SUBJECTS: Coronavirus and schools
Steve Martin: Are you looking to send your kids back to school? Do you want to send them to school? Or, are you happy for them to continue their home schooling, their learning from home, at the moment? The Federal Government is trying to get kids back into classrooms. It was said this week by the Victorian State Government, it was pointed out that the Feds don’t control the state school system. But, they do fund Independent schools. Independent and Catholic schools are being offered an advance on next year’s funding if they manage to get half their students back into the classroom by the first of June. Federal Education Minister is one of our local members of course, is the Member for Wannon Dan Tehan, and he’s with us this morning. Dan Tehan, good morning.
Dan Tehan: Morning, Steve. How are you?
Martin: Very well. Why, why do this? Why make this offer to Independent schools, when the Victorian Government is clearly resistant?
Tehan: Well, Independent and Catholic schools approached the Federal Government a couple of weeks ago because some of their schools had cash flow problems. Obviously, a lot of lives have been turned upside down as a result of the coronavirus, and parents’ capacity to pay, at the moment, has been diminished, as a result. So, they asked us to look at bringing forward payments that would normally be made to them in July, whether we could bring them and make them earlier. So, that’s what we’ve decided to do. And, because we’ve seen schools reopening right across the country – in Western Australia, and South Australia, the Northern Territory – what we wanted to do, right across the nation, was to provide incentives for all schools to put a plan in place to get reopened. And, then, if they commit to having 50 per cent of their students in the classroom being taught by the end of May, we would make a second instalment.
Martin: Okay. You could have brought forward those payments, though, without strings attached, particularly in Victoria, could you not?
Tehan: Look, we could have done that across the nation. But, in Victoria, you have to remember, and the Premier said this yesterday, decisions as to whether Catholic or Independent schools open for teaching in the classroom is, ultimately, decisions for the school councils, the boards that govern those schools. So, there is nothing to stop non-government schools from opening. As a matter of fact, there is a non-government school in North Fitzroy that has been teaching in the classroom since the beginning of second term. And, given that we have Independent and Catholic schools looking to reopen in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and South Australia, where government schools are open and they’re teaching in the classroom, we wanted to provide an incentive right across the nation.
Martin: What response have you had from the Independent school sector, at this point, for this offer, because of those strings attached?
Tehan: Look, the preliminary discussions that I’ve had have been very positive. They’re keen to get open and to get teaching again. They’re keen to have students at school. All schools want students at school learning. All principals and teachers know that the best way we teach our children is to do it in the classroom at school. Now, online learning, we’ve had to move to that because of the coronavirus pandemic. But, the health advice has been consistent right throughout – it’s safe for students to be at school. It’s safe for teachers to be at school, with the right protocols in place, and we want to make sure that that’s what we return to, and we return to it as quickly as possible.
Martin: Do you think most parents want their children back at school in regional Victoria, Dan Tehan? And, I ask that because there’s all those other complications of moving around to and from school – not everyone gets dropped off at the school, school gate. There’s a lot of kids that travel, come into contact with people from all walks of life. So, do you think most parents want this to go ahead?
Tehan: Look, I think most parents do. I don’t think all parents do. But, I think, most parents want their children to have that continuity of learning and, especially once you get outside of Melbourne where, obviously, the flattening of the curve, when it comes to dealing with a pandemic, has been very, very effective. And, importantly, often there isn’t that, the Internet connection, so the digital divide is greater. You’ve got Indigenous students. You’ve got students from low socio-economic backgrounds. It’s incredibly important for their learning that they have that connection with school. So, look, not all parents want to have their children at school. But, I think, now, the majority do, and that’s why, I think, we need to get our, our schools open. That’s why the Federal Government has set the aim of having all schools open and teaching happening in the classroom by the end of May.
Martin: More broadly on public schools. The Victorian Government is standing firm saying they will wait for advice from the Victorian Chief Health Officer to deem that it’s safe to lift those restrictions. Are you frustrated by that?
Tehan: Look, the, ultimately, the decision when it comes to government schools in Victoria is one for the Premier and for the Education Minister. But, what, the advice that we’ve been following is the advice of the medical, the national medical expert panel, and the Chief Medical Officer from Victoria sits on that, as does the chief medical officers of all states and territories and the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer. And, they’ve said right throughout this pandemic, that it is safe for our schools to be open, and for our teachers to be there, with the proper protocols in place. And, that’s why in the Northern Territory they’ve, they’ve taught right through this pandemic. In South Australia, their schools were opened right up to term, end of term one, and are open again in term two, and teaching is taking place in the classroom. Western Australia, they taught right up till term one, and now they’ve brought all students back, or encouraged all school students back, for term two. So, the message on that health advice has been consistent. Now, some states and territories have, obviously, put in place additional measures, and the Victoria Chief Medical Officer has provided advice to the Victorian Government that they should take extra measures. That’s perfectly within the way the National Cabinet is working.
Martin: Dan Tehan, thanks for your time.
Tehan: Pleasure, Steve.
Martin: Member for Wannon, Federal Education Minister as well, Dan Tehan.