more than 28,000 employees.
Of course, that structure was found by a subsequent royal commission to be suboptimal, and we have moved on from there. We now have just a Department for Education and Child Development.
The Allen review identified that, in response to this brief, the department has committed itself to making it easier for families to access child health and development services, improving the safety and protection of children, establishing a focus on learning and achievement for young children and ensuring South Australia is recognised internationally as child friendly. I bring up this section because I note that the minister, in bringing this bill to the parliament has, in my view in quite a worthy manner, instituted a number of principles and objects that are in the act.
As the minister pointed out to me last week, there were no principles and objects in the initial act from 1972. It is the way legislation is written now. But there are some things that are not necessarily included in those principles and objects which might be obvious to include. It struck me that, when talking about the safety and protection of children, while that is fundamentally the purpose of the Department for Child Protection, we do have a duty of care to those children while they are in our schools as well, and I think that is something that would be worthy of having a discussion about at the committee stage.
The Allen review describes the 2012 KPMG report's findings. In particular, the review reported:
confusion and inconsistency about the structures and committees that govern the department,
a lack of transparency around decision making: information flows for decision making were unclear,
committees and groups operating with no clear purpose, terms of reference or linkage to the DECD strategy. In many cases alignment with strategic business planning to drive delivery of new DECD responsibilities was unclear,
a lack of formal discipline and processes in the conduct of (many) committees,
roles and responsibilities relating to governance were unclear,
silos and territorial approaches impacted on the approach to achieving DECD outcomes, and
lack of clarity about information flows from committees to departmental leaders for decision making.
It is not the purpose of this bill to instruct the minister or, indeed, now more appropriately his chief executive, how to structure the education department, but I highlight this point, as we have asked a number of questions in estimates, and I am sure the minister will be getting an answer soon in relation to the structure of the education department. These are important questions, and the Allen review from 2013 identifies the importance of the structure of the department in understanding how those information flows and systems work.
Debelle talks about structure as well. In a department as large as this, with a complexity of arrangements between schools and staff—Education Act staff and Public Sector Act staff—and the department itself and all of its administrative units, and then the minister, it is important that we have a clear understanding of how that structure works. As I say, we are looking forward to receiving answers to those questions. In fact, the Allen review goes on to say:
A conclusion of this review is that the department will be able to serve the government better by focussing on a manageable number of priorities to which meaningful and measurable progress indicators can be attached. Structure should follow function to foster alignment of effort in pursuit of government priorities.
And so forth. That was all part of the series of reviews that no doubt informed this act, and in some ways it did, and in some ways we hope it would do more. Let us go to the specific measures, and I will hopefully be able to do this in a way that we can finish the second reading at the prescribed time. We will do our best.
Starting with the first section, we mentioned briefly the objects and principles, which is clause 7 for those following at home. The new objects refer to public education being secular and culturally diverse. I am not objecting to those references at all, but they do not mention child wellbeing or safety, and I think that is worth noting.
Particularly, I note that the objects and principles at clause 7(1) state that the objects of this act include ensuring that education is of a high quality—that is good; we want to ensure that educational excellence is part of it—ensuring that children's services are of a high quality, ensuring the development of an accessible range of education and children's services that meet the needs of all groups in the community—that is fine—and then:
…promoting the involvement of parents, persons other than parents who are responsible for children and other members of the community in the provision of education and children's services to children and students in this State.
I highlight that point because it is tremendously important. I think it goes to why some of our concerns about the bill need to be addressed later on. I look forward to that discussion in the committee stage. I note that a servant of the public has just sent me an SMS saying that he is watching at home, which is tremendously exciting. He is a Labor candidate for parliament, no less.
I move on to clause 4, the application of the act to non-government schools. The minister made a point to me last week, which I do not think she will mind me repeating, that the Minister for Education is the Minister for Education in South Australia, not just for public education. That is something with which I, and certainly we on the Liberal side, wholeheartedly agree. The minister can speak for herself going forward; that was the extent of her comment.
We do not want to reduce the scope of the autonomy of independent schools and Catholic schools from the system because, of course, they offer something different that many parents wish for their families in the choices they make for their families. We do not want to reduce that scope, but the act has many benefits for independent schools and Catholic schools, and those sectors appreciate being given the opportunity to have things in this act that help them as well.
Because there are significant sections of the act that deal just with public schooling, clause 4 identifies a series of provisions in this act that should apply only to government schools. Those sections may well all be suitable, but I identify to the minister that when we go through the committee I want to explore some issues that have been raised by a couple of constituents. They may well be matters that have been dealt with, but there are questions. Rather than my reading it here, it might be easier to go through it in more detail in committee. I will provide a copy of some of these points to the minister.
Fundamentally, there are three or four sections where we might want to explore whether or not the act should apply to non-government schools; some are in definitions and some are in relation to family conferences. In particular, I identify in advance the question of whether the family conference sections relating to truancy would relate to a student who is enrolled in a non-government school but who otherwise meets the threshold of truancy.
Of course, the law requires that there be attendance at a school. Just because a student is not enrolled in a public school but is instead enrolled at a non-government school does not mean that they should be exempt from truancy provisions. In relation to those aspects where the principal of a school is perhaps involved in a family conference, what is the interplay between this act and the non-government school sector? I think that is an area worthy of teasing out somewhat.
Clauses 8 to 15 and also clauses 66 to 68 deal with information sharing. In the minister's second reading explanation, she said that these are:
…new provisions to enable improved sharing of information between schools, parents, the department and other state authorities to support the education, health, safety and wellbeing of children.
Clauses 66 to 68 provide an opportunity for the compulsion of the provision of that information about the child, which can potentially be with or without the parents' consent. Of course, in child protection matters one can imagine quite easily why that might be necessary. Therefore, at this stage we do not propose any amendments to those provisions and we see them as being a positive inclusion.
Clauses 16 to 34 deal with preschools and children's centres. I will give the minister, in her second reading speech perhaps, an invitation to respond to a concern that has been put to me about preschool staffing and leadership. There is a suggestion that there is what has been described to me as a secretive DECD working party that is promoting a new model of preschool leadership causing widespread consternation. The working party apparently includes the Early Childhood Development Strategy team. There is an interim evaluation report that makes reference to some of these works.
The suggestion is that there is a new model being developed intended to refocus children's centres away from education and towards health services and health professionals. Clause 121 of the proposed bill provides:
…a person may be employed under this section to provide health, social or other non-education services in relation to schools and children's services centres.
I invite the minister to advise in her response whether she has been briefed on these suggestions and what guarantees she can give to concerned staff that existing well-based qualifications and classifications will be maintained. That has been a request that has been put to me, and indeed I did give the minister some notice of it last week, and the minister yesterday was kind enough to write to me confirming:
The Teachers Registration and Standards Act 2004 requires a school principal, preschool director or teacher at a school, preschool or prescribed service to hold teacher registration. Accordingly, any teaching or leadership position in a school, preschool or children's centre that leads or is responsible for education delivery must be held by a registered teacher.
If the minister feels that there is anything that she needs to add to that, then I invite her to do that in her second reading response, or otherwise we can tease it out in the committee.
Further, in relation to preschools and children's centres, I note that this effectively will be bringing into some consistency the government's preschool models with school models. These would be the stand-alone preschools, those not operating as part of a school. There are some slight differences that probably need to be taken into account. I put forward some of the comments that former minister Pike made in her report on page 11 in the Independent Review of School and Preschool Governance in South Australia, where she said:
Involvement in preschool governance is highly valued and often leads to a further governance role in schools or other community organisations. There are some special factors that complicate governance and present challenges for standalone public preschools.
Many parents are only connected to the preschool for 12 months as that is the period of their children's enrolment. This means that there is often a new and possibly inexperienced preschool governing council each year. By the time the new members learn their roles and responsibilities the year could be well underway.
It further goes on to talk about dispute resolution processes needed for both preschools and governing councils. Some of the feedback the Pike review received from members of preschool governing councils and others who submitted to that review identified that it was a significant benefit, encouraging parental involvement through family-focused activities, providing opportunities to connect and build positive relationships outside the usual drop-off and pick-up context, providing a welcoming environment within the preschool, handling issues with transparency and a mutual willingness to contribute ideas.
Clearly, we want to have modern, suitable opportunities for governance for preschools; however, some things we take for granted in schools. Often people on governing councils at schools, if they have two children at the school a couple of years apart, have done more than 10 years on governing councils. On one governing council I have been involved with the chair was the chair for eight years and did that role terrifically well and remained passionate. It is much harder for preschools to have that body of knowledge kept for a lengthy period of time if a child is there for one year or, particularly if there are siblings, a couple of years.
I think there may well be an opportunity where we could be a bit more flexible with the governing council arrangements for preschools. Broadly, at this stage the opposition does not propose any amendments to these clauses. However, I do note that, as we are going to be in committee in about two or three weeks' time, subsequently there may be other suggestions to the Legislative Council. I am not the fount of all wisdom. We may well consider other things. The government may propose amendments, and that is fine as well. So we may potentially come to a nuanced position, but at this stage we are not proposing any amendments.
We then move on to clause 35, which mirrors clause 83—Corporal punishment prohibited. I want to comment on this a little bit because at the risk of being controversial—not very controversial, probably—it is an issue that I am quite concerned about. According to clause 83:
(1) Corporal punishment (however described) must not be imposed on a student.
(2) The Chief Executive must take all reasonable steps to ensure that principals, officers of the teaching service and all other persons employed in, or in relation to, Government schools comply with [that section].
(3) For the purposes of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935
, corporal punishment will be taken not to amount to conduct that lies within limits of what would be generally accepted in the community as normal incidents of social interaction or community life.
That may well be necessary for the Criminal Law Consolidation Act. In my view, this is very important to go into the act. It was not in the act before, as far as I am aware. It has been a practice and policy across all government and non-government sites for a very long time. I say 'a very long time', but we are talking about a couple of decades. I was talking to somebody two days ago who was recounting experiences of coping a severe beating by a prefect at their school—not even a staff member, but a prefect.
That person was in their 70s, and it has been a long time since that took place, but it is not that long ago. It is within the lifetime of people who are coming to have lunch with members of parliament to talk about their issues. That is appalling. It left a scar on their relationship with their school and they completely disconnected with their education. It had appalling effects. I am not raising issues in relation to discipline within the home, as that is a whole other question. But within the school environment, when a parent entrusts a child to attend a school, there is a duty of care that we now respect, and it is tremendously important that we do.
It was not that long ago. I was in primary school at a time when the ruler over the wrist was still a common occurrence for turning up 10 minutes late to school. This did not happen in my case—I am going to take the opportunity not to incriminate myself in this, but let us say that I am talking about a friend. I am certainly not going to besmirch my parents, because my mother would never have allowed this to happen.
Let's say that there was a family situation going on in the morning and the master of the school, to apply consistency, gives a child three whacks around the wrist with a wooden ruler. I am 38 years old; it is really not that long ago that this was considered not just acceptable but a fair way of going about your business. It is not. It does not add anything to a child's education. It is not something of benefit, and I am very pleased to see it in the legislation. So much for corporal punishment.
I have already spent some time on the governance of schools so I do not want to re-tread all of the old ground, but I might raise a couple of new issues that I did not dwell on before. Again, these might be issues the minister might take on board and think about in the second reading response, or potentially have amendments that she might contemplate that we might look at. We will certainly ask some question.
There is a relationship between associated committees, whether it is parents and friends groups at school, or it might be the rowing club at the school, or it might be the uniform body at the school. Those are quite different bodies, but a suggestion has been put to me by one interested person who knows a bit about the area: this new bill, if enacted in its current form, would treat all of those bodies in the same way as subsidiary bodies of the governing council, whereas they might actually see themselves as independent.
Indeed, I believe at the moment an associated body, whether it is parents and friends, certainly a uniform committee, would usually be a function of the governing council. A parents and friends would probably not. It might be formed by a group of parents with the permission of the principal. I am not making this as a bold claim. I would be interested in the minister's advice and her response, if she would like to, or we can come back to it in the committee stage to explore it further. If this new act did just mean that those affiliated committees were subsidiaries of governing councils, then I think that would be potentially problematic.
We would like to explore that a bit further later on because I think the work of parents and friends and fundraising groups in schools is different from the work of governing councils. It is a different set of skills, and quite frankly it is often a different set of interests. I have been on governing councils where the governing council has wanted to form a fundraising subgroup but the people who were interested in that work were not necessarily involved with the governing council group of people. There can be quite good reasons why those things should be kept separate, but we can explore that further. I do not think it is going to unnecessarily detain us too long.
In relation to the governing council matters, I spent some time on it earlier. I indicate that the opposition will be looking at an amendment to effectively limit the minister's powers in relation to governing councils to what the minister has at the moment and not extended in the way that this bill potentially does. We invite the minister to identify reasons why some of the extensions of power have been presented. For example, the minister has a power in this bill to appoint members to governing council outside of that council's institutions.
It has been suggested to me in relation to that particular point that it might just be limited to a couple of clauses where the minister could appoint somebody. It is not an unfettered power, only related specifically to clause 38(3)(b) where an appointment may be made following the failure of an election on the basis that the school constitution may or may not have foreseen such circumstances or clause 17(2) which allows the minister to appoint persons to represent preschool kids in the case where a school-based preschool is established in relation to an existing school; that is, the council has expanded to ensure that the preschool is represented. If that is the case, then that might not be so stressful, but we would like that issue clarified.
In the current act, as I said before, there is clear provision at 84(1)(a)(i) of the current act that parents comprise the majority of members, except in an adult education school, and then again at 84(1)(a)(iv) that the presiding member not be a member of the staff of the school or a person employed in an administrative unit for which the minister is responsible. At least for the school governing councils our position intends to restore these provisions from the current act, and we will put forward amendments to do so.
I invite the minister again, if there are reasons for these current requirements to be removed, to feel free to put those forward. Clause 38(3) allows the minister to make appointments to governing councils and for the council to ignore the parent majority rule if insufficient parents nominate. The application of this clause has two matters identified. There can be a supplementary election or the minister can appoint.
What I believe happens at the moment, and I will need to check whether this is in the act or the regulations or just in practice, is that if a supplementary election does not provide the outcome, then the governing council itself can appoint people to the governing council. That may well be a function of the governing council constitution. What I do not want to see is a situation where parents feel that their rights through their governing council body, either to elect through a supplementary election or appoint to themselves through the governing council, are superseded by a ministerial appointment.
We identified some cases before where there were disputes between governing councils and departments, governing councils and ministers, for political decisions, whether that is the forced amalgamations or whether that is the situation described in Debelle or elsewhere. We do not want a situation where if there is a casual vacancy there a governing council feels like they can have someone imposed on them by the person or the department with which they are having a dispute.
We would be looking to do some sort of amendment there to at least require that the supplementary election must take place first, before allowing the provisions of the ministerial appointment. We will possibly even look at putting in the legislation that the governing council can itself nominate people in the case where a supplementary election does not provide any nominations.
Clauses 40(1) and 40(2) impose $20,000 fines for a failure to disclose a conflict of interest by parents. It has been pointed out to me by some advocates that these are double similar fines in relation to failure to declare serious issues affecting other classes of people or making false statements to the Teachers Registration Board, for example. On investigation, I am told that the $20,000 was chosen for the sake of consistency with such offences in other acts. The amount was chosen following the changes to the Public Sector (Honesty and Accountability) Act in 2009.
However, there are other examples, a couple of which I have just identified, where the numbers are different ($10,000). I think that a court would probably be able to figure out that the parliament does not necessarily mean $20,000 in all cases; that is what courts do. We do not propose any change here, but I note for the record that we do not see that these offences should necessarily be double the others. I think that the remedy is maybe to update the other offences rather than to change this suggestion.
In clause 48, there is a new set of powers that allows the minister to give broad directions to governing councils. We raised this with the minister last week and were advised—I do not want to put words in her mouth unfairly; she can correct me if I get this wrong—that this would be to deal with certain disciplinary situations. We are not convinced at this stage that there are clear examples of why these powers are necessary in addition to the other powers that a minister already has.
I am concerned that, again in the Debelle case, this clause would have meant that certain governing council members might have been removed because of the poor advice that the department was giving about what was appropriate behaviour by a governing council in relation to the sending of a letter or the distribution of material. The minister at the time, who is no longer in this parliament, certainly took a very dim view of what subsequently became accepted practice of providing information to the community about a child sexual assault.
I do not want to go over old ground, but it is clear to me that there are cases where a minister—not this minister but other ministers—might not behave with the best intent or the best advice. A minister might use the power provided or proposed under clause 48 to discipline a governing council member who is actually doing nothing wrong but is held by a minister operating on poor advice to be doing something wrong. I do not know that this power is necessary. If the minister has some examples of how it might be used or necessary, then maybe we can come to a compromise, but at the moment the opposition is not minded to support it.
Clauses 50 and 51 seem to broaden the powers of the minister to suspend a governing council beyond what the act currently allows. The current act allows the minister to prohibit or restrict the exercise of a specified power or the performance of a specified function for a specified period. I am not sure that needs to be broadened, so we will be looking at amendments to effectively keep the current arrangements within the context of the new bill. I think we have gone over the dispute mechanism and the governing council legal fund more than adequately, so I will move on from the governance issues. Important as they are, I think two hours on them is probably enough.
School amalgamations and closures are dealt with in clauses 52 to 56. Broadly, these are the same as existing powers. There is a new rule at clause 54(4) that if the review does not report on time—and there is a minimum three-month time limit in the preceding clause, from memory—then it is taken to be recommending the closure or amalgamation. This is to ensure that the review body does not unnecessarily delay matters as a tactic to stop the report from coming in.
I did think of one example where this might be problematic, and again we are going back to that 2011 situation where there were 20 or 25 reviews happening at the same time and many of the ministerial appointments to those reviews were potentially the same people. It was possible on those occasions that those reviews might have been delayed by the people who were actually seeking to close the school. Having the delay producing that outcome might potentially be a tactic on the other side as well, but I think the political negative consequences of anyone taking that track would be quite profound. So I am happy to look at any amendments that others might suggest, but I do not think that they are very necessary.
In relation to the next section, 57 to 64, to do with special schools, this area is largely similar to the existing act and the regulations, or at least in practice. At clause 63, there are some new provisions in relation to the powers of the chief executive being able to direct that a child be enrolled in a particular school. In particular, it seems to remove existing references to consulting parents in section 75A of the current act.
I acknowledge that the minister, in relation to this matter which we discussed with her last week, wrote to me saying, 'I am open to considering how consultation should occur under this power and will provide you with a government amendment in due course.' I am very pleased to see that and I thank the minister for that response. We are happy to look at the government's amendment and we will offer our own and maybe we can split the difference and see how we go. I think we are of one mind on this issue but, given that it made its way into the original bill, I think it is important that I spend a moment on it.
I am no expert in this area. I had about a year as the shadow minister for disabilities, which was a tremendously important time in my understanding of this tremendously broad and diverse section of the community that has many different needs and many different opportunities and abilities. I spent some tremendous afternoons, mornings and weekends with people in this community. I am particularly thinking about parents here. A very special group of people are those parents of children with disabilities who have a love for a child and are presented with challenges that most parents do not have, particularly in relation to certain services or opportunities to ensure that their child achieves everything that they can in life and truly fulfils their potential in every way.
Traditionally, there was a maze for a parent of a child with a disability, who needed special support services. We hope the National Disability Insurance Scheme will assist in many ways in bringing this forward. When it comes to education, there are again challenges. We have education centres, which used to be called special schools, and we have special classes, special units in schools and the provision of those services is important.
In the last couple of weeks, I have seen a couple of extraordinary success stories in the public system. I will single out Murray Bridge High School because the head of the Disability Unit has been nominated for an international teaching award, and we wish her well. It is amazing to see the passion and how hard the families of students with disabilities work to get the best outcome for their child. The capacity for those families and, where possible, the child with a disability to have the authority and autonomy to make decisions that are in their own best interests and their family's best interests is tremendously important.
There could be circumstances in which the power described in the act for the chief executive to make very difficult decisions might need to be put into place, but it would only be done in limited circumstances. It is not something we would like to do. It is absolutely necessary in this day and age that the parents be involved in that decision, even when it is a decision that they might not necessarily support. There are circumstances in which the chief executive might be forced to make that decision. There must be a mechanism whereby the parents have the opportunity to have a say, as they do in the current act.
Moving onto adult students very briefly, dealt with in clause 65, I am not aware of any urgent need for us to amend that provision. Clauses 69 to 76 deal with compulsory enrolment, attendance and truancy. I have previously brought to the house's attention the need for us to clarify how these family conference issues operate with non-government schools. I should say that the family conferences introduced under this act are along the lines that we in the Liberal Party talked about needing to see more of, particularly when we released our truancy policy last year, so we are pleased to see this described in the bill.
Obviously, there are some things that are identified as being the chief executive's responsibilities in calling these conferences. In practice, that would of course be done as a delegated power, I would assume, to principals or attendance officers. I note that the Liberal Party truancy policy would increase by 50 per cent the number of attendance officers working in our schools, which will fit in very well with this provision in the bill, so we are very pleased to see it.
There is long history in relation to these truancy issues. In my introductory remarks, I suggested some of the background to these measures in the bill. Certainly, when this bill was first talked about by the current minister, it was in the context of truancy being a topic of public interest. The minister suggested that a review of the whole Education Act would include improvements to the truancy provisions. I do not want to split hairs, but there are some slight differences between what the Liberal Party has proposed in changes to the truancy legislation and what the government has proposed, but broadly it is now heading in the same direction. We might look at some details, but I do not see any wholesale amendments to the provisions from 69 to 76, and there may even be none.
However, we do have a problem with the idea of these fines being expiable, and I will explain why. The fine is to be increased by this legislation, but most parents are not going be impacted by this measure. The impact of the truancy fine is to deal with a small cohort of parents, to get their attention to ensure that this is a serious matter. The previous fine had not been increased for about a decade, and the increase a decade ago was from a very small amount that had not been increased in 20 years. Even going with inflation over the last 30 years, the fine for a truancy offence that is proposed in this bill is probably about the mark of where it was 30 or 40 years ago.
The point is that there has to be a stick that goes with the carrot for the benefit of the child going to school. If the child does not go to school, and you are not interested in engaging with the school, and you are not interested in taking steps to talk about getting your child back to school, then a court might be paying attention to you, and there is a reason you want to pay attention to that, and that is the fine. The family conference is where the action is. The family conference is bringing together the stakeholders, the relevant professionals who will find ways to get a child back to school.
Having an expiation notice for the fine I think undermines the good work altogether because the consequence of a child not being at school for five or 10 days over the course of the term is an expiation notice up to the value of $750, as this legislation proposes at clause 140(2)(y). An expiation notice is a blunt instrument. It is an instrument that can be applied to a family when their child does not come to school. It is applied because it is easier to do an expiation notice than the family conference setting.
The family conference setting is a complex matter that involves bringing a whole group of people together. It involves bringing in the student, potentially—and their family might have had severe difficulties with the school in the past—and working through a solution to find out what we need to do to get this child to school. That is a complex mechanism, and it is one that we absolutely support and that we need to resource, one that the Liberal Party wants to work with. That is why we are putting more resources in our policies into attendance officers.
However, rather than going through all that hassle, a school staff member is provided with the opportunity to instead apply an expiation notice and say, 'Okay, the family needs to do that.' I think the minister, in answering a question from the member for Florey earlier this year, suggested that it would certainly get her attention, and I imagine it would. The thing is that these families are not in the situation of a minister of the Crown, and an expiation notice of $750 might be a blunt instrument that might get the issue to the attention and the eyes of the principal of the school on that day but is not going to do anything to solve the problem.
Here is the thing: a $5,000 fine would be rarely applied. A $5,000 fine would be applied only if there were a court setting that found that was the response necessary. Even going through the process of taking the family to court is, in itself, an intervention. It is more valuable, and a court would be likely to impose the level set at the same level as the expiation notice, but the court intervention itself is of more benefit than just providing the expiation notice. The fact that a person might be forced to go to court makes them far more likely to involve themselves in the mediation session. Having an expiation notice takes that away.
In our view, the expiation notice is of no value in dealing with these truancy issues, and so the opposition will be seeking amendments that will remove the expiation notice. We take truancy very seriously. The loss of time from a child's education through being absent from school for five or 10 days a term is quite profound, and it leads to problems in later life. We have identified, coronial inquest after coronial inquest into child deaths or neglect, where truancy has been a warning, a flashing beacon, and we need to be paying attention to this and identify it.
According to reports in The Advertiser, in February this year the department identified that in the past three school years there were 4,945 chronic truancy referrals, almost 5,000 chronic truancy referrals. Talking about a noticeable percentage of the school population in South Australia, these are children who are not just losing out educationally. There are also potentially very serious issues going on that need to be addressed. An expiation notice is not going to address those.
We have an extraordinary backlog in the fines payment unit already, and I am not sure it is going to get any money for the state. I cannot imagine for a second that is its purpose. I think the expiation notice is a lazy approach to truancy. What we need is more attendance officers working with the model in the act—which is actually quite a positive thing—more attendance officers working through these family conferences, addressing the needs of those families and having a zero tolerance attitude to this but one that also acknowledges there are issues in those families that we can address if only we give them the time.
Before I get onto clauses 77 to 81, which deal with suspensions, exclusions and expulsions, I will just say that this should not be a surprise. We announced that we were opposed to expiation notices for truancy offences over a year ago when we announced our truancy policy, yet they are still here in the legislation. Going back to one more thing on truancy that I think needs to be noted, for some time there was a discussion about this provision, where somebody might be prosecuted for a truancy-related offence, that the defence clause in the act was too loose and allowing parents who did not want to engage to get away with not engaging just by saying that they had given it a crack but the kid would not listen. It was suggested that there were no truancy prosecutions worth pursuing because that defence was too easy.
When the minister, after significant public provocation, I might say—from myself encouraging people to do so, as well as others over a period of time—took to suggesting prosecutions to the DPP, it is notable that those prosecutions succeeded, despite the defence clause in the act at the moment. In one of those cases, I believe the parent in question might have been employing their son as a 14-year-old apprentice, which is clearly too young, and the defence might have been difficult. Clearly, the prosecution was attainable under the old act; it is just that the government did not want to do it, did not want to have a crack. However, clause 69(4) is a slight amendment to the current rules, and at the moment we are minded to support the suggestion going forward.
In relation to suspensions, exclusions and expulsions, again this is an important issue that needs serious work to be put into it. Close to 1,000 public school students were suspended multiple times in a single term, and we are talking about term 2 last year. There were 3,773 students suspended in term 2 last year, 925 (around a quarter) were barred from school at least twice for reasons ranging from violent attacks to not paying attention in class. I quote from a story from 28 May this year in The Advertiser by Tim Williams, who I think is a very fair and erudite education reporter. He is clearly very passionate about the best interests of our children, as demonstrated by his passion for these areas over an extended period of time.
We will get to violence in a moment because there are some issues related to that that are worth touching on. These suspensions need to be taken seriously, and principals need to have supports in place. It is worth noting that I received this last week. We have these Better Behaviour Centres where students might be excluded from a school, but they have to go somewhere because we need to educate them. We do not want it just to be a case where a student seeks exclusion from school because they want to stay at home. Consequently, we have these Better Behaviour Centres.
For the record, we have been asking for some time, and we have received now, an identification of how much capacity we currently have in Better Behaviour Centres. Across the whole system there is a capacity for 229 students, and on 30 June this year there were 192 students in those places. Port Lincoln High School, with a capacity of 15, had 17 students in the centre on that day. In all the other centres, there were between two and eight spaces available.
It is very important that the principals who think that suspension or exclusion is the appropriate course of action not be turned away from that idea by the idea that there is insufficient room in the Better Behaviour Centres. We know that the room at these centres fluctuates significantly. A student might be there for only a week if it is a week's exclusion, or they might be there for two terms. That fluctuates, and we need to keep an eye on this area to make sure there is sufficient capacity. I am pleased that on 30 June, at least, it appears that there was sufficient capacity on that day. This section largely replicates the current provision in the act and the regulations in practice, as far as we can tell. While we remain open, as always, to amendments, we do not propose any at this stage.
There is an area here in relation to intercultural and religious instruction. This is a substantial expansion on the current act, and it is an area that has caused a little bit of consternation in the community in recent times—not necessarily this act itself. Although, as I will explain, it connects to some other issues that have been causing some concern in the community. Section 102 of the current act deals with this matter quite briefly:
(1) Regular provision shall be made for religious education at a Government school, under such conditions as may be prescribed, at times during which the school is open for instruction.
(2) The regulations shall include provision for permission to be granted for exemption from religious education on conscientious grounds.
The regulations ensure that if a student is conscientiously not attending, then there will be other things for them to do.
The new section, clause 82, is quite a significant enlargement of that section. I suppose the question that I would put to the minister to consider is: why? As shadow education minister over the last year and a half, I have had a couple of constituents from around South Australia express concern that there was an example of a specific seminar that their child should have been excluded from but they were not. Of course, if the current act had been applied as it is supposed to be, then they would not have had any troubles. The point is that I think I have had one constituent raise with me the issue of there being religious instruction in schools.
I think it is very useful for children to understand their culture and where our community comes from. I also think that there are school communities in the public system that have significant proportions of families who like to see this in their schools. It is important for schools to have a fair amount of say in what happens at their schools and, ultimately, the decision must be with the parents. No child should be forced into a situation where they are being proselytised to, and certainly not against the will of their parents. That is to be clear.
What I would ask is: what is the issue that has so driven the government to think that there is a harm that needs to be addressed by having this much broader section in the new act? I have not seen it. I have not been presented with that scope of evidence. There are some people who absolutely do not see any place for religion in our society, let alone in our schools, and that is fine. You can argue that point of view, but I do not think that is the point of view that the government wants to argue. We have spent the last three months with the minister protesting until she is hoarse in the throat, and that is not meant derogatively at all.
She would say herself that she has spent more time than she would have liked arguing that there are going to be Christmas carols, but there is a reason why people are concerned that the Christmas carols might be removed; actually, there are several reasons. Let me start with the minister's own words in describing what happened. At the end of the Christmas carol discussion, around the time Media Watch was being critical of people for putting this forward, minister Close was on the Ali Clarke show on ABC radio. Ms Clarke said:
I just want to quickly question you as we change tack a little bit about a three line, four line, press release you put out yesterday about 'Christmas carols will not be banned in South Australian schools.' Why did you…feel you needed to do that?
I will quote the minister. She said:
Well we had a draft policy that was being consulted on, I hadn't seen it before it went out, and it was written in a slightly ambiguous way. The author absolutely intended to say that we wouldn't be in any way seeking to control Christmas carols. But the Liberal Opposition decided that this is something that could be quite entertaining in the media, and it's been massively successful for them, on that perspective, because they managed to set a hare running, suggesting that we were going to ban Christmas carols which is completely ludicrous. I would never do that, and the Department would never do that and no school would do that…
That is just not the case, frankly, but we will move on. The minister went on to say:
Principals are very sensible people and they wouldn't stand any such nonsense like that. So we—
Then David Bevan, who I understand is listening to the broadcast constantly, interrupted, 'Well, where do they get—' and then minister Close said, 'So we just need—' and then it is unclear. Then Bevan said, 'What was it in the bureaucracy? What was the email that gave them any foothold on this?' Minister Close said:
It was a draft policy that was being consulted on, on how we manage the fact that our schools are secular. So we don't have religion as a doctrinal lesson in our schools in the way that you might experience in, say, a Lutheran school or a Catholic school. And all it's noting was that we don't regulate Christmas carols, so I think that they were trying to be helpful, I think they were trying to say 'this has nothing to do with Christmas carols'.
This is the really important part that I think gives a sign that the minister was not being entirely straightforward in her press release the day before, and we will get to that. The minister went on to say:
But they didn't write it spectacularly clearly, and when I saw it I said, 'well we won't be going out with a policy that looks anything like this'.
On 31 August, the Minister for Education said, in relation to the policy in relation to Christmas carols:
…when I saw it I said, 'well we won't be going out with a policy that looks anything like this'.
I note that, when this became an issue in the public media, the minister was falling over herself, and getting the department to fall over themselves, to say that this was all a pack of nonsense, that the policy itself was not suggesting any such thing and the policy was fine.
Yet the minister, on 31 August, when her repeated claims had not convinced anyone that the policy was okay, steps back and says that she saw the policy and said, 'We won't be going out with a policy that looks anything like this.' The Minister for Education went on to say that 'they certainly had no intention and to suggest otherwise really is a bit of mischief-making. Of course, everyone loves the idea that someone is trying to ban something that people love'.
Members would be familiar with the back and forth that was happening for quite some time. I put on the public record that I was concerned that the draft policy had a clause in it that was unsatisfactory. In fact, I will quote from what I said:
The State Liberals have called on the Weatherill Labor Government to abandon a draft schools procedure that could see Christmas carols banned in SA public schools. 'Christmas carols have long been sung at many schools across South Australia as part of their end of year celebrations,' [I said]...'It's not for every school, but school communities are the ones who should determine whether or not they take place—not the government.'
The draft 'Religious Procedures in Government Schools' document, currently being considered by the Government, clarifies a range of procedures relating to pastors in schools, religious education and religious seminars. For the first time the revised document refers to Christmas carols, saying—
I am quoting from the document that the government put out, wrote and distributed—
'DECD schools are secular and therefore Christmas carols, singing and performing, for example, is not regulated by the department. There are clear policy requirements to ensure that schools are not involved in promoting a commitment to a specific set of religious beliefs.'
I went on to say:
This is a classic case of government overreach—creating rules to restrict behaviour where there's just no need for the government to be involved. If schools want to have carols we should be clear in the guidelines that they should be allowed to have carols. Or else don't put in a reference to carols in the guidelines at all! Proceeding with this change would be the act of a politically-correct Christmas grinch.
Which I thought was a fairly fair way of putting the argument. Do you know why I think it was fairly fair? Because the minister some months later said that when she saw the policy I referred to she said to herself, 'We won't be going out with a policy that looks anything like this.'
If that was what the minister said at the time when she saw the policy, rather than saying, 'We are not going out with this policy because clearly it is wrong,' why instead did she say, 'It is just in the delusional minds of the shadow minister and the Liberal Party that anyone could possibly read into that'? That is what she said, and then six weeks later, when she had not convinced anybody, she said, 'No, I always thought the policy was rubbish.'
The day before she said that she put out a press release saying, 'There has never been a ban on Christmas carols in South Australian schools. There never will be a ban on Christmas carols in South Australian schools. This idea only exists in the fevered imaginations of the Liberal Party.' It is quite pithy. It was very well received and it got tweeted very well. The echo chamber loved it.
Again, there is a problem though. She said on 30 August that the idea only exists in the fevered imaginations of the Liberal Party. I wonder if anyone else's fevered imagination had the idea that her policy could have banned Christmas carols, because I know somebody else who thought that that policy could have had some severe problems. I know because the Minister for Education herself said so the following day. When she saw that policy she said, 'No, we won't be going out with a policy that looks anything like that. That's confusing. That's going to be a problem for people.'
The minister is better than making derogatory remarks suggesting mental health problems, fevered imaginations and delusional capacity. The minister is better than that. I find it hard to believe that she herself would write anything like those suggestions. I would like to think that it is not in her nature. I think she allowed her name to be put on a press release that was written by some smart alec in the minister's office or the media unit who said, 'Put this out. It will put the story to bed.' It has not put the story to bed. It got another couple of weeks' run to the point where the minister was so infuriated by it all that she had to put into her second reading speech that this bill was not going to ban Christmas carols.
It does not do anything to protect Christmas carols, by the way. We know that this minister loves Christmas carols. We know that her family loves going to them and she has said that on the public record so many times that I absolutely believe her, but what if one of the other fine members of parliament we see opposite gets the opportunity to be Minister for Education at some stage in the next six months.
Mr GARDNER: I have confidence—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I beg your pardon. It is unparliamentary.
Mr GARDNER: I have confidence.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: No, I am not going to have this. I am not going to have this chitchat back across the table, particularly when we are on air. Back to the topic, please. You are not in your place, member for Newland, and you are only just in your new place, minister, so just behave.
Mr GARDNER: I have confidence that the member for Newland himself—and I do not refer to his interjection, obviously—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Just as well.
Mr GARDNER: I am instead referring to my source material when I was commenting that the minister is there by dint of the appointment of the Premier's goodwill. This government still has another five and a half months to run, so any of these fine people could be the minister for education, at least for a couple of months. There is Christmas between now and the election, and if the Minister for Education is not holding that portfolio come December I fear what might happen if one of these others gets there.
We have seen what Labor ministers for education do interstate. We have seen what Labor ministers for education in Victoria and Queensland do. There is a reason that people were concerned when a Labor government's education department was putting out policies which, for the first time, identify Christmas carols in a document containing things that schools cannot do. Of course people were going to be concerned.
All we asked for on that first day was for the minister to come out and clearly rule it out and say, 'We're not going ahead with this policy,' which she has now said she thought as soon as she read the policy. But, she spent two months saying it was just fevered imagination that made people concerned about Christmas carols. She could have dealt with this on day one; instead it was drawn out for two months. If she is not there as the minister, the current policy as suggested—this bill does nothing to protect Christmas carols in public schools.
That is fine, because one good thing has happened. At the briefing last week, the minister confirmed what she said on the radio: this policy is not going ahead. That is a win for public schools. I am not sure that if attention had not been drawn to this issue this policy would not go ahead, because the minister had not even read it until attention was drawn to it. The minister might say she was protecting Christmas carols, but what was she doing to protect Christmas carols?
The minister let this document go out for public consultation, which clearly put them in an ambiguous position, which she says is so suboptimal that she does not want it to go forward so she cancelled the revised document. I asked her last week, 'What has happened to the original document?' because this was a revised redraft of an existing provision about religions in public schools. There is an education department policy outlining what happens with religion in public schools that this draft was supposed to replace. The minister said—and she can correct me if I am wrong—'Well, that has been suspended.'
There is currently no document identifying the rules around the utilisation of religion in public schools. Currently, the only provisions are in the act, and I read those out earlier. Those provisions allow for conscientious objections, and do you know what? The sky has not fallen down. Things are going fine. Schools are operating, led by their principals and governing councils, in a perfectly satisfactory way.
This brings me back to clause 82 in this bill. Why do we need these changes? Why do we need a reversal of the onus from conscientious objection to a parent having to identify their child is allowed to be in school and part of the religious activity out of school? Why does this need to be an opt-in that might alienate groups of children who feel that way inclined?
There are strict provisions in the department practice that if a child is conscientiously objecting and they do not want to be a part of the activities, then they must be given meaningful, useful things to do. If those are not in place—there are a couple of examples where parents have suggested that the school did not operate in the right way in relation to their child—then we need to address that. But I do not see any benefit in upending the process the way it is at the moment. While most of the new clause 82 is fairly benign, and even positive, we have some questions about it. At clause 82(2), we indicate that we have a suggestion that the status quo might be a better way forward.
I will move on from Christmas carols, as I am sure the minister wishes to do, and I am happy to do as well. I am satisfied that for as long as she is there, we are fine on Christmas carols. For as long as there is no compulsion that people have to attend Christmas carols, then I think we are fine. There are no protections, but I hope we will be fine. We will have a look at it between the houses if there is more.
I will move on to student exchange programs at clauses 84 to 89. I note that quite a lot of work is being done in this area in the department, and I commend it and the people doing it. They have had some improvements in recent years and they are commendable. As of 2015, there are 1,177 Visa 571 students commencing the SACE; in 2016, 1,326. Schools get a benefit from these students.
There is a challenge when it comes to enrolments, and obviously some of the schools that are popular for these students are also popular for local students, so that is a tension we must manage. By and large, these students coming in provide both an intercultural and financial advantage to the schools and students who go there. They pay money to the South Australian government (the department) but most of that benefits the school and then there are some that administers the unit. These clauses 84 to 89 seem laudable.
I have a bit of an interest. We receive these details about the numbers of students commencing the SACE with a Visa 571 as a result of an estimates question. I am particularly interested also, as I will identify to the minister and she can answer it in her second reading or elsewhere, part of that question was also not only in relation to those overseas students in South Australia but also in relation to students in overseas schools who are undertaking the SACE. We would like an answer to that at some point. How many of those students are there? How many of them finish it?
Safety at schools, there are a number of new offence provisions in relation to this, and there are good reasons why we need to deal with this matter. In recent months we had numbers released. I have a feeling that Tim Williams again from The Advertiser might have been the one to bring this news, but I am reading a transcript from the Leon Byner show, which was also reporting on it. I know that Leon Byner has a particular interest in this area because he is very concerned about student safety, anti-bullying and student wellbeing.
We have seen an increase in violent incidents at school from 1,604 two years ago to 2,135 last year. That is an extraordinary figure. Weapons were involved in 295 of those incidents, up from 265. This is at schools in South Australia. This is not the state that we want to be. Incidents involving injury or potentially illness increased from 762 to 1,040. The minister suggested that it might be because there were some gastro outbreaks involved, but if that was all 300 of them, then we clearly have some gastro problems.
I identified that at the John Pirie Secondary School a former staff member of mine, Priya Pavri, is a proud graduate of that school and is now building hospitals in Iraq with Adventist Care. Priya has been encouraging me to go to John Pirie Secondary School for some time and meet the staff and some of the families there. I had a terrific time with Kendall Jackson, the Liberal candidate for Frome. We were really encouraged by some of the stories we heard.
Over the last five years, John Pirie has seen a reduction in violence quite substantially. I do not know the period from when and to when, but certainly the figure quoted by the principal to me and then again on the television that night was a 60 per cent reduction in violent incidents and fights over a five-year period, improved academic achievement and improved wellbeing around the school. People are happier, people are more confident.
One of the things that strikes me is I asked, 'What was the thing that you did?' He said, 'We took a zero tolerance approach. If there was a violent incident at the school, we called the police. We made sure that these students appreciated that there were consequences to their actions. The idea that this was a radical proposition that would see such incredible improvement makes me very concerned that this is not a universal proposition throughout the education department. We need to ensure that the standard procedure is that if there is an incident that would involve calling police outside of a school, then if the incident is inside a school, you call the police. It should be a no-brainer. I hope that examples such as John Pirie encourage others to do the same.
This is where leadership is important. I have heard the Minister for Education asked a couple of times on Leon Byner's show—and as I said, this is an issue that he is very concerned about—this question, 'Should police be doing this?' She said if a violent incident is a student throwing their schoolbooks across the classroom, then of course not. Nobody is suggesting that, but if there is an assault at a school should you call the police? The answer is yes, and that is a clear and important message.
The principal, the school leaders and the staff need to know that the department is going to have their back. If a parent comes in and says, 'Why did you call the police?' the staff member should have every confidence in saying, 'Because that's what we are supposed to do. That's the only possible response in this circumstance.' We need to make sure that the department has the principals' backs in this area.
These legislative provisions do provide some useful steps forward in dealing with violent incidents. I am not sure whether they are sufficient; we are happy to look at others. It is not just the legislation. It is not just the creation of new offences. We are talking about barring orders and increases in penalties for conducting yourself improperly against teachers. We are also looking for leadership and clarity in the way that principals and staff respond to violent incidents, and we would like to see more of that.
The clauses from 90 to 95 deal with barring orders, trespass and strengthen offensive behaviour powers. There were some offence provisions in the previous act, particularly at section 104, and the barring and trespass provisions are currently dealt with in regulations. However, from our first look at it, by and large at this stage we are inclined towards supporting these provisions being put into the act.
The bill also broadens the barring orders opportunity to non-government schools, which I am told the non-government school sector is supportive of. Obviously the application of that needs to be worked through. The barring orders, through the regulations method, had to be formally approved by the chief executive. These barring orders can now be made at a local level and the chief executive's power is that he can change it after the fact.
These orders also now apply to preschools. This is particularly important in cases where the preschool is co-located with the school. In those locations you might have somebody who is barred from a school but not the preschool. That person is then able to be on the preschool site. Potentially, whatever caused them to get the barring order would still be a problem for the people at the school that is nearby. We will talk more about those provisions in the committee stage, potentially.
Clauses 97 to 123 deal with teachers. There is no groundbreaking progress in relation to improving easy-to-manage industrial relations outcomes at schools or local autonomy. There are a number of places where the government argues that the bill will modernise the act through contemporary language or consistency, potentially with the Public Sector Act. We see no reason to object to those, by and large.
I identified before the new provision that explicitly allows allied health workers to be employed under the act. The minister gave me a brief explanation of this when we discussed this matter previously. I encourage her to provide some more detail as to why this new clause is necessary in her second reading response, otherwise we can do it in the committee stage. It has certainly caused some anxiety. These employees are currently employed by the education department under the provisions of the Public Sector Act. I do not see that there is any immediate harm caused by this, but we remain open to discussing it further.
In relation to appointments to promotional level positions, I did note one issue. I think this is familiar with the current situation where the Australian Education Union automatically gets a nominee to a committee looking at an application for a position in the teaching service classified at promotional level. That is the same as the current provisions. Previously, we have argued against that provision, as we did the automatic right of that group to be represented in relation to review committees.
On the face of it, it strikes me that an elected staff representative is absolutely appropriate, whether they are members of an organisation or not. I think we need to think seriously about whether that actually provides any benefit to the school and to the teachers. I suspect that it certainly does not to those who are not members of the organisation but who might otherwise wish to serve in that way. We are happy to have a chat about what effect that might have in practice.
That brings me to other miscellaneous matters. Clause129 and those to the end deal with a range of things, and I will touch on one particular issue to do with community use of school facilities. The Debelle report recommended:
…that the Department impose a contractual obligation upon third parties using a site of the Department to give notice to parents of children using services provided by the third party should a member or employee or volunteer of that organisation be arrested or charged with a sexual offence…
The DECD response is:
The clause has been introduced into a range of DECD agreements with third parties using DECD sites and this work will continue as the applicability of the clause is considered for all existing agreements.
The template to be used by schools in establishing shared use agreements has been re-written to include the clause and a guide sheet has been developed to support both schools and community groups understand what the clause requires.
Given the importance that Debelle placed on it, I would not mind establishing either now or in the committee stage, so that the minister has a couple of weeks to get back to me on that one, whether that initial response is still the case.
I note a question that I asked, and it is important for the minister in the briefing, that I wanted to make sure that in the cases of community use of school facilities that the school's governing council has a position where they are confidently able to have their say on whether that takes place, and the minister responded to me yesterday:
Under the Bill, and consistent with the current Education Act, the Minister may permit the use of school facilities for community purposes. Instructions have been issued to schools outlining the conditions under which this can occur.
She also states:
In response to your query as to whether the permission of the Governing Council is required for such use, I note the instructions state:
Principals/directors may grant the use of School facilities to School bodies. Principals/directors may also, after consultation with—
and this bit is underlined, so it means it is really important.
and the agreement of the site governing body—
and it was really important—
grant the use of School facilities to organisations not connected with the School under such conditions as the Minister may determine.
I felt that was good, and we support it.
I am checking that I have covered all the aspects of the bill because I would hate to have missed something. Broadly, I think that the bill has a number of benefits and that there are some opportunities to improve it further. The opposition is going to be very resolute on some of the areas where it needs to be improved because, if the bill proceeds in its current form, there are a number of aspects, particularly in relation to school governance, where we feel that it is a deterioration on the current act. It would make the situation worse than the current act, but the benefits would be outweighed by the negatives.
The opposition is going to be resolute in pushing for amendments on a number of these things. That said, if those amendments are passed, then we think this bill will benefit the people of South Australia, particularly its children. On that basis, we will support the bill at the second reading. We will discuss amendments. We will probably discuss amendments between houses and then we will see where we land.