SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, Teachers’ unions, Year 12 students
Larry Emdur: Well, the education agenda remains one of the most polarising issues of the COVID crisis. Following Friday’s Federal Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister made his position crystal clear.
Scott Morrison: I can’t be more clear than that. The advice cannot be more clear than that. The 1.5 metre in classrooms and the four square metre rule is not a requirement, of the expert medical advice, in classrooms.
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Kylie Gillies: However, students, parents, and teachers remain divided on how best to continue schooling safely, with as little disruption as possible. So, to discuss, we’re joined by the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. Thanks again for your time, Minister. The message from the top is clear, we just heard it – it is safe to send our children to school. Yet, state governments continue to go out on their own, doing their own things. Why?
Dan Tehan: Well, because every state and territory, ultimately, has jurisdictional responsibility for schools. What the Prime Minister has attempted to do through National Cabinet, is get a set of principles which will govern how we return to school, and has tried to ensure that every state and territory abides by what has been very consistent medical advice right throughout this pandemic. And, that is, that it’s safe for our children to go to school, and, with the right protocols in place, it’s right for our teachers to be teaching at school. Now, we’ve seen in the Northern Territory and Western Australia and South Australia, already, a resumption of teaching in the classroom. And, our hope as the Federal Government is, that we’ll see all schools resuming that teaching from the classroom by the end of May.
Emdur: So, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy shared a New South Wales study that called schools one of the safest places in the country, in fact. So, can you bring us up to speed – what has that study shown?
Tehan: Yeah. Well, that study was commissioned by the New South Wales Health Department and the New South Wales Education Department. And, what it did was it looked at those cases where the coronavirus has either been detected amongst school children or amongst school teachers, and then it followed and traced the contacts that those students and teachers had had. And, it showed that there was minimal spread. And, as you referred to before, basically, it showed that one of the safest places for our children to be is at school.
Gillies: But, Minister, the teachers’ union isn’t necessarily buying into this. They’re not necessarily believing what you’re saying.
Tehan: Well, what I would say to the teachers’ unions is two things. One, is that the medical expert panel – which has governed us through this pandemic and provided the advice which has seen us successfully flatten the curve – all along it has said that it is safe for our children to be at school, and for our teachers to be at school, with the proper protocols in place. And, the second thing I would say is, if we don’t get all our children back to school and get that face-to-face teaching happening, it’s going to be the most disadvantaged in our community – so, from low socio-economic backgrounds, those where English is only spoken as a second language, our rural communities, our Indigenous communities – it’s going to be those children that suffer the most. And, we’ll see the education divide grow if we’re not careful. So, I would say to those teachers, the medical expert advice has said right throughout this pandemic, with the right protocols in place, it’s safe to have teachers in our schools teaching.
Emdur: Are you finding this difficult to clarify for us? We’ve had you on a couple of times, you’ve been on every TV show in the country many times, and yet the message seems to get murkier and murkier, instead of clearer and clearer, each time we talk.
Tehan: Well, we have adopted a position. It’s been a clear and straightforward position from the word go. And, that is, let’s follow the advice of the medical experts. We’ve got a panel which is made up of all the state and territory medical experts. They’ve come together and they’ve provided advice to the nation. And, our position has been, let’s follow that advice. Now, ultimately, our state and territories have the jurisdictional responsibility, and, so, they will do their own thing. But, what we have tried to do and attempted to do, is get a nationally consistent approach, and, to get teachers back into the classroom teaching, and students back into the classroom. And, our hope now is, given how we’ve been able to flatten the curve, by the end of May, we will have all students back, teachers back, for all year levels, and we’ll get those children getting that continuity of learning that they so desperately need.
Gillies: Continuity, but we’re talking staggered starts. And, look, I understand it’s very difficult. The Sunday Telegraph used an example of Lindfield East School, and I’m just going to take you through it, and you no doubt saw this yesterday. Students at this school, in Years 1 to 4, with surnames with the letters A to K, will go to school on Mondays, with surnames L to Z will go to school on Wednesdays. Students in Years 5 and 6, whose surnames start with letters A to K, to go to school on Tuesdays, L to Z on Thursdays. Kindy will be there all days, but with retracted wall dividers. And, on Friday, everyone stays home. Now, if I was a principal at this school, and for schools trying to manage this, and for the parents, it’s tough. Is there enough support here for schools to let them get through something that looks like this?
Tehan: Well, it is tough, and has been tough on principals and on teachers. And, I think, that’s why what we really do need to see is just the normal resumption of school, as quickly as we possibly can. I think we need to see clarity for parents, for students, and for the community. And, I think, if we could all set an end date to this by saying everything is back to normal by the end of May, that would be a fantastic, clear message to send. I mean, we had an example today which was highlighted, where you have a teacher and students from Victoria crossing the border to go to school in South Australia for that face- to-face teaching. Whereas, that cannot occur in parts of rural Victoria, where the school is based, in rural Victoria. So, the more clarity we can get, the more consistent approach. And, I think, everyone aiming to have school back to normal by the end of May would just be, not only a terrific achievement for us as a nation for showing how we have dealt with this, but also wonderful for our children, who we want to make sure get that learning that they require this year.
Gillies: So, can I just pick you up there. School back to normal by the end of May, fingers crossed. School back to normal, what does that exactly mean? Five, kids five days a week?
Tehan: That means teachers teaching from the class, yup. Five days a week. Teachers teaching from the classroom, and for all years.
Gillies: Okay. Well, that would be good.
Emdur: Will that still be up to the states to make up their own mind on that medical advice coming from the top?
Tehan: It will, ultimately, be a decision for state and territory governments. But, from a Federal Government point of view, we want to work with states and territories to help us achieve this. We’ve made great progress in the Northern Territory, and Western Australia, and South Australia, and we want to work with the eastern board states now, to make sure that they can move to this goal.
Gillies: Okay. Parents. Can we talk about, we all know that some parents like to gather around outside the school gates, and have a bit of a chat at 9.15. Your advice to parents, Minister?
Tehan: Yes. No, so the protocols are saying we need to avoid that. The greatest risk of the spread of the coronavirus is amongst adults, amongst parents, and, if parents come into contact with teachers. So, what we need is very strict drop-offs, so parents don’t congregate around the schoolyard. If there was communication between teachers and parents, they should take place either on the phone or via Skype, or in another form. We’ve got to make sure we practice that social distancing, still, between adults. And, if we can do that – and there’s guidelines which have been set out by the medical expert panel – that will make it safer for teachers and for our parents.
Emdur: Okay. So, both you and the Prime Minister, and many others, seem a bit frustrated by the lack of state support here. Has the current crisis proved that our state-based education system is flawed? Has the education system learned some lessons moving forward, do you think?
Tehan: Well, I think one of the things this pandemic has shown is, the more we can have a nationally consistent approach to issues, the better. Obviously, there is some role for states and territories to have jurisdictional responsibilities, because we’ve seen the spread of the pandemic in some cases – it’s obviously occurred in more – in the population at a greater rate than in others. But, what I think it has shown is, the more we can have a nationally consistent approach to how we govern our health system and our education system, I think, the better. And, I hope that this would be one of the findings which comes out of the pandemic, as we look to put policies in place afterwards.
Gillies: Finally, Minister. We just have to follow up on behalf of your daughter. When we spoke to you a little while ago, she was hoping exam times might be cut down. Any update there?
Tehan: Yes. No, look, the Education Council will come together in early May, and will consider how the ATAR will be conducted, what exams will take place, what SAT’s will take place, which are those examinations which are done by paperwork. So, we will wait and see what comes forward to us from the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. So, hopefully in early May we’ll have a clearer idea around that.
Gillies: Okay. Thank you so much for your time. Federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan. Thank you.
Emdur: Thank you, Minister.