Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2016
Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2016. This bill makes a number of changes. Firstly it potentially allows the Secretary of the Department of Education and Training to summarily dismiss teachers for serious misconduct. It sets out debt recovery arrangements for financial assistance provided by the commonwealth. It provides that certain sexual offences can be taken into account when registering and managing Victorian teachers.
It ends by expanding the definition of a 'sexual offence' to include:
… (forced marriage), involving a person under 18 years of age …
… using a carriage service for sexual activity with a person under 16 years of age …
… using a carriage service to transmit indecent communication to a person under 16 years of age…
It also updates number of procedures relating to the Victorian Institute of Teaching.
The Greens will not be opposing this bill, although we do have some concerns about clause 5, regarding the power to summarily dismiss teachers. Those concerns are also shared by the Australian Education Union, and I will elucidate the reason behind those concerns.
Before I do, I will firstly say that I understand this bill is being brought down in response to an environment where we have had two very serious investigations undertaken by IBAC, one into the misappropriation of funds and the use of banker schools and one regarding the failed ultranet project. There are very serious allegations of serious failings within the education department. Also I do note the recent Auditor-General's report into the education department and its strategic planning, and I will read a few comments from a media release regarding that particular report. It essentially says that the Auditor-General has undertaken a number of audits into the education department and that:
These audits have consistently revealed a depressing pattern of underperformance.
It goes on:
There has been a culture of complacency, defensiveness and 'siloing' within the department and a lack of accountability across its leadership.
None of these failings are new to the department. In a series of its own internal reviews, the same issues kept recurring, yet until quite recently, little was done to change.
I can see that there is clearly an environment where there needs to be change within the education department. The serious failings and the serious incidents that have been exposed through the IBAC and through the Auditor-General's report really show that these failings are an absolute betrayal of all those people who are absolutely passionate about education who work in the education system and who work in the education department, and to make sure that we are delivering for all of those Victorians we need to ensure that we get the education department back on track and that it is delivering for Victorian students and for all those people who are working within the education sector.
The Greens do have concerns about the power to summarily dismiss teachers. Essentially this power enables the Secretary to the Department of Education and Training to summarily dismiss an employee without a formal inquiry if the secretary reasonably believes that serious misconduct has occurred. I note the secretary currently has the power to suspend a staff member with or without pay. That is already outlined in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. If the secretary reasonably believes there may be grounds for taking action against an employee, the secretary may suspend the employee from duty with or without pay by giving notice in writing to the employee.
The concern here is that teachers or staff will not necessarily be afforded natural justice or given the chance to actually respond to the claims that are being put to them and given the due process to respond to their being summarily dismissed. The minister in his second-reading speech stated that the summary dismissal power:
… seeks to close a gap in existing legislation to effectively close a gap in existing legislation to effectively manage serious staff misconduct without unnecessary procedural delays and to increase the integrity and accountability of the government teaching service.
As I have said, the secretary already has the power to suspend a teacher with or without pay and can then take further steps to dismiss a teacher following an investigation. There is already a prescribed process for that to occur within the act, and I note in the act that what is probably most relevant is obviously if an employee commits an act of misconduct, conducts himself or herself in a disgraceful, improper or unbecoming manner in an official capacity or otherwise or, amongst other grounds for action, is unfit on account of character or conduct to discharge his or her duties. There are a number of procedures in terms of having to write to the employee, giving the employee a chance to respond and following due process in that instance.
In this particular bill, whilst it gives the employee the power to appeal the decision to be summarily dismissed by the secretary, the appeal is only applicable if the secretary has formed that reasonable belief. It is not actually for appealing the fact of whether misconduct has actually occurred. Obviously the Greens are very strong supporters of the anti-corruption process of IBAC, and we certainly have been advocating for an increase of its powers, but we also support natural justice and due process. In circumventing the procedures for dismissal as laid out in the act we are concerned, as is the Australian Education Union, that natural justice will not be given to those accused.
The minister has described these processes for dismissing an employee as complex and time consuming, and if that is a broader issue, then there may be a case for reforming those processes. However, in this instance the processes followed to dismiss an employee are due process, and I think that would be a reasonable process to take place. We could have an instance where someone who, as detailed in the second-reading speech for this bill, admitted in evidence or showed they had engaged in misconduct can of course, right now, be suspended immediately without pay by the minister. I note that in the litany of bad news articles that have come out about these IBAC investigations one of them did report that a principal has actually been suspended, so this can and does actually occur. There is allowance for due process to take place, and certainly Sue Pennicuik, the Victorian Greens education spokesperson, will be asking a number of questions regarding the provisions to summarily dismiss when this bill reaches the upper house.
More broadly on education issues, I note that the topic of Gonski is coming up. Whilst the government is criticising the federal government for not funding years 5 and 6 of Gonski, one would think that it is also incumbent on the state government to fund years 5 and 6 of Gonski. Certainly the schools that I have spoken are deeply concerned that neither the federal government nor the state government are committed to years 5 and 6, which is when the real dollars flow to those schools and to those students who need it most. Schools out there are calling for certainty around this funding issue. If the state government were to come to the party and fund years 5 and 6, that would give them some certainty. I think it would give the Victorian government a stronger hand in calling for the federal government to fund years 5 and 6 and uphold its end of the bargain.
I note that in the talk about Gonski, which is needs-based funding, the Victorian government has taken a step in the wrong direction with its private school funding bill, which allocates 25 per cent of all funding spent on schools — an arbitrary figure of 25 per cent — to private schools. It is in legislation to be spent on non-government schools, which is against the principles of Gonski, which was sector blind and spent the money not on where you went to school or what type of school it was but the actual need of that school and its students. In my view it would seem that if we are following past that bill and we have Steve Bracks doing an education funding review, then they have really put the cart before the horse in that instance.
I think the government would be well served to abolish that legislated mandate of 25 per cent of all funding going to private schools. This is particularly so given the Auditor-General's recent report into grants and funding that have gone to private schools, particularly to Catholic schools, where the money is not going to where it needs to be. The education department has its formula for how it believes money should spent, and certainly the neediest schools should get it. Some independent school organisations were sending that money to where it should go, but the Auditor-General found that the Catholic education authorities were not sending that money to the neediest schools, and those schools were not getting the funds they needed.
This all goes back to the principle of openness and transparency in recurrent school funding for both capital works and new schools. The Greens are very much calling for openness and transparency in school funding so that for communities where there is need or where there is population growth and a need for new schools they can have confidence that they will get the schools and the upgrades they need without it necessarily turning into a political hot potato. Whether they be rural areas, outer suburban growth areas or inner-city areas that are facing population growth, communities out there are really want confidence that they will get the education maintenance and schools that their communities need.
From the perspective of the Prahran electorate, many members of the Prahran community are very excited about the new Prahran high school. It has probably always been the no. 1 issue in Prahran. Certainly for parents in my community who have primary school-aged children and are looking at their secondary education options, the reality for many of them is that if we do not have a public school in Prahran they will be forced to move elsewhere. Prahran really should be, as the inner city is now becoming, a place where families want to stay. The idea that people will move out to the suburbs to raise a family is no longer the case, and more and more families are wanting to live in the inner city. There is now a great pressure and a great need for secondary schools in the inner city, and that is certainly true of Prahran.
I think there is great potential for a leading example of an innovative inner-city high school in the Prahran electorate. It could certainly be a legacy left by this term of office to have a high-quality school in the Prahran electorate. The residents and families in Prahran are looking for certainty and confidence about when that school is going to open, how it is going to take place and what it is going to look like so they can plan for their children's future.
To summarise, we will not be opposing this bill, although we do have a number of concerns regarding the provision of natural justice for those who may be summarily dismissed. We will be asking further questions when this bill goes into the committee stage in the upper house.