Education head-to-head: The bonus round

WITH Tasmania's struggling retention and literacy rates, education will be one of the March 15 election battlegrounds, with both newly appointed Education Minister Brian Wightman and opposition spokesman Michael Ferguson vying for the portfolio.

Both men took part in the hour long education election Head-to-Head on February 5 and although they covered many questions put to them, there were about 40 left over and they have agreed to answer five each.

To view a full transcript of the live chat, click here.

Education Minister Brian Wightman; Questions sent only to Mr Wightman

From Kyle: Minister Wightman the adult education is important also.. Will you admit (I am sure you have been briefed) that TasTAFE is facing a multi-million dollar short fall and financial crisis due to declining revenues due to ALP/ Green failed VET reforms. Will you come clean before the election and tell 100s of staff that they face the loss of their jobs?

TasTAFE receives funding from a range of sources including state and Commonwealth governments, commercial revenue and student fees.

The current economic climate is affecting employers confidence to take on apprentices and enrol employees in short courses, however the Department of Education is working on a range of strategies to increase participation across the sector. 

It is not anticipated that current staff numbers will change significantly.

From Amina: I have a question for Minister Wightman: why was the school zone policy axed a week before school started? Far too late to provide certainty to families who presumably already enrolled children and purchased uniforms for schools to which they were zoned?

As Minister I listened to parents concerns around the proposed changes to the policy and came to the decisions that it was not a priority for government. 

I appreciate that the Department of Education had been working with communities and other interest groups on new state-wide procedures that were intended to be introduced for enrolling students in schools outside their home-area in 2015.

I also understand that there has been diverse range of feedback and a range of issues have been raised including the roles of schools in their local communities.  

We should be focusing on giving children the best education possible, not causing undue concerns as to which schools they can access.

Questions sent only to Mr Ferguson

From Amanda: Can Michael explain what he will do to convince the Federal Government to properly fund the 5th and 6th years of the Gonski funding?

We have already shared our plans for improving literacy and numeracy rates to at least the national average as well as extending our high schools to year 12 with the new Coalition government.  

This will require the right funding but more importantly the right policies.

We will work cooperatively with the federal government to improve the Tasmanian education system after 16 years of neglect, failed experiments and budget cuts from Labor.

Our Tasmanian federal MPs have shown 100% commitment to this essential task and we look forward to working cooperatively with them to achieve it.

From Lucas Noyes: Mr Ferguson, does your review of education funding and disability support involve a commitment to not use it to reduce education funding in public schools, and to increase disability support services? How does this work against the conflicting stance with your party "saving" money by cutting back front-line staff and taking funds from the education budget?

Of course, we will not reduce funding to this sector at all. 

We will invest $1m to implement new initiatives including the establishment of an autism specialist school, bringing the innovative Rethink Autism ABA online video databank and coaching plan for all parents and educators to use at home and school. 

Our independent review will look at the limitations for families in relation to support and choice, including the barriers faced to securing in-school support for their child and access to the Severe Disability Register.

Questions for both

From Demel: Should classes on sex education and racism/tolerance be mandatory for all high school and college students? Should primary school students be introduced to these topics earlier?

BW: It is important that students are provided with every opportunity to have an education that is informed, engaging and covers a diverse range of subjects.  

The matters that you have raised are important and feature daily within our community and media. The Australian Curriculum provides wonderful age appropriate learning opportunities for all students, right from their early years to senior years.  

The very topics you mention, along with others are addressed by the curriculum documents and support materials.  

The Australian Curriculum guides and informs teachers so as to ensure there is an informed, balanced and a progressive approach to all children's learning and development.

MF: Parents have the major role in deciding what is appropriate sex education for their child and we would involve parents to ensure that any sex education curriculum fits with community views and focuses on broad community concerns such as delaying the onset of sexual activity, the high rates of teen pregnancy, STDs and the appalling rate of child sexual assault.

Only the Liberals have committed to investing up to $200,000 pa to ensure every child can access the Bravehearts school based child safety program, which has the potential to halve child sexual assault.

Regarding racism/tolerance, our schools already reflect wider Tasmanian society's abhorrence of racism and do a great job dealing with individual issues as they emerge.

From Lyn from Devonport: There is an identified additional need for more qualified student support services in our schools. School psychologist and social workers are in high demand. What can your party offer to help communities who need this qualified support. These requirements can not be left to unqualified staff or chaplains many of whom have no real qualifications.

BW: Our schools and colleges work very closely with volunteers and have in many instances engaged in the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program.  

Their work being most valued and appreciated.  

The work of our school psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists and support teachers brings another level of high order professional / qualified service and support to our students, schools and communities.  

The three Learning Services across our state ensure that all schools have access to these professional services.

In times of crisis or special circumstances schools are provided with increased support by these professional and qualified teams.

MF: Our chaplains do a magnificent job in schools and to say they have no real qualifications is both unfair and untrue.  

As some of the lowest paid workers who contribute to school life, they are there to provide a caring support role to students, not to convert or provide the kind of support which should only be provided by a psychologist.  

Chaplains have performed incredibly well and we should all be thankful for them - they are greatly valued by every school where they have worked.

Both Labor and the Greens promised to employ 12 more psychologists at the 2010 election but didn't do it.

While the budget situation has made consideration of this in the current context difficult, we have been raising the matter in Parliament together with and on behalf of the Australian Psychological Association with whom we enjoy an excellent relationship.

We will be announcing further policy during the election campaign that will assist students in our schools.

From Steph: A question for either minister. I have seen recently a plan to increase literacy and numeracy specialist to help with low literacy numeracy results. what about instead reducing class sizes?

BW: We already have 11 literacy and numeracy teachers who train all staff. 

This has been in place for a year and a half.  

We also have eight curriculum leaders for years 9 to 12 who have a focus on literacy and numeracy in senior years.  

All government schools are supported by a statewide group of Network Schools, Network Lead Teachers, Australian Curriculum Teacher Leaders and Principal Education Officers. 

Also, under programs such as Raising the Bar (Primary), Raising the Bar Closing the Gap (Secondary) and other associated strategies.

Class sizes are subject to a variety of factors including decisions made by schools to best suit their student body.  

In stances where students are identified as being at risk, schools with support, make informed decisions according to the needs of students.  

Often, an option is to have smaller classes or implement specialist or targeted programs.  Sometimes it may be a combination of these.

MF: The Liberals will not seek to set fixed class sizes or limits.

The high priority for an incoming Liberal government will be to address our appalling literacy and numeracy outcomes (behind the national average on 20 out of 20 measures).   

To achieve this, we will engage and provide professional learning for 25 specialist literacy and numeracy teachers.  

These new specialists will focus on working with our year 7 to 9 students who are consistently performing below the national average, and where according to NAPLAN figures, our students are falling behind the most.

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