SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools
Chris Kenny: Let’s cross to Canberra now and catch up with the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan again. Great to talk to you again, Dan. The National Cabinet has had a pretty solid look at education and schooling today. What’s the outcome, in a nutshell?
Dan Tehan: Well, what we’ve got, Chris, is seven national principles, which will now guide the approach that states and territories take when it comes to schools. And, most importantly, the number one principle that’s been affirmed by every state and territory is that the best form of teaching is done in the classroom by professional teachers. And, that has been backed in by every state and territory premier. Now, obviously, the principles also say that, at this time, there is a need to be doing online learning, in some circumstances. Obviously, there is a continuing need to keep updating the expert medical advice panel’s guidance to both parents and to teachers, around, a) That it’s safe for students to be able to go to school. But, the measures that we need to be putting in place to make sure that our teachers are protected while they’re educating our children. And, then there’s a number of other principles, seven in total, which lay out a nationally consistent platform for how schools should operate during this pandemic.
Kenny: Well, I’ve looked at the seven principles, and you could hardly disagree with them. But, I mean, it is just a lot of words, and a lot of motherhood statements, in the end. I mean, the critical question is whether or not kids should be going back to school. And, you and the Prime Minister continue to say that. I support you on that. I think the kids should be at school. At least you make it clear here, I suppose, that there is a low-risk to children here. But, you’re still going to have – at least in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria – a state government position that is really advising parents that, if possible, they should keep their kids away.
Tehan: That’s true, Chris. And, the principles do point out that, ultimately, states and territories have the jurisdiction in this regard, and they’ll make their decisions accordingly. But, we did see, for instance, from the New South Wales Premier today, a statement that she hopes that they’ll be able to transition over the next four weeks back to more time being spent by students in the classroom. And, obviously, that’s a welcome development. We already have the NT saying that they want their students to attend school, and that teaching to occur in the classroom. And, Western Australia is also heading down that path, where they predominantly want the teaching done in the classroom. So, I think, as we continue to flatten the curve, these principles – backed by the medical expert panel’s advice of the types of steps that schools should take to keep teachers and students safe – our hope is that we will see over the next month, the more normal operation of schools across the nation.
Kenny: Four weeks seems too far away. Certainly, in New South Wales kids are on school holidays now. They’re due back at school in another two weeks. We’ve only had a dozen new infections in New South Wales today. If the pattern continues, surely New South Wales should be in a situation where schools should be open as normal. But, of course, with some special hygiene and social distancing measures in place, as soon as the second term starts?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, they’ll have to make those decisions themselves – the New South Wales Government with schools in that state. But, as you say, the success that we’ve had across the nation and in New South Wales of flattening the curve, does provide that opportunity for us to look at, okay, can we get back to some sort of normality when it comes to schooling, with all the practices put in place, as advised by the medical expert panel. So, they’ll be decisions that they’ll take. But, I think, we do have to look at the positives, and, I think, the statement by the Premier today, that she’s looking to see whether they can transition back to more classroom time for students in the next four weeks, is a very good development.
Kenny: Look, in many respects, it just comes down to emphasis. There are those people, and the Federal Government is among those saying that the whole thrust should be on getting as many kids at school as possible. And, the pushback from the state governments has been that they want as few kids at school as possible, while we bed this down. But, in the end, it’s been the teachers’ unions worried about their safety. Now, that is not a minor issue. I agree that teachers need to have some practices in place, and some assurances in place, about their own safety. But, I think, it has created a misapprehension among many people in the public that somehow children were at risk, and people were keeping their kids away because they’re a risk to children. I think that’s an important message that you’ve started to get through, is that children are not at risk from this pandemic by going to school.
Tehan: That’s exactly right. The bigger risk is for adults and for teachers, and that’s why the medical expert panel will provide updated advice this afternoon on the type of steps that schools should put in place to protect teachers. And, that will involve what steps need to be put in place around the lunchroom, for instance, to make sure there’s proper social distancing when it comes to teachers. To make sure when parents are engaging with teachers, that there’s proper social distancing. So, they are all the things which will be updated. And, as we’ve said all along, the medical expert panel will continue to monitor this and provide advice to make sure that our teachers, the safety of our teachers, is looked after. And, of course, that the safety of our children is looked after. And, that advice, when it comes to our children, has been clear and consistent right along. And, that is, it’s safe for them to attend school.
Kenny: Yeah. It shouldn’t be too hard to keep parents away from teachers. And, if I was a teacher and that works well, I’d probably want it to stay that way forever, just keep the parents at bay. I think a lot of teachers would appreciate that. There’s one other question that I want some clarity on, though, and I think this is an important one for parents. And, that is, if you decide, under these arrangements – where you know all the schools are going to be there for at least the children of essential workers, and online study available for everyone else – if a parent decides that their child should be at school, should the school accept them? In other words, should their need and the status of their job not be second guessed by the school? It’s up to the parents whether or not they deem their work as being essential?
Tehan: Well, I think, common sense should apply here, Chris. And, what I would suggest is that the parents speak to the, or parents speak to the principal of the school, and have a discussion with them, and say, ‘Look, we think that it’s in the best interest that my child attend school. We’d like you to accommodate them.’ And, my hope would be, that right across the nation, that principals would say, ‘Yes, we understand, and we’re happy to have your child at school.’ That, to me, it would just be the most common sense arrangement that we could put in place. And, my hope is, that schools right across the nation would adopt that approach.
Kenny: Let’s just say something positive here, because I do appreciate that a lot of parents want the choice of keeping their kids at home, and I do appreciate that teachers, sometimes, are put in a difficult position with this issue. It has been – despite all sorts of different positions and some confusion – it has been well managed through our school system, and that we’ve had, not had any major outbreaks in school. They’ve been shut down quickly where they’ve needed to. And, I think, schools across the state and Independent systems have switched to online models of education in record time.
Tehan: That’s right, they have. And, the innovation that has been put in place to do that, I think, is something that as a nation we should be all proud of. So, you know, I’m absolutely 100 per cent with you. A big shout out and thank you to our teachers, our principals, and our schools, for how they’ve dealt with the pandemic so far. And, I think, all of us now want to support them – hopefully as we continue to flatten the curve – see the schools now transition to reopening the classrooms, and getting that teaching done in the classroom. And, you know, following the example of the NT and WA in that regard, and making sure we’re going back to what we know is the best form of teaching, and that’s in the classroom with a professional teacher.
Kenny: Now, as a nation, where are we heading here, at the moment? You’re talking in, sort of, four year, four week terms, when it comes to education. We’re talking the end of next month or into next month, four weeks away, or more, Parliament resuming in Canberra. We’re talking about, perhaps, reviewing the social distancing restrictions in four weeks. It looks to me a lot like we’ve obviously done a lot better than expected. But, the expectation is, that if we really keep the restrictions in place for four weeks, we’re going to be in a place in four weeks or so where we can really free up our society and economy, to a level we perhaps have not anticipated. Behind, of course, secure international borders.
Tehan: Yeah, look, I think you’re right. I think, the next four to six weeks are going to be absolutely crucial. And, I think, all Australians should take a bow for what they’ve done so far. Understand, though, that the next four to six weeks are absolutely crucial, and if we can continue to flatten the curve, then we will be able to look at things like, okay, what can we do to begin reopening our schools, so that we can go back to that teaching in the classroom, so we can look at other measures where we might be able to free up parts of our economy. We’re not there yet. The next four to six weeks is going to be absolutely vital. But, I think, all of us should really just give ourselves a pat on the back and say, ‘Well done,’ so far, still a way to go. But, you know, I think we’ve made quite extraordinary progress, and, I think, it’s better than most people, I think many people expected.
Kenny: Yeah, great stuff. Thanks for joining us, Dan.
Tehan: Pleasure, Chris.
Kenny: Dan Tehan there, the Federal Minister for Education.