SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools, Year 12 students, Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package, Universities
Patricia Karvelas: I spoke to the Education Minister Dan Tehan a little earlier. Dan Tehan, welcome.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Patricia.
Karvelas: You were very angry with Victoria on the issue of reopening of schools. What do you think about the timeline that’s been delivered now by the Premier Daniel Andrews?
Tehan: Well, we’ve said all along, wouldn’t it be terrific if we could have all schools, across the nation, open by the end of May? Now, we’re going to have that by early June. And, I think when we look back and see what we’ve accomplished through this pandemic, one of the things we’ll take great pride in is the fact that we’ve been able to keep our schools open. And, now, we’ll be back to face-to-face teaching by early June, right across the nation. And, I think that’ll be welcomed by all children across the nation, parents. And, everyone will say thank you to our teachers, who have obviously had to endure a lot throughout this pandemic.
Karvelas: Does it demonstrate that the pressure you placed on the Victorian Government wasn’t necessary? They were waiting for this mass testing, the results, before they made a decision. Did you go in too hard and too strong?
Tehan: All along, the Commonwealth position has been very clear. And, that is, that we would listen to the medical expert advice, and that said all along that it was safe for schools to be open, with the right protocols in place. And, what I want to do is look forward. We’re going to have all schools open, face-to-face teaching occurring, right across the nation by early June. And, now, what we need to focus on – and I’ll do this working with every state and territory education minister – is ensuring that we can give that certainty now, especially for Year 12 students, as to what their year is going to look like, how they’ll go about getting an ATAR, and ensuring that they know that we’re there for them, in ensuring that if they want that pathway to university, they’ll be able to get it; to vocational education, they’ll be able to get it; or, into employment, and they’ll be able to get it.
Karvelas: Should we prepare for outbreaks of coronavirus in schools?
Tehan: Look, I think we have to prepare for outbreaks of coronavirus right across our community …
Karvelas: … But, in schools, obviously, this is a particularly sensitive matter for both teachers and parents.
Tehan: Well, we’ve already seen coronavirus outbreaks at school. We’ve seen one in New South Wales. And, we’ve seen that ability to be able to clean, to make sure that the contact tracing is in place for those students or those teachers who might have been impacted, and to be able to get schools reopened in three days’ time. So, there will be outbreaks right across our community. We’ve got to make sure that we prepare for that, and the medical expert panel has already provided guidance as to how we would do that for schools, for child care centres, or for universities.
Karvelas: We’ve obviously been doing this at-home learning model for some time across the country. Do you think this period has put students behind?
Tehan: Look, obviously, one of the things we want to do is see what impact it has had on students. We know from all the research, that if you don’t have that face-to-face teaching, that contact with the classroom, it can really impact on disadvantaged students. And, so, one of the things I’ve asked my Department to do from the very start, is to make sure that we’re monitoring and we’re doing the research on what the impact of the pandemic has been on students’ learning. And, if the research is anything to go by, the fact that we’re going back to that classroom teaching, that face-to-face teaching, is incredibly important for student’s right across our nation …
Karvelas: … Okay …
Tehan: … and, in particular, for disadvantaged students.
Karvelas: I think that’s right. Okay. So, let’s accept that. You’ve got to remedy that. So, if you come to the conclusion that they have been left behind, will you put extra resources in to help them?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, what we want to do is work with states and territories to ensure that we get the best educational outcomes, whether it be for preps, or whether, right through the system to Year 12. So, we will continue to work with them to ensure that we are doing everything we can to enable all students to deal with what they might have missed out on, with regards to their education over the last couple of months. And, we’ve said all along that we want to work with states and territories on that.
Karvelas: Are you still confident that there won’t be mass repeating of this year level from students?
Tehan: Yes, I am. I’m sure that all of us will work incredibly hard to make sure that every student gets the benefit of education this year, to the best of their ability, and to the best of our schooling system to be able to provide it. And, we made it very clear – I think it was probably six weeks ago now, maybe five weeks ago now – there will be, especially when it comes to Year 12, there’ll be no mass repeating. We will ensure that every student in Year 12 gets an ATAR and will be able to go on and live their dreams, as to whether they want to go to university, vocational education, or into employment.
Karvelas: Minister, are you at all concerned about the emergence of another health condition amongst children in New York and in Europe, that’s been reported? Is this something that you are monitoring?
Tehan: This is something that the expert medical panel is monitoring. This is something that they’re looking at. They look at this. They look at other things, as well. They’ve been monitoring what’s been happening internationally, and what’s been happening here in Australia, and they will continue to advise the Government on what steps we need to put in place to keep children and to keep adults safe. And, they’re best placed to do that. One of the things the Government has made very clear at the outset is, that we’re not going to second-guess the medical experts. We’re going to listen to them, and we’re going to follow their advice. And, that’s what the Federal Government has done consistently right throughout this pandemic.
Karvelas: Are you concerned there might be a sizeable percentage of families, or a cohort of families, who decide not to send their children back to school, because they are fearful about health?
Tehan: Well, if you look at the experience that we’re seeing in Western Australia, in South Australia, and in the Northern Territory, we’re seeing student numbers climb back up to around 90 per cent. So, I think we are seeing parents have more and more confidence in the medical expert advice, which says it’s safe for students to be at school, and for teachers to be at school, with the right protocols in place. And, I think if New, sorry, if the Northern Territory, Western Australia, or South Australia, are anything to go by, we’re going to see student numbers get back to normal, right across this nation, over the coming weeks.
Karvelas: How about for parents who just don’t feel comfortable? Should schools be providing a sort of at-home model, as well, for parents who just don’t feel like they can send their children to school?
Tehan: Well, ultimately, that will be a decision that schools will have to make with parents. Obviously, parents can have those discussions with schools to see what homework, what lessons, what information can be provided …
Karvelas: … Do you think that schools should be insisting, though, to those parents, ‘Send them back’?
Tehan: Well, I think what you need to do is make sure that you just put the normal practices in place. Because, you might have a student who is sick, say, with the flu, and, so, the school will then work with parents to say, ‘Okay, we will work with you to make sure that continuity of education is there for your son or daughter while they are away.’ So, what I would call on is, that the parents have sensible conversations with their school, with their principals, and put the best practices in place for their students.
Karvelas: Minister, let’s move on to your other portfolio areas. On child care, would you consider extending the free child care arrangement to keep centres afloat, beyond the period you’ve promised?
Tehan: We’ve said all along that we put in place this new system, initially for three months and then we would extend it for another three months, depending on how we’re going dealing with the pandemic. And, that we would review it after a month, but, then keep assessing it as we go along. And, our position hasn’t changed on that. Obviously, one of the things that we can also look back on when it comes to the child care sector, is that we’ve dealt with the pandemic over the last two months, and we now have, in Australia, over 98 per cent of child care services open, and I think that is a huge achievement as we look back. If you look internationally, they’ve struggled to achieve anything like that. So, I think what our early educators have done, what our child care service providers have done, in providing that continuity of care and education in the child care sector, has been quite extraordinary through this pandemic.
Karvelas: So, you’re going to review it at three months. Does it look like you’ll extend it to the six months?
Tehan: Look, we’ve said the first thing we would do is review after four weeks, because, as you will understand, it was calibrated with JobKeeper. So, that, now JobKeeper has kicked in, we wanted to get a sense as to how well that calibration has gone, whether there’s …
Karvelas: … And, what can you tell us about what you’ve worked out on that?
Tehan: The review has literally just landed on my desk as we speak.
Karvelas: I’m sure you’ve skim read it. What can you tell me?
Tehan: No, I haven’t, Patricia. It literally landed on my desk as I was walking to come here and talk to you. So, I need to read that. I’ve got to talk to my colleagues about it, and then we will have further things to say. But, that review has taken place. It’s landed on my desk, and we’ll look at that, we’ll assess it, I’ll have discussions with my colleagues, and then we’ll have further things to say. But, overall, when you look back and think where we were four weeks ago, or five weeks ago now, where it looked like we were going to see mass closures of the child care sector, right across this nation, the fact that we’re here now, with over 98 per cent of our services open, taking children, and having provided that continuity of care through the last four to five weeks, I think this is something that we can look back on as a nation and be very proud of.
Karvelas: But, Minister, obviously, we’ve got a situation now, if you look at the predictions, where a lot of Australians will be out of work. A lot of Australians have faced wage cuts. Will you consider looking at the options of perhaps giving free child care to people in those categories, as we get towards the end of this pandemic period?
Tehan: What we’re dealing with now, Patricia, is the here and now. And, you’re right, people have had their lives turned upside down. People are going through incredible hardship at the moment, and that’s why we put this new policy in place, to ensure that the sector remained opened, and it could provide that continuity of care. Now, we said we would always review it after four weeks, and we’ve done that. We will look and examine that review. The first 12-week period of the new system takes us up to June 30. So, we will continue to assess, and then, if we need to, to make refinements. But, at the moment …
Karvelas: … So, are you prepared? This is what I want to get to. Do you have an open mind about what it looks in a post-pandemic world, where unemployment is much higher? I mean, this child care system that we built, that you legislated, that the Government had built, was a pre-pandemic era child care system. Do you accept that you might need to make more permanent changes to the way that child care works in this country?
Tehan: Well, our focus has always been just making sure that we can carry the sector through the pandemic, and that’s the policy that we’ve got in place at the moment. That’s what it’s designed to do. And, we’re focused on, in the first instance, refining it. We’ve had this review undertaken. The review has just landed. So, we want to look at that, and assess that, and make decisions on that. What my …
Karvelas: … But, do you have an open mind about long-term child care arrangements?
Tehan: Well, obviously, we will think about the longer term. But, at the moment, we just want to make sure that what we’re doing in the short-term is, that we’ve got that right. We want to make sure that when we say that there’s going to be a review after four weeks, that we undertake that review, and look at its findings to make sure that we’ve got the system in place, as best we can, and it’s doing what we set out to do. And, look, all indications, at the moment, with 98 per cent of services up and open right across the nation, shows that we’ve been able to do that. But, we want to look at it, see whether we need to refine it, because that’s what we said to do. And, then, as we reach June 30, the end of June, we can have another look. We said we would continue to review and assess as it went along, and that’s what we’ll do.
Karvelas: Minister, on private schools. How many have signed up now to these funds being available earlier?
Tehan: So, we’ve had over 750 who have said that they would like to have their payments brought forward. Remembering, it was the Independent sector that came to the Government and said, ‘Look, we would like you to bring those payments forward.’ We looked at it, and said, ‘Yes, we’d be happy to do that, on the proviso you have a plan in place to ensure that you’re open and ready to do face-to-face teaching by the end of May.’ So, we think that that request from the Independent schools’ sector, was a reasonable one, and that’s why we moved down that path.
Karvelas: Just on universities, before I let you go. Universities funded their expansion, largely, on the premise of this, you know, international student market. Now, I know the Government is looking at exemptions for allowing international students to come into the country. But, is that realistically going to deal with that gaping hole in their funding?
Tehan: Well, the first thing that the Government did, and it was the number one request from the sector, was to make sure that when it came to domestic students, we guaranteed funding no matter what happened to their domestic student load. And, so, over $18 billion dollars of certainty has been provided to the sector. Now, we also know that, over 70 per cent of international students were able to come to Australia to do their studies this year. So, what the picture looks like going forward, we’re obviously keen to work with the sector on that. We think that one of the first things we’ve got to do is make sure that we’ve got our campuses reopened for semester two, that we’ve got those international students, who are here in Australia, able to access that teaching at university campuses, and ensuring that those domestic students also get access to those campuses, so they can do that face-to-face tutorials or go to attend lectures, with social distancing protocols in place. So, that’s our priority. Then we will look at, okay, where are we at with the future of the international higher education market? Understanding how important it is, in particular, for creating jobs in this nation. Over 250,000 jobs have been generated by the international higher education sector. But, one step at a time. The first thing I think we’ve got to look to do is make sure that we’ve got that focus here domestically, on campuses here, and making sure that we’re providing that education for our domestic students, and for those onshore international students.
Karvelas: Minister, many thanks for your time.
Tehan: Thanks Patricia.