SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package, Universities, International students
David Speers: Dan Tehan, thanks for joining us this morning.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure, David.
Speers: Now, just on that point, is it still the Federal Government’s advice that parents only need to listen to their state premier or chief minister, as to whether they should send their kids to school?
Tehan: No. Our advice is that parents should listen to the medical expert panel …
Speers: … Just on that, the Prime Minister is pretty clear. He said, ‘Parents should follow the instructions that are being provided by state premiers and state education ministers. If you are going to school in Victoria, there is only one person you need to listen to and that is the Premier of Victoria.’
Tehan: So, the Prime Minister said that after seven national principles had been agreed by the National Cabinet. The first of those principles was that having teachers in the classroom and students in the classroom is the best way we educate our children. The fifth one of those was that we need to make sure that we’re following the national medical advice and state medical advice. It wasn’t national or state medical advice. Now, our national medical advice has been consistent right throughout this – it’s safe for schools to be open, and it is safe for teachers to be in the classroom, when the right protocols are in place …
Speers: … And, yet, the Victorian Chief Health Officer’s advice has been not to reopen schools. He says keeping children at home could, quote, ‘contribute to suppressing transmission at a community level’. So, the state advice in Victoria is a little different to that national advice. Coming back to what the Prime Minister said, should parents listen to their premier, or not?
Tehan: This is a question for Dan Andrews …
Speers: … It was a question for you, with respect. This is what the Prime Minister said: ‘Parents should follow the instructions of their state premier.’
Tehan: So, he said that when those seven national priorities were put out, and they had two very important conditions to them. Now, the question to Dan Andrews, is, sure, take a sledgehammer to defeating the coronavirus. But, why are you taking a sledgehammer, also, to your school system? When Mark McGowan in Western Australia, when Michael Gunner in the Northern Territory, when Steven Marshall in South Australia, have taken a sledgehammer to the coronavirus, but haven’t to their education system.
Speers: But, he is receiving this advice from his chief health officer, that I just quoted. Should he ignore that?
Tehan: That same chief health officer is on the national medical expert panel, and that national medical expert panel says that it’s safe for children to be at school, and it’s safe for teachers to be at school, with the right protocols. So, why don’t we …
Speers: … But, you just told me that the Premier should be listening to both the national and the state. So, what’s he to do?
Tehan: What he should do is look at what the national medical expert panel is saying, because his …
Speers: … And, not his state chief health officer?
Tehan: No. This is an important point, David. His state chief medical officer is on that national panel. Now, what we’ve seen is outstanding leadership from Michael Gunner, from Steven Marshall, and from Mark McGowan. Now, they’re two Labor, one Liberal. This isn’t political. They have squashed the coronavirus in their states and territories, and they’ve had 70 per cent attendance at their schools. Why can’t Victoria …
Speers: … They’ve also had a different caseload than Victoria, to be clear. They’ve had a very different experience with the coronavirus than states like New South Wales – which still hasn’t reopened all of its classrooms, either – and Victoria. Just coming back to this question, though. Should parents listen to their state premier?
Tehan: Well, the question is …
Speers: … Stick with this question, if you can, Minister. Should they listen to their premier, or not?
Tehan: Well, what they should do is listen to the medical experts …
Speers: … So, not their premier?
Tehan: Well, they should listen to the medical experts, and then the premiers should listen to the medical experts – the panel that was put together by all state and territory leaders and the Commonwealth to advise on schools – and that advice has been consistent …
Speers: … So, it’s no longer the Federal Government’s advice to listen to your state premier? I just want to clear this up.
Tehan: So, what we want them to do is abide by the seven principles – which were agreed by the National Cabinet – and those seven principles were …
Speers: … Yes, we discussed that. But, I’m just saying, should parents, I’m asking, should parents, right now, listen to their state premier, or not?
Tehan: They should listen to the medical expert panel, which has been clear in its advice, and on the National Cabinet’s seven principles.
Speers: So, parents should go through those principles and listen to that, and not their premier?
Tehan: They listen to, should abide by those principles, and by those chief medical experts. And, you know why …
Speers: … So, the advice has changed on whether to listen to your …
Tehan: … No, no. When the Prime Minister said that, every leader across the country had signed up to those seven principles …
Speers: … Yeah, but the principles don’t state, ‘Reopen schools.’
Tehan: The principles state that the best form of teaching is in the classroom.
Speers: I think everyone agrees with that.
Tehan: Exactly. So, if the national medical expert advice is saying that it’s safe for children to be back in the classroom, then, why wouldn’t they be? This is a failure of leadership by Dan Andrews. Let’s be clear about this. And, you know where the impact is being felt? On the most vulnerable children, on those children from low socio-economic backgrounds, Indigenous children, rural and remote students, students with a disability – they’re the ones being impacted on this. We’ve had now the Chief Science Officer of Australia out today, saying, backing in, that that’s where the impact is being felt. You speak to Darren Chester in Gippsland, you speak to him. Those students there have been impacted by fires. Six months, now, they haven’t been connected to a classroom. That’s having a real impact on those students. I had a …
Speers: … Okay. I don’t …
Tehan: … Just let me finish this point, because it’s really important. I had a lady approach me in the supermarket last week. She’s got a disabled child. The continuity of education for that child means that he’s not violent towards her. He is now being violent towards her. I’ve been approached by a local mental health service provider, who provides mental health into schools. Now, they have to do that now by Skype. That is impacting …
Speers: … To be clear, Minister, I don’t think anybody …
Tehan: … But, David, just let me finish this point …
Speers: … wants this situation necessarily to continue. It’s a question of when it’s safe to reopen the classrooms, is the debate, right. Now, you’ve just accused Dan Andrews of a failure of leadership on this.
Speers: Are you saying that the system, through the National Cabinet, is not delivering the right result?
Tehan: It’s not, because we have one premier, in particular, who is jeopardising the national consensus on this.
Speers: What about Gladys Berejiklian and what about Annastacia Palaszczuk?
Tehan: What has Gladys done? She now has a plan to open her schools, and she started opening her schools.
Speers: They’ll start one day a week in a week’s time.
Tehan: Yeah, and if you have a look, the Catholic schools in New South Wales are committed to return to teachers in the classroom in the coming weeks.
Speers: And, what about Queensland?
Tehan: And, what about Queensland? They have a plan to reopen their schools, as well.
Tehan: They’re hoping to do it by the end of the month. They have a clear plan. Yet, here in Victoria, we don’t have one. We have nothing. And, it is the children, ultimately, in the end, and those most disadvantaged, who are suffering. And, I think it’s time that we seriously called Dan Andrews out on this.
Speers: So, on the offer you’ve made this week for Independent and Catholic schools to bring forward $3 billion in funding, earlier, if they reopen their classrooms, how many of the 2,500 schools have taken up the offer?
Tehan: We’ve had 1,500 who’ve taken up the offer, and 70 per cent of those are Independent schools from right across the nation. So, they obviously want to get open and get students back into the classroom.
Speers: And, many in Victoria?
Tehan: Not as many in Victoria, and it’s for that reason. Because, even though we have a national panel – with the Chief Medical Officer of Victoria on that panel – saying it’s safe for schools to reopen, they’re getting a mixed message on this.
Speers: When schools do open – and, as you point out, some of them are reopening their classrooms – should they still be offering at-home, remote learning, online learning, as well as classroom learning? Because, this will put a strain on some of the schools, to be able to do both, won’t it?
Tehan: Well, I think it depends, ultimately, on the capability of the school to be able to do it. But, I think one of the good things which has come out of this pandemic, if there is good things, is our ability to be able to provide online learning, when students need it. So, for instance, if a student’s sick, you might have a student who’s suspended, you will be able to offer online learning, so that continuity of education takes place. So, I think it’s really, really important that we keep with this technology, and keep using it where we need to. But, we’ve …
Speers: … Teachers can’t often do both, though, can they? Teach kids in the class, teach kids on a computer. Do they need more resources to be able to do this?
Tehan: Well, you’ve got teacher’s assistants, David. So, what you could have is teachers can use teacher’s assistants, teacher’s aides, to be able to do this. So, I actually think this is something that will be beneficial down the track. So, where students aren’t able to access that in the classroom teaching, we will be able to use this, and that will be a good thing.
Speers: There continues to be a concern, too, about the risk teacher’s face, as well as parents, I suppose, that drop-off and pick-up. But, teachers, primarily. Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer for the Commonwealth, says, quote, ‘Schools can be a risk for adult-to-adult transmission, from parent to teacher, teacher to teacher.’ What more can be done to deal with this risk? Is there any plan to have regular testing of teachers?
Tehan: There’s no plan, at this stage, from the Commonwealth point of view. But, I think some states and territories are looking at doing extra testing for teachers, which they’re entitled to do that. But, I think what the chief medical expert panel has said, quite clearly, is that there are protocols you can put in place to look after teachers, and they’ve listed those protocols that can be put in place, because they do want to make sure that teachers are safe in the classroom. My two sisters are teachers. I want to make sure that those protocols are there, and in place. But, I can tell you, they’ve been very clear – you put those protocols in place, and it’s safe for teachers to be teaching students, and for students to be in the classrooms.
Speers: Let me ask you about child care. It’s a month since you announced the child care relief package – the Government covering 50 per cent of operating costs – in addition to JobKeeper Payments for staff. The initial funding, though, is only for three months. Have you made a decision on whether you will extend that?
Tehan: No, we haven’t. But, we said that, it’s been a month already that we’ve got this new system in place. We’ve said we would review it after a month. So, we’ve started that review. We made further announcements on Friday, especially with regards to charities, and what the payments will work for them. And, we’ll do this review. And, then we’ll work out what we will do …
Speers: … They need some certainty, though, don’t they, these centres, as to whether they can stay open, or have to close their doors?
Tehan: Well, one of the things, the success of what we’ve done with child care – and it points to the success we can have with schools – is what we did is we changed the policy, to make sure they stayed open, and to encourage parents to use them. Because, that was the medical expert panel’s advice – that child care was safe for students and for the educators. So, it’s a fantastic outcome that we’re actually seeing now demand come back to the child care system.
Speers: A lot of child care centres, as you know, do use temporary skilled visa workers for their staff. They’re not getting any JobKeeper Payments, though, are they?
Tehan: No. So, that’s one of the things that we’re looking at with this four-week review, and, we understand …
Speers: … What are you considering there?
Tehan: Well, we’ll have a look and see what the expenses are that they might have if they are using educators who can’t access JobKeeper.
Speers: So, they might get JobKeeper?
Tehan: Well, I don’t think they’ll get JobKeeper. What we’ll look to do is use our system – remembering that we can have top-up payments through our system – to help those centres, if a large proportion of their staff can’t access JobKeeper.
Speers: Which, effectively, would be the same as JobKeeper, because they’d be able to pay the staff that money.
Tehan: Well, yes. So, we’ll do an assessment of what it would have been like if you had been able to get JobKeeper, for those staff, and how can we make up for that through our system.
Speers: Alright. So, there will be some support, in a way, for some non-citizens, if they work in child care?
Tehan: Well, what we’ve been doing is providing the assistance to the child care centre itself, and, obviously, then that ends up in the pocket of those educators.
Speers: And, universities? They’re seeing their budgets smashed by this, as well, with our foreign students, and, indeed, with campuses closed. Foreign students were told by the Government to go home, if they couldn’t afford to stay here. How many have left?
Tehan: I think that’s not quite accurate that they were told to go home if they can’t stay here. What we actually did for foreign students is, we said, ‘If you’ve been here for a year, you can access your super.’ We’ve also put in place a $200 million fund to help those who can’t look after themselves through the coronavirus. The universities themselves have put $150 million on the table, collectively, to help international students. So, there has been a collective effort. State and territory governments have also put money on the table, upwards of around $500 million, to help our international students. And, I’ve made it very clear as Education Minister, to all those foreign students who are here, ‘We want to support you through this.’
Speers: And, how many are here? How many have gone home?
Tehan: So, about 70 per cent of international students are here, who came this year to study.
Speers: But, a lot didn’t come at all.
Tehan: Well, there was 30 per cent. But, that wasn’t a result of the corona, well, that was a result of the coronavirus, and that was before we, obviously, had to lock down, and not allow further international students to come in. And, can I also make this point, David. All those international students have access to our healthcare system. Now, where else would you like to be at the moment where you could get access to a health system, other than Australia? So, I think if you look collectively at what’s been done, between all governments, there’s been a real effort to make sure we’re looking after our international students.
Speers: Final one on this, because the universities are very reliant on that income they get from international students, and they want to see that resume. They know they can’t just teach them online, they’ll go elsewhere. Will the Government look at some sort of exemption to allow foreign students to come into Australia, even when our international borders remain closed? Because they’re going to remain closed, it’s clear, for quite a while. Would you consider some sort of exemption for foreign students?
Tehan: The first thing we’ve got to do is get our university campuses here open for domestic students, and for those international students who are here now. So, my focus, like it is with schools, like it is with child care, and, now, like it is with universities – let’s get them open, let’s get that education happening for those who are here, and can avail themselves of it. That is the absolute key focus of the Government at the moment.
Speers: But, what about some sort of exemption to allow international students to come into Australia?
Tehan: Down the track, these are things that we can look at and examine.
Speers: You will look at that?
Tehan: Well, a lot of things we will look at and examine. You’ve got to remember, when it comes to international students, they generate huge employment here in Australia through coming here, availing themselves of our education system. That generates upwards of about 250,000 jobs nationally. So, it is something that we would look at.
Speers: Education Minister Dan Tehan, thank you.
Tehan: Thanks David.