Published: 29 August 2017

Legislative Council Wednesday 23rd August

Resumed from 22 August 2017 

Ms  FORREST (Murchison ) - Mr Deputy President, I will be supporting this legislation, but I want to reflect on the process that sees us here.  It is important at the outset not to revisit the debate we had a year ago, but to discuss the key reasons we are here. 

We all need to remind ourselves and accept we do have a problem in Tasmania with educational outcomes.  Yes, improvements are being made in some places.  The NAPLAN results of the cohort of children that have gone through the Launching into Learning program are showing improvement.  Obviously, it takes a long time for those children to get through to year 9, to see if that continues all the way, but they are a bit over halfway.  I am hopeful that improvement will continue right through because it takes a long time.  This is why education policy needs to be long-term, visionary and not able to be mucked around with by every new minister.  This state would be much better off if we could agree on a multiparty approach to education.

However, that said -

Mr Willie - You could do that, but need to have a framework in place for that to happen.

Ms FORREST - That is right.  That is what I am saying.  That is ideally where we should be headed and where we should actually be.  I have spoken about education more times than I care to imagine on this need -

Mr Finch - I have listened to you more times than I care to imagine.

Ms FORREST - The honourable member probably has, yes.  I have also sought to educate myself in this area, not being from an educational background, except having been through a system myself and having my four children go through a system.  I looked overseas in the countries doing really well.  I have referenced a number of times Finland and other Scandinavian countries, where they have a very clear framework, a 30-year plan that all parties agreed to.  They do not keep changing it.  They do not keep reinventing the wheel, to make their own little mark on it.

In an ideal world I hope current or future governments can take that on and actually try to get a cross-party process to do that.  Anyway we are where we are at the moment.

We have a problem.  We are addressing it in some ways.  We all know, however, that a cohort of young people in our community needs, but is not accessing, quality early education and care.  If we are going to make a difference for all our Tasmanians - all our young people - we need to be sure no-one falls through the gap.  Some of these families are very difficult to reach and therein lies our problem.  Children from advantaged families like my own do not really have a problem.  I understand they have education; I know they need to turn up at school every day unless they are really sick - you do not want them infecting all the other kids- but they need to be there.  As a parent I have an obligation, as have other parents all around Tasmania, to ensure my children attend school.

As a parent of babies and children under the formal school starting age, I believe we also have an obligation to educate our children.  Unfortunately, as a midwife I saw many examples of that not being the case.  On some of my home visits I heard language that I will not use here, because it would be completely unparliamentary.  I remember one home I went to as a midwife visiting a family at home with a new baby.  It was a cold day; it was in one of our low socio economic areas and the baby was dressed in a singlet and nappy.  The poor little thing was half-frozen.  I had to do a blood test on the baby, so I had to spend quite some time warming the baby up so I could actually get some blood out of it.

That was an indicator that the family had some problems with parenting, but the big concern to me was at the table while I was sitting around talking to the mother, there were two other young boys, both school age, both sitting at the table giving their two cents' worth on a school day in school time.  These kids were not obviously sick.  They were quite lively, shall I say.  They kept hitting each other over the head and doing a range of other things and using language that you would hope young children would not be using about each other particularly and what I was going to do to the baby.

It really is a concern we have families who are difficult to access.  All of these babies are born somewhere.  By far the majority are born in hospital.  Very few freebirth these days, thankfully.  It is a bit unsafe.  Some will have home births, but those who have organised home births have contact with a midwife who then notifies family and child health services of the birth.

We have a connection with these families.  We need to look at ways of engaging with that connection to get them into early education and care.  Why am I saying all this?  Because these are the children and families this bill is seeking to engage with.  This is one part of it.  The most important part, which we are not seeing a lot of work done on at the moment - maybe it is being done behind the scenes - is wrapping services around these families to engage them before the woman has the baby, ideally, so we can direct and guide them into a service where they will get quality early learning.

There is more work to be done in that space.  As I said to this House at a previous time when we were debating this bill, and I have said many times since in conversations with departmental advisors who have been very open to listening - and the minister - there is more than one way to fix a problem.  In my view, reducing the voluntary starting age for kindergarten to three and a half was not one of them.  I did not say that from any great knowledge base of an educator; I did it from a knowledge base of research and talking to people who do know. 

I also talked to primary and secondary schoolteachers who supported the reduction of the school starting age.  Their comment to me was, 'We need to get these kids in education sooner'.  I said, 'I could not agree more but it is where you put them into that education framework'.  If the first point of contact with some of the very disengaged families is at three-and-a-half to put their child into a kindergarten, that is probably not the best place for them.  Even though you might have a play-based learning environment and that sort of framework, children who probably have not been in many facilities where education is going on are better off in a smaller early education and care setting or even in family-based care where they can have more of a family structure around them and more support for that family in the first instance.

I believe the Government and the minister through that consultation work now understand that better.  I commend the minister for being willing to stand up and say, 'Yes, we needed to do more consultation and the path we were taking was wrong'.  His intention was absolutely right but the proposed solution was wrong for a number of reasons.  One is we could have lost a lot of childcare centres in our regional communities altogether.  Then you lose - 

Mr Valentine - After-school care.

Ms FORREST - Yes, you lose after-school care. We would also lose that care from birth to three-and-a-half for parents who work, and for some children who really need to access it.

There were lots of reasons that was not the best solution.  The intention is absolutely right to provide access for young children, particularly from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds, to quality early learning.

In my speech on the Education Bill last year, I made it clear the Government should engage with key experts, particularly Professor Kay Margetts and Michael White.  I met with Michael White before we debated the legislation to understand what expertise he could bring to the table.  I am glad the minister took that up.  I appreciate his informative report.  I also met Professor Kay Margetts about what she saw was important and how she could engage in the process.  I again commend the Government for taking the opportunity to involve her in the consultation process.  These people really understand this sector and the challenges of these children we are trying to assist, and they can design a framework with a lasting impact.  I appreciate that.  This House also named the groups needed to be involved and engaged in the ongoing consultation process.

It has been difficult and stressful for some early education and care centres.  As the KPMG report shows, some of them were already struggling financially.  The member for Hobart asked why they would continue.  They continue because they care about children and the outcomes for these families.  Some of them rely on their partners' incomes to help to assist in keeping their businesses going.  They do it because they have a passion for education; they love doing the work for the children.  Many of us probably would not keep at it.  It has been extremely stressful for these centres.  Some of them let some staff go because they thought this was a given.  I encouraged them not to as it is not over till the fat lady sings.  They were anxious and I said 'You have got to trust the process'.

Mr Willie - Other staff members left through their own volition because they thought there was no future security.

Ms FORREST - Yes.  Anxieties in the sector are in terms of what are the requirements going to be, what is the future, what is this accreditation process all about.  I am going to put a few questions other members have alluded to, but I have a list of questions and will ask them in a moment.  It is important we get some of this on the table, even though it is not specifically related to the bill, but is about the future for these providers.  I encourage those providers, those involved in the early education and care sector, to continue to participate.  They have already given a lot of time.  They have had a lot of anxiety around this, but we all need to work together - the Government, the Education department, the early education and care sector, ourselves as community leaders - to allow this process to continue so we get the best possible outcome for all our children.

By suggesting they are just out to get us does not help.  We have to engage and make sure the views are put forward; we have to trust the system.  I understand people are a little concerned about trust, but the KPMG report clearly showed the outcome the sector was predicting.  In many respects it was not a real surprise.  When we engage people like Michael White, or someone of that capacity, they are not going to go off on some tangent because of a certain government's direction.  Clearly that did not happen.  Their credibility is at stake.

The other challenge identified through the KPMG report is that the requirements for the early education and care sectors have increased enormously over recent years.

Members who have been here for a little while would recall the House passing the national law on the educational qualifications that people working in that sector had to attain, and the rigour of working under the National Quality Framework.  They have already had a lot of additional requirements placed on them, all for good reason.  When adding another layer of compliance and requirement to deliver another level, we need to keep in mind what they have already done and achieved.  That is one of the questions that needs to be addressed by the Acting Leader in her response, with a little bit about the accreditation process not being layer upon layer of additional compliance when those centres that are compliant have done an enormous amount of work already.

I am very pleased that the Government has committed to funding, as per the amendment I moved to the bill, to ensure that all children up to and including grade 2 are educated in a play based learning environment.

A play-based learning environment is not about having kids at desks and an extra teacher aide in the room.  It is about the environment in which the child learns.  It is about inquiry led learning, with children discovering on their own, being outside, learning in the gardens and in a whole range of settings.  It is not about classrooms; it is about a framework for learning.  It is not about building buildings; it is about putting in place resources to enable that sort of inquiry-led, play-based learning to occur.

When I was overseas I visited this amazing nature-based kindergarten in Scotland, which is all outside.  It was fascinating.  It snows there in winter so the little kids have their snow suits on.

Some honourable members have put some of these questions in a slightly different form.  I am sure the acting Leader will respond to all honourable members.

Does the minister consider that the education and care sector, particularly those who meet the National Quality Framework of preschool-ready, requires additional layers?  What is the rationale behind services becoming accredited for another program to be delivered and will this require additional layers of compliance and qualification?

What is an Education department-approved teacher?  Is this additional to the already qualified teachers?  Will all the teaching qualifications currently approved by ACECQA also be approved by the Department of Education?  Is it necessary for teachers working in the education and care sector to register with the Teachers Registration Board?

Some of these questions were asked in the briefings, but it is important to have them on the record for the benefit of those who did not attend briefings.

Will it be necessary to have another qualification to deliver the education and care when the education and care sector has the National Quality Framework and Early Years Learning Framework and those who do not meet or exceed results in their assessment and ratings process?  For those who are already delivering, are extra qualifications required?

Will the minister give assurance and general guarantee that the early childhood education and care services will be given the opportunity prior to schools being able to offer the program where education and care services exist in the community?  This is a major concern about the government competing with the private sector.

In that regard, the member for Elwick raised the issue of Queenstown.  Queenstown has an early education centre, which I have visited a number of times.  I believe it is still working toward the National Quality Framework requirements, mainly because it had difficulty recruiting and keeping a teacher on site.  That is a challenge for the school there as well.  It seems that no-one wants to go to beautiful Queenstown to live.  It is a challenge to keep skilled and qualified teachers in the area. 

In that case, if that centre is not meeting those standards, can it be worked with to provide this service, or is it likely to go to Mountain Heights School, which might provide a preschool program, or to the Catholic school?  There is a Catholic school that currently goes from kinder to grade 6.  It has a significant enrolment in Queenstown.  That may be of concern to the education and care centre there.

A further question flows from the previous question:  will there be transparency of budget allocation for schools to ensure schools are working in collaboration and not in competition?  I have been informed many schools, such as Windermere, Claremont and possibly Austins Ferry, are already starting to build larger early learning centres.  I do not know if that is true or not, but the Acting Leader can respond.  Will these schools be working in competition with the education and care sector?  If so, as raised by other members, does this breach competition guidelines with government competing with private businesses?

If state schools open preschools in competition with existing education and care services, would education and care services currently accessing community support funding potentially lose this funding?  For some of those centres, that is what is actually keeping them financially viable.  Other members have asked this question.  Can more than one education and care centre in an area offer a program and receive funding from the Government to do so?

They are some of the questions raised.  I would appreciate information provided in the Acting Leader's response.

Other aspects of the bill naturally happen when putting in place significant reform.  As it is rolled out, little glitches or things overlooked at the time will appear.  Essentially the rest of the bill deals with those matters, which I will not comment on further.

I again commend the minister for his willingness to take a new direction rather than avoiding the problem, because this is a challenge we need to meet and face.  There is more than one way to fix this problem.  I am pleased and gratified the Government has made this decision.  It is not easy for a minister to stand up and say he was wrong.  I commend him for having the guts to say 'On reflection and with further consultation, we were wrong'.

I thank the minister for briefing us last week.  He really made clear that was his position.  It is not easy to do.  I find it frustrating when the media and Opposition uses terms like 'backflip'.  It is not a backflip.  It is a sign of leadership when someone can stand up and say, 'We thought we were right.  We have a problem and we thought we had the right solution.  We did have to do more consultation, we accept that now.  We did more consultation and now we realise this solution is perhaps the best solution'.  It takes leadership, it takes guts and I commend him.  As members of the public and leaders in our communities, we need to give other leaders space and opportunity to do that.  If we do not, we make it so much harder for them to do it.  I support the bill.


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