Bills: Education and Children's Services Bill

Tuesday October 23, 2018

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (15:59): I rise to make a brief contribution to the Education and Children's Services Bill. It is pleasing to see this bill before our house; it replaces previous acts from 1985 as well as 1972, so it has been quite a while in its making. I would like to refer to a couple of points in the bill, which will, of course, be teased out more in the committee stage as this bill progresses.

I commend the government for the increase in attendance officers by 50 per cent. Back in the early 2000s, I took up a role as an attendance officer, and I would like to talk a little bit about that to give the minister some perspective on issues around attendance. Whilst increases of 50 per cent are definable, I suppose, and perhaps desirable from a government's point of view, there are complexities around attendance that the government needs to be aware of.

Non-attendance can be for a whole range of reasons. It could be neglectful parenting; I have certainly seen that, and I cautiously endorse the increased fines for those who are wilfully neglectful. However, non-attendance can also be a result of family situations that I would not categorise as wilful indifference or deliberate neglect on the part of the parent, and I will give an example shortly.

Sometimes non-attendance is due to issues going on for a student that the school may or may not be aware of and that the parent or parents or caregiver may not even be aware of. I have seen lots of examples of extreme bullying and harassment, particularly in a digital form, now more than it was perhaps in the early 2000s, when I was an attendance officer. We need to empower schools and parents to come together and work through solutions around those issues as they present themselves.

Until you have a child who experiences bullying—and I do not want to categorise it from the female point of view, which I have certainly experienced—it is very difficult to put a finger on a solution and a way forward. It is constantly evolving and, in some instances, moving school or changing circumstances for either the perpetrator or the victim needs to be considered among the strategies that could be looked at. I would hate to see that ruled out.

Regarding the difficulties associated with being an attendance officer, the first is the number in your caseload. I had around 150 to 200 students where the school could not re-engage the student back into their school. The second relates to the geographical location. As it was a country area, my boundaries went from Murray Bridge right down to Port MacDonnell. Think about 200 cases; taking out weekends, you could do one a day in an intense fashion. So caseloads need to be looked at and a reasonable caseload apportioned to these attendance officers.

I had a young family where the young dad was probably not coping too well with three very young children. That popped up on my case list and I went and did a home visit. People would probably shake their head now at many of the things we did in the early 2000s; I am not advocating these, just talking about a real-life example. This young dad was unemployed; there was no electricity, no gas, a large number of cats (if there were not eight cats in the household I would be very surprised), a large number of dogs and three great kids. I would pick those three kids up in my government car every day and take them to McDonald Park Primary School where Bronwyn, who was the front office lady, would have a spare set of clothes. They would be showered and given new clothes. The kids had lice and health problems.

These were early primary school students, so the first thing was to get them out of the house and get them to school. They were not going to go on a bus or any other transport because of the condition they were in. There was no electricity, so that meant no hot water; no washing facilities meant clothes did not get washed. So Bronwyn would take the clothes home, wash them and then the next day there would be a fresh set of clothes for the students.

This continued while I engaged Families SA to provide some support for this young dad around how to look after young children. It included nutrition because the kids were pretty much eating either fish and chips, if they were lucky, or packets of chips more regularly. That continued for about three or four weeks. We got to the point—at Families SA there was a fantastic caseworker who worked alongside me to work with the dad—where it was a very unsustainable model because you cannot have a government worker picking kids up when I had another 199 cases on my list spread from Murray Bridge down.

In about week 4, these kids just disappeared with their dad. We do not know to this day where they went. We went around and knocked on the door; they were not at home. We called the police. The police came and opened the door and, whilst most of their possessions were still there, they clearly were no longer living in the house. They did not pop up at any other school and we suspect that they went back to New South Wales, where the family originally came from. Because of departments working in silos, there was no way of passing on information to any New South Wales school to say that there would be three young people, two girls and a boy, probably aged 6 to 9, who would be lobbing up with a father who was not coping and needed some assistance.

When you get into the issues of attendance and non-attendance, it is not as cut and dried as politicians or people who have come from a background like many of us here might think to understand why a family is not sending their kids to school or why a student is not rocking up to school. I firmly believe schools have the greatest ability to change people's lives, not just through education but through care and compassion and modelling different behaviours that may not be modelled at the home environment or within the nucleus of their existing family.

I believe support needs to be given to the schools wherever possible because there are great people in schools who will work beyond what is clock-on and clock-off time to support vulnerable people. That extends all the way through. I applaud the government and this bill for increasing attendance officers by 50 per cent, but I caution that it is not an easy road and there is not one solution that is going to satisfy everybody.

In terms of clause 74, I want to point out to the government something that does concern me. Clause 74—Employment of children of compulsory school age or compulsory education age, makes it an offence for a person to employ a child of compulsory school age or compulsory education age during school hours or in labour or an occupation that renders, or is likely to render, that child unfit to attend school, etc., or obtain the proper benefit from doing so.

On first reading that clause, you would think that is fair and reasonable, and in many, many cases I support that clause 100 per cent. However, I want to point out that there is a difference between 'compulsory school age' and 'compulsory education age'. If you read the clause quickly, you may not pick up the subtleties. Compulsory school age in South Australia is between six years of age and 16 years of age. Compulsory education age, which this clause refers to as well, is students aged 16 and 17. Normally, for ages 16 and 17, compulsory education age means that you need to be in approved learning.

One of the issues I have with this is that I know a number of 16 and 17 year olds whose approved learning also involves some form of work, whether that is through a VET and SACE program or a school-based apprenticeship, in which case they would need an exemption for that level. For disengaged kids and for kids who have perhaps dropped out of school and are re-entering education through an independent learning centre or some form of alternative curriculum, employment is one of the key aspects for achieving their SACE.

I would like to see in that clause an exemption or some mechanism where the principal of the enrolling school can apply to the minister for an exemption so that those students are not caught up in what I think is a very sound and reasonable set of circumstances but may encapsulate a group that it was not intended to encapsulate.

Obviously, governing councils are very important, and I fully support any strengthening and autonomous moves for governing councils. Andrew Hunter, from Reidy Park Primary School, has been on the governing council for as long as I can remember when my kids were students at Reidy Park Primary School. The number of working bees and the number of decisions where the governing council assisted the principal in arriving at very sound conclusions needs to be commended. In fact, if a principal has a functioning and supportive governing council, schools can achieve far more than without them.

In terms of positions related to this bill, I would like to talk about suspension from school. I do not think this bill goes far enough. We have certain situations where a student who is suspended from school, particularly after numerous suspensions, perhaps without parental support at home—in fact, in some cases parents condone the behaviour—sees it as a reward for the student and a cop-out for the school. The easiest thing for a school to do is to remove the problem or a problem that a student is creating. It sets up a reverse reward for that student, particularly if they like Fortnite or some computer game at home. Four or five days of sitting at home, with your parent or caregiver not at home because they might be working, sets up a reverse incentive for some students.

I agree that this is a minority of students, but I believe we should be empowering schools to cater and care for every student in their cohort. That, unfortunately, goes as far as students who are, or potentially can be, disruptive. Of course, I agree that they need to be removed from certain situations and classrooms if they are affecting the learning of others, but we cannot set up a situation where schools can wipe their hands of their responsibility, particularly in some secondary schools where they might be waiting until that student turns 16 or 17 and is no longer an issue for that school.

That needs funding and specialist intervention. In an ideal world, I do not think any school should be able to suspend a student. I think there should be programs, support and assistance. Removal from a class is definitely an option, but the school needs to work with that student, their family and their support until their behaviour can be modified and they can re-enter the school.

I would like to see the bill go further in terms of NAPLAN. I would like to see it mandated that any student who fails NAPLAN has intervention and support mandated under a bill, under an act of parliament, because all NAPLAN does is identify that there may be an issue with a young person's learning: reading, writing, arithmetic or comprehension, etc., NAPLAN does not mandate anywhere that the school has to do anything about it. I am not saying that schools do not. In fact, many schools do an outstanding job of identifying issues and then putting programs into place, but I would like to see it actually mandated through the Education and Children's Services Bill.

In terms of the quality of our teachers, we have 35,000 teachers registered with the Teachers Registration Board. If we are serious about raising the standard of teaching and wanting to set a minimum Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER), we as employers, as a state government, can mandate what TER level we want our teachers to achieve. There is no reason why we, as employers, cannot set what that level should be.

That might be a step too far just now, but the power we have as an employer of thousands and thousands of teachers—in fact, about 1,500 per year come into the system—is immense. We can set the standard for our public education and we can set that by having a minimum TER score for our teachers to achieve.

In closing, I acknowledge Scott Maxwell, a music teacher at Grant High School. Scott Maxwell came from Reidy Park Primary School, where my kids went to school. Grant High School is a school at which I taught for a number of years. Scott Maxwell has been nominated by ARIA as one of the country's most outstanding music teachers in Australia and he is in the finals. Guy Sebastian attended Grant High School a week ago to inform Scott Maxwell that he was nominated; if he is successful, he will attend the ARIAs in the coming weeks.

This is an outstanding achievement for an outstanding music teacher—you only have to go to one of his musicals, which he writes himself. The music program at Grant High School would be the envy of many public schools. I give due recognition to Scott Maxwell and the music curriculum he has developed at Grant High School.