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Education Bill No.55 of 2016 - Second Reading

Mrs Armitage (Launceston) - Mr President, I thank the Government and everyone else who has briefed us. I also thank Mandy Jenkins for the work she has done in facilitating the briefings.

I have been to many kindergartens and preschools in my life, having had four children. I have attended most in Launceston, and heard from many people around the state. I am sure most people support the principle of this bill in wanting the best outcome possible for our children. I acknowledge the Government's good intentions. I have not heard anyone say that play-based education is not beneficial. I have no doubt at all that the minister, Mr Rockliff, firmly believes that this bill is in the best interests of education in this state. As has been stated many times, this is a unique opportunity and for that very reason we must get this right. The future of our children depends on it.

A review of this act is long overdue. There are some very good changes that, unfortunately, have been overshadowed by concerns to the early years' features. While I support the Government in removing compulsory aspects of the bill, I acknowledge it has created some confusion for parents around early learning.

We have heard in briefings that currently, 98 per cent of parents send their children to kindergarten believing it to be the first step of going to school. Concern has been raised by some experts that the changes to early years could result in a number of children entering kinder before they are developmentally ready.

Of course there is always the other side of the coin. Only yesterday I spoke with a parent whose very bright and kinder-ready little girl missed out on being able to attend kinder by two days and then by two points in the separate IQ admission.

Learning happens 24/7. Education and engagement with parents is one of the biggest factors. We all know that Child and Family Centres link families; they make a difference and they work. We are told that what happens in the first three years of someone's life sets the trajectory for the rest of their life. It is, therefore, up to the parents as the first teacher for their child.

We are further told, if this bill goes through as is, that up to 70 childcare centres are at high risk of closure, with 56 unable to see a way around this happening, many in rural areas. If this does happen, where do the under-three-and-a-half-year-old children who are currently in day care go? What facilities would there then be for working parents? One of the questions raised with me by many of the childcare people who briefed us was that currently they have their 1:10 ratio. If they do lose their three-and-a-half to five-year-olds and they are not viable, then where do parents in many of these, particularly rural, areas find places to take their children who are under three and a half if there are suddenly no childcare facilities?

I wonder whether the Government has underestimated the impact on the community of these changes. We have been told that consultation with early childcare facilities has been little or non-existent. Perhaps the Leader could explain how much consultation there has been with that sector.

Ms Forrest - The individuals, not just the overarching bodies - is that what you are asking for?

Mrs Armitage - Absolutely, yes. When I did attend, for a short while, a public meeting that was held in Launceston just recently, people came from a wide area to attend that meeting. There were all sorts of people - educators, parents; it was quite incredible the number of people who turned out on a windy and rainy night to discuss the concerns they had with this bill.

There are many concerns with three-and-a-half-year-olds in kinder, one being for working parents and the difficulty of school hours. It was mentioned by the member for Elwick that often you will have younger children in childcare after school and before school and they will be with quite older children; that they will be mixing with a much older child than they would be if they had their childcare normal facilities.

Mr Willie - You could have three-and-a-half-year-olds with grade 6 kids.

Mrs Armitage - Absolutely, particularly if they have to finish school at 3 p.m. and the parents pick them up at 6 p.m. They are concerns. There is the difficulty of school hours as currently most of these children would be attending childcare facilities that can start as early as 7 a.m. and finish at around 6 p.m. We may find that it is just too hard to juggle school/childcare and that parents opt to pay for those 15 hours per week and not attend kinder.

We were told this morning that it would cost the Government around $16 per day to allow these children to attend childcare for two days per week. The suggestion was made that the $100 million mentioned could perhaps go towards funding this.

Concern was also raised regarding some young children not being fully toilet-trained and whether a teacher would be expected to change nappies. Would it be a requirement to sign off and acknowledge that a child would need to be toilet-trained to attend kinder?

I would also like to read an email that was sent to me today from a childcare facility which had received this from Steve Biddulph only this morning. It states -

There is an experiment about to take place with Tasmania's preschoolers, which now lies in the hands of the Legislative Councillors to decide on. The government wants children to start in prep at four and a half when worldwide research shows their brains are not ready, especially boys, until age six. The debate is not about the need for better educational outcomes for Tasmanian children. Nobody questions that. It is about whether three- and four-year-olds can be helped by plunging them into formal learning.

Essentially, what the government is seeking to do is more of something that has not worked. An education system that produces around 15 per cent of functional illiteracy after 11 years of schooling wants to have more years to keep trying.

Everyone wants to help those kids who don't have a good home environment that is rich in reading and storytelling and opportunities to be stimulated and secure. Nobody disputes that the government has a good intent here. It is simply that they are not listening to child development experts or early educators who know that formal learning does not do what is being asked.

Here are the facts: prep today is not what you or I experienced. Under the new national curriculum, it's formal and it's regimented. Educators in Australia and the UK have stridently opposed this 'schoolification' which results in small children, especially boys, being forced into literacy drills and goals, and teachers themselves pushed into testing and assessing, which simply misfires.

Kathy Sylva at Cambridge University published a powerful piece of research showing that children who are turned off school in the first three months tend to keep those negative attitudes, and in fact, the stressed and fearful feelings about learning - especially reading - for the rest of their school lives.

The approach of progressive countries worldwide is to solve this problem by ensuring that small children love school, and experience it as 100 per cent success, through having not play-based learning - which is a slogan, not a method - but through simple, actual play.

Of course, teachers individualize and select and guide this play so each child is stretched and progressed, but there is no sitting still on the rug or at tables, being forced to chant letters or drilled in skills which one's brain is not yet ready for.

Kindergarten is, and should be, universal, and can be available from three or four onwards for those who need it.

Childcare centres which are well run and well funded can provide a parallel alternative, with times more suited to full-time employed parents.

The minister made an inexplicable error in his assumptions about Tasmanian kids. That is, if they are not in childcare they cannot afford to be. In fact, around a third of children never go near childcare because they are happily being raised by at-home mums or dads, and move into kindy or prep without difficulty.

Children whose parents really struggle may need good kindy provision early, but this should not mean being rushed into prep.

Under the new plans, 3000 extra kids will start school six months younger than their peers, in 2020. Those children will be disadvantaged because they are so much less ready than their peers, and also because of the gender difference of between six and 12 months in the ability of boys compared to girls - boys are slower to gain fine motor and verbal skills - there will be an ability range of up to three years in every prep classroom in the state.

By high school, teachers have to deal with an ability spread of about six years in the kids in grade 9. That is a horrendous handicap and a very strong sense of failure for the kids who cannot keep up.

These are the ones who leave at 16, and who can blame them. Boys greatly predominate in our failures at school, in our car accidents, problem drinking rates, and in our prisons. School has let them down.

We do need educational change. Early learning is where it begins. It should be in two years of kindergarten provision - one part-time and one full-time. Nobody should go to prep under the age of six. In Europe, that is what succeeds. By that age, almost every child has found confidence and likes school. Boys have caught up with girls, and they are far more even in ability through school.

If we can stop the simplistic rush to fix things by changing the starting age and really fix the early years, we can turn this state around.

When concerned, thoughtful people disagree, they must be taken into the fold. Those thousands of parents and early childhood teachers horrified at the changes need to be listened to.

That was by Steve Biddulph AM, who consults to schools worldwide on boys' education, engagement and learning.

I want to comment about something Steve said, when he says that the minister has made an error in his assumptions about Tasmanian kids, that if they are not in childcare, they cannot afford to be. I have four sons and not one of them ever attended childcare.

Ms Forrest - The same with me. I have two of each.

Mrs Armitage - That is right. It was not because I could not afford to send them -

Ms Forrest - They did not go to kindergarten either.

Mrs Armitage - My children went to kindergarten and to play school. I attended play school with them several days a week and I stayed. They went to kindergarten, but they had never been to childcare because I chose to keep them home. They had play and they had friends, they did not have to go. We cannot assume that people do not go because they cannot afford it.

I would also like to read the current compulsory starting ages. One of the issues mentioned to me many times is that we are one of the older starting states. I understand and appreciate that there is a difference between prep and grade 1 with compulsory starting age. I still will not agree that we are one of the older starting ages. In fact, we are the second youngest.

Ms Forrest - Don't compare apples with apples, no?

Mrs Armitage - That is right, we do not compare oranges with pears.

At the moment, in Western Australia, from the beginning of the year in which the child reaches the age of five years, this is the compulsory starting age. In the Northern Territory - if on 1 January of the year in which, as at 30 June, the child is six years of age; ACT, the child is at least six years old; Victoria, if a child is not less than six years of age; South Australia, the child is of or above the age of six years; New South Wales, the child is or above the age of six years; Queensland, the child is at least six years and six months. Currently in Tasmania it is a child who is at least five years of age at the 1 January, and the proposal is a child who is five years on 30 June in the enrolment year, which can make them four and a half.

It needs to be pointed out we are not one of the oldest at the moment. I do not really care whether we call it prep or we call it grade 1, the compulsory starting age at the moment in Tasmania is the second youngest in the nation.

Mr Finch - It is the language, how they describe it and what they name the different starting age. That is where it is confusing around when do children actually start school, whether they go to kindergarten and prep.

Mrs Armitage - It is up to the parent really. I believe a parent knows best when their child is ready to go. I have had four children, as has the member for Murchison. I am not sure about the member for Murchison, but mine all started at different ages. Two of mine started at just over five and another one started at almost six. It just depends on whether you consider your child is ready or not.

Ms Forrest - You are an educated mother too. You have the benefit of a background yourself to make that decision. Some parents do not have the fortune you and I had.

Mrs Armitage - I certainly agree. But we still need to be careful to make sure any changes actually benefit the children. There are other aspects of the bill that are extremely important. They have been overshadowed by the proposed early years' changes. These include extending the compulsory years of schooling and the new measures about attendance and participation.

There is a new compulsory conciliation process and provision for chronic non-attendance to provide the collection of information about students and the behaviour of students - that is conditions that may pose a risk to themselves or others. There is also the appointment of a statutory officer with responsibility for attendance, home education and registration of non-government schools. I am pleased to see flexibility around the enrollment of home-educated students and students with a disability.

Options have also been broadened for students post-year 10, replacing Guaranteeing Futures with name changes from eligible options to an approved learning program, which means education at school, education and training. However, they must stay in an approved learning institution until 18 years of age or they gain employment. This relates to both government and non-government schools. I am pleased to see Part 3, Division 8, enables a wide range of learning programs for years 11 and 12, with a mechanism for young people continuing on to be able to complete year 10 in order that further options become available.

There is also entitlement to education and training after secondary education, which includes year 13, and there is a two-year entitlement for every Tasmanian to access education post-year 10, which will enable people to attend years 11 and 12 who have not already done so. I have some comments to make regarding Part 3, Division 5, Managing unauthorised absences, but will make those during the Committee stage. Similarly I will comment on home education aspects during the Committee stage, as I have had some concerns raised by home educators regarding changes to the current situation.

Part 5 of the bill is interesting, as it changes intake from a home area to an intake area. While it has the same legal entitlements to attend the local school, there is still the capacity to enroll at another school where there is room. We were advised the secretary will do a five-yearly review to ensure home areas remain current, making small adjustments if necessary. Each school will develop an out-of-area policy in consultation with their school association.

A further requirement of the bill will be every school will have a school association. The bill will allow for a school association to be the association for more than one school, as some schools may have difficulty with numbers and can then work with a neighbouring school. This will also be useful for schools considering amalgamation, as currently each school must have their own association.

Another important change is for those associations who may not be incorporated to become so. This is said to be a protection, particularly if some school associations undertake commercial activities. Advice has been given they need to incorporate, as incorporated bodies under the Education Act for the purpose of the Education Act. It brings them back to what is their true purpose. We are told this is for appropriate governance and risk management, as the government would then make provision the Crown would take on the liability for individual members if they were named in proceedings.

Currently a school association has, as its function, to approve the school budget. It can participate in the planning and in evaluating the school's performance. This wording needed changing, as it seemed inappropriate to give a power that could not be exercised.

School associations will continue to be involved with the selection of principals, as they currently are. School associations will automatically be incorporated and there will be no extra work for them with regard to this. I take note of the member for Elwick's comments: that they need to remain independent. That is very important.

I asked some questions during the previous briefing regarding control of assets. The Leader might be able to make comment, when she speaks. For example, East Launceston Primary School. This was a school I asked about during the previous briefing. They have assets. There is a little bit of conflict, I suppose, going on at the moment with East Launceston. It is to do with proposed building work and transfer of some land owned by the association to the Education department to allow some building work to commence. There is a difference of opinion between some parents, neighbours and the school. I would like to know that once these changes are made, the land that belongs to the school association will still belong to the school association and will not be taken over by the Education department. This would then mean that they could do as they wished, without needing the agreement of the association. That was my understanding from the briefing, but it would be good to have it on record.

I note there is also a new provision for unacceptable behaviour of children and adults. This involves behaviour management and restorative practice, and a requirement that where a child is suspended, alternative education must be put in place. I see this as a good move, as suspensions should not simply be a holiday from school. I think, many times, children would be suspended and they had a holiday from school. They were not required to do any further work. I see that.

Ms Rattray - That is an area that has been lacking in the past. That is, being able to support those students when they are not on the school site and in continuing their education while they work their way back to the school environment.

Mrs Armitage - That is right, so they are not losing out, and missing out on a very important area. We all know for every day you miss, it is very hard to catch up.

Ms Rattray - We need extra resources in that area.

Mrs Armitage - Absolutely. The framework needs to try restorative justice before they can be suspended. There is emergency power to suspend for urgent issues.

I will support this bill into Committee. I am sure there will be considerable discussion and many proposed amendments. I support the principle of this bill. We all want better educational outcomes for our children. The only difficulty at the moment is ascertaining the best way to get them.

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