School starting age debate could have been resolved earlier: Steve Biddulph

Expert: Tasmanian education expert Steve Biddulph, who spoke at the Tasmanian Association of State School Organisations on Saturday. Picture: Supplied
Expert: Tasmanian education expert Steve Biddulph, who spoke at the Tasmanian Association of State School Organisations on Saturday. Picture: Supplied

Leading education expert Steve Biddulph believes the debate over lowering the voluntary school starting age could have been resolved earlier had principals and teachers been allowed to express their views freely.

Speaking at the Tasmanian Association of State Schools Organisations’ annual-general meeting on Saturday, Mr Biddulph said school principals had felt unable to speak on the issue.

Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff denied the claims, saying teachers and principals are public servants and “abide by the same code of conduct as they did under Labor as detailed in the State Service Act”.

Mr Biddulph described the Education Department as running on a “command and control” basis with all information coming from the department, restricting the information parents had on their child’s school.

“In the course of the school starting age debacle, we discovered that principals and teachers were not allowed to speak up about their own views,” Mr Biddulph said.

“I’ve worked in Tasmanian schools for 40 years now, but in the last three years I’ve … worked in a lot of schools all over the state.

“Everywhere I went I would always ask how principals and teachers felt about the idea of lowering the school age, and discovered that they’re actually not allowed to say.”

Mr Biddulph said under the State Service Act teachers were unable to comment on government policy, a restriction he said could have a case in primary industry or manufacturing with sensitive corporate or government information, but not in education.

Mr Rockliff, however, said the claim was false and the department welcomed input into policy development.

“Assertions that teachers and or principals are gagged are wrong,” he said. “Opinions and views of departmental staff are a valued input to policy development.”

Mr Rockliff said the Tasmanian Principals Association, representing the “collective view” of the state’s principals, had supported the touted policy for a voluntary earlier starting age. 

The state government’s plans to lower the school starting age to three-years-old was fiercely campaigned against by opposition education spokeswoman Michelle O’Byrne, state education groups and unions.

Mr Rockliff scrapped the proposal earlier this month, saying the sector had made its views clear.