This speech was delivered on 12.10.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the full debate online here.
On behalf of The Greens I will speak to the Education and Teaching Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. This bill amends three major pieces of legislation that govern schools and education in New South Wales: the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards Act 2013, the Education Act 1990 and the Teacher Accreditation Act 2004. When the member for Ballina and I reviewed these bills as Greens members in this place we reviewed them against a basic principle. For The Greens public education is the glue that binds society together. An egalitarian, well-resourced democratic public education system is essential to have a fair, prosperous, united community in New South Wales. The Greens will always stand by its 100 per cent commitment to public education, both inside the Parliament and out. When we reviewed the bill we consulted with the Teachers Federation, our members and educators around this State.
It is clear that the bill has broad support. By and large the Minister is to be commended for positively engaging with the unions, with educators and with policy makers around the State. They have come up with a bill that is broadly supported. However, there are genuine concerns with one particular aspect of the bill—the unannounced inspections, which is seen as the gotcha provision in the bill. I will speak about that more during the Committee stage when I move The Greens amendment to deal with that matter.
What does the bill do? It has a series of objects, but I will not read out each and every one of them. Some of the primary objects are to rename and reconstitute the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards as the New South Wales Education Standards Authority; to provide for the authority to have a new governing board comprising an independent chairperson and 12 other members—details of which I will cover later; to require the authority to have a charter outlining its key responsibilities and objectives to provide that the Minister may in an annual statement of expectations determine priorities in relation to the authority’s functions; to allow the functions of the authority to be delegated to committees of the board, so those committees can undertake important work; to authorise the authority in addition to its other functions under the education and teaching legislation to be able to conduct reviews in the matters arising under that legislation—it is envisaged the Minister will on occasion refer matters for review to the authority; and to ensure that the authority is informed of the establishment, change of name or closure of any government schools.
Further objects are to modify the registration requirements for non-government schools, including a new requirement that schools must be financially viable—we have seen examples, including one key distressing example in New South Wales, of a non-government school not being viable and being a source of gross financial mismanagement; to ensure that matters relating to the quality of student learning are taken into consideration in determining whether the registration requirements will be or are being complied with at or in relation to a school; to enable the Minister to impose conditions of registration in relation to non-government schools and to provide that the registration of a school may be revoked if such conditions are not complied with; to enable the authority’s inspectors to conduct audits and carry out inspections on education premises; and to provide that the powers of an inspector may be exercised in relation to education premises without any requirement to give notice. As I said earlier, that is a matter that we will be discussing in more detail in Committee.
Why do we have this bill and how did it come to be? The background is that in 2014 the New South Wales Government established the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards, or BOSTES as it is often known, which consolidated the functions of two existing, important, long-standing and, so far as Australia goes, two of the leading education structures in the country, being the Board of Studies New South Wales and the New South Wales Institute of Teachers. Having established BOSTES Minister Piccoli then commissioned a review in March of this year to determine whether that amalgamation had been effective and whether BOSTES’s current structure, its functions and the overall regulatory environment was the best approach to meet emerging challenges. That review largely supported the work of BOSTES and The Greens join in the support of the work that BOSTES has done in the two years since it was established.
The review confirmed that the structure of BOSTES was largely sufficient to maintain high educational standards for New South Wales schools. It put in place a series of recommendations, including clarifying roles and responsibilities and moving from a one-size-fits-all paperwork driven process to being what is described as a risk-based and outcomes-focused approach to regulation. That is what has led to the bill that is currently before the House. The new Education Standards Authority will replace BOSTES as the single, independent statutory authority with largely the current functions of BOSTES but with a streamlined and slightly different way in which those functions are exercised. The new governing body is to have the strategic oversight of the authority’s functions and those responsibilities will be set out in a charter and a ministerial statement of expectation.
Clause 6 of the bill proposes that the board of the New South Wales Education Standards Authority is to consist of an independent person appointed by the Minister as the chairperson of the board, six persons appointed by the Minister, one from the government school sector, one from the Catholic school sector and one from the independent school sector—of course, The Greens would prefer three from the government sector, but we will leave that for the moment—two from teacher unions and one from Aboriginal education. Then there will be not less than four but no more than six other persons appointed by the Minister with regard to teachers, school leaders, universities, vocational education and training, parents of school children, early childhood education, special education, business acumen and strategic advisory skills, as well as the Chief Executive Officer.
The Greens did consider an amendment to expressly include a P&C representative. Of course, the history of the P&C in New South Wales has been patchy over the last few years but now that organisation is back on its feet the reforms that were introduced last year have been successful. I would hope that we get an acknowledgement from the Parliamentary Secretary in reply that it is the current intention of the Minister to have a P&C representative as one of those four to six members. But in any event, I think there will be a watching brief generally about who the balance of the board will be and to ensure that it maintains an overwhelming focus on those directly engaged in the education sector, from parents to teachers and educators.
The provision that has caused the most controversy in the bill is the proposal to allow for audits and inspections to occur without any notice. It is pretty clear that respectful relationships in learning environments in our schools are essential if we are going have positive student outcomes. That is why I think many in the area were surprised to read the comments from the Minister in both his media comments and his second reading speech about the random compliance orders. Statements from Minister Piccoli such as “if a school is doing the wrong thing be very afraid” really were considered to be inappropriate and aggressive and not consistent with maintaining that positive relationship that is required in our learning environments. I give the Minister credit for the way in which he has stood up for public education and funding public education in the State. He has not done the job that I am sure my former colleague Dr John Kaye would have done, but when one looks at the challenges that have faced the New South Wales Government from some malign decisions at a Federal level one sees that there has been that voice for at least a fairer share of public funding.
I think we could go a lot further. The $1.1 billion that this State gives to independent and private schools should clearly be redirected to public schools, but that is a matter for debate on another day. It would be good to see some contrition from the Minister on this point where the statements are not consistent with much of the pattern of his conduct over the past years as Minister for Education in this State. I think the teachers and the educators in this State expect more than that kind of aggressive language from the Minister. For the record, The Greens expect more. Of course, having a regulator to ensure compliance and standards is essential. We believe that no school, no education environment should be free from very close and careful regulation, and that includes inspections.
That includes inspections of the records and teaching standards. To suggest that there should be an environment of fear in the State as a result of the passage of this bill is completely at odds with what we know produces the best outcomes in a learning environment. Education facilities should be places of trust. There should be adequate resourcing. Above all, there should be support and respect. That is why The Greens will move an amendment to page 7 of the bill that reads:
Any power of an inspector under this section may not be exercised on or in relation to education premises unless the proprietor or person in charge of the premises has been given at least 5 days written notice of the proposed exercise of that power and the reasons for exercising that power. However, any such notice is not required to be given if the power is required to be exercised in circumstances of genuine urgency.
The exception for genuine urgency is to allow for circumstances where, for example, there may be a complaint about a potentially abusive or violent environment in a school. There may be genuine cases of urgency where an immediate inspection is required. If a case for genuine urgency were made out then all those engaged in the education sector would accept that. The Greens believe that, other than in circumstances of genuine urgency, five days notice is appropriate. Five days notice would not unduly impinge upon the regulator and would provide for a respectful environment in teaching facilities around the State. Given my contribution, The Greens otherwise endorse the bill.