Motion debate – Victorian Education Inquiry

Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (12:41): I move:

That this house requires the Legal and Social Issues Committee to inquire into, consider and report, by 25 June 2024, on the Victorian education system across government schools, including:

(1) trends in student learning outcomes from prep to year 12, including but not limited to:

(a) the factors, if any, that have contributed to decline;

(b) disparities correlated with geography and socio-economic disadvantage;

(2) the state of the teaching profession in Victoria, including but not limited to:

(a) the adequacy of existing measures to recruit, remunerate and retain teachers;

(b) training, accreditation and professional development, particularly for teaching students with special needs;

(c) the adequacy of the Department of Education’s measures to support teachers;

(d) the impact of school leadership on student wellbeing, learning outcomes and school culture;

(3) the current state of student wellbeing in Victoria, including but not limited to the impact of state government interventions, following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to address poor mental health in students, school refusal, and broader student disengagement;

(4) the administrative burden on teachers and the availability of new technologies to alleviate the burden;

(5) examples of best practice in other jurisdictions and educational settings used to improve student learning outcomes and wellbeing; and

(6) school funding adequacy and its impact on student learning outcomes and wellbeing.

Before I begin kicking off the ball on this very important inquiry topic, I would like to say from the Nationals and the Liberals that our thoughts and prayers go out to the children, the families, the principal, the teachers, the staff and the school community of Exford Primary School regarding that tragic collision at Eynesbury yesterday. I was speaking to someone associated with this only this morning, and they said this will not take days or weeks, it will be months and years. I am sure all of us in this house extend our thoughts and prayers to that school community in the hope that they improve and there are good health outcomes for all those poor children affected.

The reality is that in thousands of Victorian classrooms each day we have fantastic teachers who come prepared to teach. They are dedicated, they are organised and they are positive role models for their students. Their focus is on student learning, educational outcomes and student wellbeing. They are positive motivators. They also constantly give up their time at lunchtime or during school hours to go that extra mile: to help with homework, to finish that assignment or to make clear that piece of information that was lost on a child or many children. They go out into classrooms and into the yard to play and communicate with students at lunchtime, to take that extra time whilst throwing down a sandwich. These are the same teachers that go home most weeknights and work at home. Sunday afternoons and Sunday evenings become another form of the workplace, with lesson preparation and corrections.

They attend staff meetings and parent meetings, and they have to shoulder the burden of a fair degree of administration. I know this because the teachers that I am speaking about were my colleagues when I worked for nine years, up until 8½ years ago, in the state school system in Gippsland. I pay homage to each and every one of those teachers and the thousands of teachers in our state that do an amazing job.

It is also clear that our Victorian education system is under significant pressure. It has been significantly impacted over the last three years because of the COVID pandemic and the lockdowns and the fact that for 170 days we had students not being able to engage in the formal school process, in class, but having to attend their lessons via Zoom or receive information and work at home.

This has made an impact on our students, and I think part of what the inquiry needs to look at is delving into how deeply that has cut across various students in our state and what has worked in bringing students back up to speed but also what has not worked and what needs to work in order to make up that lost time. Now, we cannot rewrite history; we can only go from now.

The Legal and Social Issues Committee apparently has absolutely no work on its plate at the moment. I thought potentially there would be an inquiry in terms of rental housing, but that did not get up today, so there is time, and this committee can well deal with this issue. It is important to unpack the inquiry in terms of listening to people in the field – to teachers and educators, to principals and school leaders, to school councils and, importantly, to parents and past and present students.

I was walking up a hill with some fantastic year 11 students the other day, and their chatter was around how they coped or did not cope during the lockdown – and they came in when they were only in year 8 – and the experiences that they had. That was illuminating.

The breadth of this inquiry really focuses on student learning outcomes – let us put Victorian students at the centre of this inquiry – and student wellbeing, mental health and engagement. And let us look at COVID but look at it in such a way that all of those parties can come together and explain how we can improve student wellbeing and student outcomes. Also, very importantly, let us look at the state of teaching in Victoria – the teacher workforce, the professional development and teacher retention. And by pushing out the reporting date to June next year, we can do a deep dive. We can examine this calmly and allow the secretariat to have that time to complete all required activities, and we can give that experience both in a formal capacity and to individuals in the community to make their comments.

There are other inquiries on the table, and it actually works quite well that we have that June reporting date. There are two federal inquiries underway. The Education and Employment References Committee has got the inquiry into the national trend of school refusal and related matters, and that is going to report to the federal Parliament in June this year. That is certainly something that we have seen in the media and reports: about students, unfortunately, having been isolated at home and not exercising that muscle, not wanting to go back to school. So this federal inquiry is looking into that.

There is also an inquiry on the issues of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms, and that is to report in November this year. Again, we can see some alarming statistics around the increase of disruption, aggression and antisocial behaviour directed at principals and staff – and there are some stats that I will talk to shortly. That is coming up in November. Our committee could actually take those reports on board and examine them by its reporting date.

There is also one that occurred – and I was most interested in it – in 2017, which was by Professor Halsey into regional, rural and remote education.

That is Australia wide, so it certainly had some interesting things to say. We need to drill down into what that means for our regional areas in Victoria specifically. Low SES, low socio-economic status – how does that impact learning? The government may say, ‘We’ve done this. We’re aware of this. We don’t need to.’ I think as legislators, as elected members of Parliament, it has been a long time – in fact almost 20 years – since there was deep dive into the education system in this Victorian Parliament. Last year we saw universities looking at investment in skills, not looking at prep to year 12. Also in 2017 there was an autism inquiry – again very important but not a holistic look at the state of government education in Victoria. Then back, just by way of finalising reports, between 2010 and 2014, when there was a joint inquiry by the education and training committee, they were quite prolific in their short and sharp educational activity, and it was really good to read that and see former member for Eastern Victoria Region the Honourable Peter Hall also on that committee. So a deep dive into this very important issue I think is much warranted.

We only have to look today at the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. That is an international inquiry, 50 countries, and the reports from that look at year 4 students and the abilities that they have in literacy – very important, reading and literacy. If you do not have reading and literacy skills, you are behind the eight ball. Unfortunately, Victoria is walking backwards, and it is the only Australian state to register a statistically significant decline. I note in the paper today the Minister for Education was praising Victoria, and I understand that we had a reasonable level of disposition. But any decline is actually quite concerning, and the Grattan Institute’s education program director Jordana Hunter said we need to ‘get serious about teaching reading’ in the Age today.

Another mark of international standards, how we are standing against the rest of the world, is the Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA, as we like to call it. The OECD program looks at this and assesses it reasonably regularly, and the last one was in 2018. Another one is coming out, but we are not at that point yet. We find across the nation – let me clarify that, across the nation – maths is declining, a full year behind. Reading is declining, almost a full year behind, and science is the same. I take the point this is Australia wide, but as I said, we have the opportunity to do a deep dive into education. We can think globally, but we need to act locally as an upper house and as responsible legislators.

Victoria’s NAPLAN – again, if you are a teacher, NAPLAN can make you pull your hair out sometimes, because it just can be, ‘Is it useful? Is it informative?’ I know certainly some schools used to suggest some students stay away on NAPLAN day. It is often quite a contentious thing, but it is an indicator. It is a benchmark, and unfortunately our recent NAPLAN results say that there is certainly the largest drop in educational outcomes of any state in the nation and a significant drop in year 5 numeracy and grammar and year 9 spelling. So this is something that we need to investigate in a holistic way.

The Grattan Institute recently put out a report into education. It is specifically looking at teachers, greater teachers and how better government policy can help, and it had three recommendations. Let teachers teach by better matching teachers’ work to teachers’ expertise. Help teachers to work smarter by reducing unnecessary tasks – we know that there is huge administrative burden that is placed on them more and more. They are required to teach core subjects, but there is also additional workload and additional curriculum.

I think we have the opportunity, without getting overly political, to unpack what that is and unpack a way forward to bring those educational outcomes for our students up and also rethink the way teachers work and organise their work in schools. It comes to the point: how can we reinvent this and look at this?

We see regularly the issue around teacher shortages. You only have to pick up the paper to see very often the stress that not only classroom teachers but principals are under, scrambling to find teachers to fill their classrooms. I thank the respected president of the Victorian Principals Association Mr Andrew Dalgleish for the conversations we have had. I have had a couple of conversations with him, and he spoke recently about the fact that we need quality teachers in front of our classrooms. There are a thousand teacher positions on the Department of Education’s website. I was also speaking with a local teacher in my electorate. He is a principal. There are over a thousand students at his school and 160 teachers, and he cannot get sufficient teachers in. He has got vacancies. As well as doing his own administrative work as principal, he is taking classroom classes, as is his assistant. These are quite stressful situations. We need to in a collaborative way investigate how we can fast-track and support not only classroom teachers but also principals in their leadership. We also see that a recent nationwide survey of 4000 teachers found that 70 per cent have unmanageable workloads. Three-quarters reported moderate to severe stress, depression and anxiety, which is above the standard population. This must have a flow-on effect.

As I have spoken about just now, school burnout from principals is real and experienced on a daily basis. The ACU Institute for Positive Psychology and Education did a survey. I am putting some stats on the line here: 2500 Australian principals, almost 40 per cent, said that they had had threats of violence towards them by parents and students. Thirty-one per cent had experienced physical violence. An alarming 53 per cent reported offensive behaviour of conflicts and quarrel. We have got burnout, stress and anxiety. We need to sit down at the table and let those principals come to the table and have these very important conversations. There are pathways to leadership I know already in the current structures, but we need to look at how to ensure that there are positive ways that we can mentor and keep principals. They are coming in younger, they are burning out sooner. How can we look at ways to support them and let them be part of that conversation?

Student disengagement and drop-out is a major, major issue. I say that from both a statistical point of view and an anecdotal point of view, from speaking with families who survived COVID and survived the lockdown. Some coped with that COVID lockdown, working via Zoom, and some rejoiced in it, but for a huge percentage of people – young people, students – it was a real struggle. There was significant disengagement, and it is such a crying shame. We cannot wind back time, but what programs are working well and what other jurisdictions – and that is part of this inquiry – are showing the way? What best practice is happening? We see that Estonia is the highest performing OECD country. What is happening there? What is happening in Korea and Japan? We can learn from other jurisdictions, and it is important to do so.

Also, I would like to thank Mr Puglielli, who is in the house now, for having the discussion around incorporating part (6) into the inquiry terms of reference on school funding adequacy and impact on learning and wellbeing. We have a million state school students, or above. The Victorian government has spent $1.7 billion on education. There can be a Pandora’s box when we open funding, but I am more than willing to take up the Greens position and include this.

I will finish my contribution there. We have had a shocking mental health shadow pandemic for our students. There is nothing more important than the health of our society and the education of our young people. This is an opportunity to do that. I thank my colleague the Shadow Minister for Education Dr Bach – and certainly he will speak and provide the parts that I have not today – for his influence and positivity. I thank the crossbenchers for other conversations that I have had. I hope the government will see this for what it is – the desire to make better outcomes for our students and to bring about positive mental health and wellbeing for our young people, because they are our future – and I look forward to further debate on this topic.