Mr SOUTHWICK (Caulfield) — I rise to make a contribution on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (School Attendance) Bill 2013. The previous speaker said that this is a trivial bill. I start my comments by saying that there is nothing trivial about truancy. What we are doing with this bill is sending a very clear message to parents that it is not okay for their children to be away from school.
We need to do whatever we possibly can to ensure that kids are provided with the best possible education, and they cannot get that if they are away. In part this bill is to ensure that parents understand just how important it is to keep their kids at school. I note the contribution of the member for Monbulk, who agreed very much with the fact that it is important to reduce truancy and keep kids at school. He engaged some very important statistics which further demonstrate just how important it is for us to do whatever is possible to keep our young people at school.
What we have done — and I think this is where those opposite have failed to tune in to the debate — is, firstly, made the issue important by sending a message to parents about truancy, and secondly, taken away the system that was in place of taking matters to court. That court process introduced a complexity to the infringement which effectively might cause those who were in most need to ultimately leave the school system altogether.
We have removed that court system process and replaced it with a fine for students who have been away five or more times within a 12-month period without a reasonable excuse. Students who have breached that rule will now be issued with an infringement notice rather than being taken to court. That is the fundamental difference between what happened before and what is happening now under our government. This is good, sound policy. It takes away the need for those who are most disadvantaged in our community to be unnecessarily put through a court process. Rather, it works with parents and issues them with a fine.
I would like to share a story that goes back some 25 years. Twenty-five years ago there was a girl in our community who was going to school while living in a Brotherhood of St Laurence bin. She slept in a Brotherhood bin. She would come to school every morning and return every night to sleep in that bin.
She did not have the clothing, the books or the necessary basics to do much more than survive, but she saw education as her way out. That girl completed her education and went on to further studies. Out of her experience an organisation called the Ardoch Youth Foundation was born.
At Ardoch they recognise that education is paramount to changing young people’s lives. I am certainly proud of the fact that I have had a strong involvement with the organisation, which has helped so many children who unfortunately fell through the cracks, although their parents may have done what they thought was best for them. Many kids are not properly supported and without an education are not able to do what they wish to do. If that girl had been sent through the court system 25 years ago, her capacity to complete her education may have been reduced.
That is what this legislation is about. It is about working with parents and working with the system. It is about the importance of ensuring that we retain those kids in the system in all possible ways. This is not about a big stick; it is not about saying, ‘We are going to send you through the court system because you have done the wrong thing’. Rather what it is saying is, ‘If your kid is going out to all-night parties on the weekends and decides to have regular Mondays off because there are things happening on a Sunday, and school is not as important as the weekend, then that is not appropriate’.
We are looking at the fact that young people and their parents need to understand that the only way a person is going to get ahead is with a good education, and the only way they are going to get that education is if they turn up to the classroom. This legislation ensures that parents understand that our government is absolutely serious about school attendance and completion and about kids in need being given every possible opportunity. Of course the bill provides every opportunity. It is not a one-hit wonder. It provides for five instances of absence from school before the penalty applies, and if the parent is able to provide a sound excuse for any of those instances, then that will be dealt with.
The other element of this bill that the opposition seems to have a problem with — which absolutely astounds me — is that it allows principals to make a decision when it comes to a child being absent.
Apart from a parent, who else other than the principal would know the circumstances relating to a child’s presence at or absence from school? If we cannot empower our principals to make those decisions, then what sort of society do we have, and what sort of society do we expect our kids to grow up in? What we have done since coming to government has made it clear that we want to empower our principals to make decisions and provide a good, sound education for our young people. The only way we are going to lift our standards is by ensuring that our principals are empowered to make those decisions. The fact that anyone would say that principals should not be given powers to grant exemptions when they think there is a fair and reasonable explanation for a child to be away just astounds me. It astounds me that the opposition would suggest that the child should be fined, penalised or made to go to court because the principal is not a fair and reasonable person to make that decision. This is a very sound piece of legislation.
I would like to conclude by providing a couple of local examples. In my electorate we have Caulfield Park Community School, which has very low student numbers — 50-odd students. In many instances it is seen in the community as a school of last resort. The school works tirelessly with young kids and keeps them at school with programs that best target the students and work with them in all ways possible. I would like to commend Steve Kearney for the work he has done in ensuring that the school has the highest possible attendance rates. That is not easy. It requires continual work, but it is something that we know is crucially important.
The sorts of campaigns our government is running — they are not just slogans, but campaigns like ‘It’s not OK to be away’ — point to the sort of education we need to be providing for our parents and for the community.
We need parents to understand if they are letting their children take the odd day or two off school to sleep in or to spend the day out at Chadstone or whatever, to not worry about school today or this week or next week, that the number of those days creeps up. One becomes two becomes three. The odd day may be considered okay, but when the number gets beyond five then it becomes a real problem.
I would like to complete my remarks by addressing some of the comments made by the member for Eltham in his contribution to the debate. He suggested that our government is trivialising bullying in schools, and I certainly take offence at that, because we are doing everything we can to ensure that bullying is stamped out in our schools. We have worked very hard to ensure that that is the case. Our kids need to feel safe in school. It is part of keeping them at school and reducing truancy. If kids are bullied in any way, then of course they are less likely to come to school. If they do not feel safe, that is likely to be the no. 1 factor in why a kid would be not showing up.
That the member for Eltham would even suggest that our government is trivialising bullying with some of the programs we are initiating is an absolute disgrace. Our government is focused on outcomes, on delivering safe, secure schools and on doing what we can to reduce truancy numbers. We are focused on ensuring that kids turn up, that they feel safe, that they complete their schooling and that there are programs that are tailored for our young people that meet their schooling needs. Schooling is what gives kids the opportunity to succeed and go ahead in their lives, and we need to do whatever we possibly can to ensure that more kids are completing, more kids are turning up to school and there is less truancy. I commend the bill to the house.