Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

School Enrolment and Attendance Measure in Queensland – Doorstop, Brisbane

*** E & OE – Proof only ***

ANNA BLIGH: I think you will know Jenny Macklin, the Federal Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Can I also introduce Mr Michael Sawbridge. Michael is the Principal of Kingston South School and will also be available for your questions in relation to this matter.

Queensland is very pleased to join with the Federal Government in a new trial that will link welfare payments to school attendance. We’ll be trialling this in the Logan area, in the schools in the suburbs of Woodridge, Kingston, Logan Central and Eagleby. This is a very important trial. We don’t expect to see this measure used as a first resort; in fact, it will only be used as a last resort. But we do hope that it will assist our schools to really focus the attention of those parents who are not enrolling their children, who are not bringing their children to school regularly. Here in Queensland we are making a determined effort to improve our literacy and numeracy results. Our teachers can only do that if children are in their classrooms regularly. We are going to see our children get the very best possible education and they need to be in school on a regular basis. While this will be a controversial measure, we think it is important to trial, to give it a really good shot and we’ll be monitoring it very carefully. We know that it’s in small Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and Katherine that is already starting to see results.

This trial will be the first in the country with a major densely populated urban mainstream community. So it will, I think offer us a real insight into whether this measure helps to improve school attendance and particularly once we’ve got those children in classrooms, see an improvement in their education.

I’ll invite the Federal Minister to make some comments.

JENNY MACKLIN: Thanks very much Anna. The Federal Government is very pleased to be partnering the Queensland Government, with school principals, with parents, to make sure that we get our children to school. Each and every one of us here today understands just how important it has been for us individually to have had a good education. We had it because our parents did the right thing by us. Made sure that we got up in the morning and went to school, made sure that we did that as often as we possibly could. What we want to do is make sure that we work with the Queensland Government, with principals, to make sure that parents do the right thing by their kids. We want to make sure that children are enrolled to go to school. Each and every one of them. We want to make sure that children go to school on a regular basis. If they don’t go to school on a regular basis, they are not going to get a good education. That’s what this is all about. As the Premier has just indicated, this suspension of welfare payment will be used as a last resort. I’ll just give you an update of how it’s going in the Northern Territory. It is operating in a small number of Indigenous communities but also in the town of Katherine. We have Centrelink working very closely with the Principals in a number of schools, and a number of parents on attendance plans. We also have seen some improvements in enrolments. As we stand today, so far no parent has had any of their welfare payment suspended. We’re at the point still of working closely with the Principals, with the Education Department in the Northern Territory and with Centrelink to make sure that we get children to school on a regular basis. It’s a very important task and one that both Governments are determined to cooperate together on, in the interest of children.

ANNA BLIGH: Michael, would you like to raise something on the perspective of a Principal?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: Thank you Premier, thank you Minister. I’ll just echo the Premier’s words. Our goal in school is to deliver the best learning outcome we can for our students. To do that we need them back in classrooms every day. I see this as having real potential indeed (inaudible) chronic attendance as a last resort.

JOURNALIST: Premier, why Logan? In choosing Logan is that going to stigmatise (inaudible)?

ANNA BLIGH: This is a trial, and we identified an area of Brisbane that has large populations, has a relatively high number of welfare recipients, and where we have seen in some schools over a period of time, some attendance issues. But this relates, this poor attendance at schools is present in a number of other Queensland communities. We’ll start the trial here, and we’ll see how it goes, and we may well be extending it if we see results. So Logan was the first cab off the rank and we’ve got a very enthusiastic group of Principals who want to make this work. Many of them have been working on their own attendance programs. This gives them some real (inaudible).

JOURNALIST: What’s the incidence of non attendance in Logan?

ANNA BLIGH: It differs from school to school but we have some schools in this area that have attendance at (inaudible) between 10 and 15% less than the Statewide average. So it is important to see that improve. This is likely to affect some 2,000 parents in this area.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

ANNA BLIGH: I can understand why people might have questions about this. It is I think a pretty radical plan, but school attendance is absolutely critical to giving these children their best chance. If we want to break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependence, education is the best possible tool. And these children won’t get that chance if they’re not in school. I do think it’s important to stress this (inaudible) will be used as a last resort but I hope frankly that the cost aspect of it will make many of those parents who think that school is optional really focus on getting up and getting their kids to school.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to critics who say this would be worse for children who end up with parents who can’t pay their rent, and can’t buy food?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well of course my answer to that is it’s every parent’s responsibility to make sure their children go to school. Centrelink use the threat of suspension of welfare payments every day of the week. Centrelink requires everyone to notify them for example of change of address. Centrelink requires you to notify them of changes to income; it affects your welfare entitlement. If you don’t comply there is a threat of suspension or breaching of your welfare payments. That happens. Normally people respond very quickly. I hope we see exactly the same here, that parents will respond quickly, that we won’t have to suspend them for very long. I just want to reiterate the Premier’s words, this is a last resort. It’s not the first resort, it’s the last resort. But it really is a way that Centrelink can work in cooperation with the Principal, sit down with the parents and figure out a proper attendance plan, figure out what it is that needs to be done to get those children to school.

JOURNALIST: What sort of improvement have you seen in the Northern Territory? You talked about some improvement, any data, any statistical evidence?

JENNY MACKLIN: The enrolment, well we’re only talking about six communities so as with the Queensland trial we’re trialling it in a small number of locations in the Northern Territory so I, preface my remarks with that. But in the areas where we have commenced the trial there is now as I’m advised 97% enrolment, and the attendance figures vary. There has been some improvement, then some dropping away, so you can see why it’s important for us to keep focussed with these parents.

JOURNALIST: So you can’t say how many more kids are going to school because of this threat?

JENNY MACKLIN: Not at this point I can’t. And I think that demonstrates that with some parents we are dealing with chronic either non attendance in some cases or occasional attendance, and then a drop away so…..

JOURNALIST: So how can you say that it’s working up there?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well this is a trial. That’s why we’re doing exactly what we doing and of course……..

JOURNALIST: But you’re using the Northern Territory as an example of why this is necessary, you’ve said that there is some improvement but you’ve got nothing to back that up?

JENNY MACKLIN: It’s been in operation for about six months in the Northern Territory. It’s just about to start here. The whole purpose of the trial is to measure its effect……

JOURNALIST: But you said it’s been so good in the Northern Territory that there had been some improvement……

JENNY MACKLIN: I didn’t actually ….

JOURNALIST: You can hardly trumpet the Northern Territory is a success if it hasn’t been going for long?

JENNY MACKLIN: I don’t think you should put words into my mouth. What I said was we have some figures from the Northern Territory. I’ll let you know how it was going, but it is still very early days.

JOURNALIST: It’s only in State schools here, why not the private sector as well?

ANNA BLIGH: There will be discussions with private schools that are in that district. Ultimately that is a matter for those schools. What is required from the school end is simply that they collect the attendance data and they share it with Centrelink, and Centrelink will then work with the school and the family to get those children to school. Ultimately the decision by non State schools is a matter for them.

JOURNALIST: Is there (inaudible) before action is taken?

ANNA BLIGH: Look it’s not an artificial number. Obviously the schools know when they’ve got children who are absent regularly without reasonable cause. There are many good reasons why children sometimes can’t be at school that relate to health and other things that aren’t avoidable for every family and of course that will be taken into account. But schools become very aware very quickly of children who are simply not at school because parents don’t believe that it’s important for them to be there and they’re the families that will be targeted.

JOURNALIST: Is there an age bracket in this trial…… (inaudible)

ANNA BLIGH: This trial will go across all years of schooling but what we require of parents is that they demonstrate that they take all reasonable steps to get their children to school. And of course we understand that for some parents dealing with unruly teenagers is very very difficult and of course that will be taken into account in judging what is a reasonable effort by the parents. But I fully expect to have much better success with much younger children and getting those early foundations of school being important is, I think, critical.

JOURNALIST: How much is the trial costing?

JENNY MACKLIN: The total cost is just over $20million over three years, so some of that was allocated in the 2008-09 Budget and there was a little bit extra in the 2009-10 Federal Budget.

JOURNALIST: How long is the trial here for?

JENNY MACKLIN: The trial here will be for, it will start on the attendance front in the fourth term this year, and then the enrolment date (inaudible) in the first term of next year and will go for the whole of next year.

JOURNALIST: Mr Sawbridge, are you expecting local opposition to this plan?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: We will be working very carefully with the local community and our families to ensure that they understand that we’re together on this.

JOURNALIST: What’s truancy like in your school?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: At this time we aren’t dealing with any chronic attendance problems but we have done in the past. In 2008 our attendance was just under 90%, 89%.

JOURNALIST: So how do you deal with the parents then? Do you have a three strikes and you’re out policy or how will you get to the last resort stage?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: Well our teachers mark the roles twice a day very vigorously. If on the third day we don’t have any explanation of why a child is absent we follow that up with phone calls, and I make those phone calls being the Principal, and then if there’s no response from parents we only follow departmental processes to get those parents to respond.

JOURNALIST: You say you’ve had problems with truancy in the past yet you’ve been able to fix that without this trial being in place, how much difference then will this trial make, and is it therefore not really necessary to do it , if you use means such as your school takes?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: Well the chronic attendance problems I’ve experienced this year is not necessarily ………………(inaudible)

JOURNALIST: If payment is suspended, what would it then take to start back up, does it take one day back, when does it kick in again, does it take weeks on end before they can get it again?

JENNY MACKLIN: Centrelink are very good at putting people back on to their payments, and we’ve made it clear that they’ll be backdated to the day at which they had their payments suspended. So, once again, it would be a matter of working, I’m just responding to the earlier question about the three strikes and you’re out. There won’t be anything as cut and dry as it’s really a matter of working with the Principal, working with the parents. Once we can see that they’re serious about getting their kids back to school, we’re not going for a one-size-fits-all approach. If the parents indicate they are serious about getting their kids back at school then we’ll obviously make sure they go back on to their payments.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the suspension period is thirteen weeks so…?

JENNY MACKLIN: So that’s only, that’s the maximum. So it’s really important to emphasise that is only the maximum. Personally, I think it’s much more likely that parents, if this is used as a last resort, that parents will respond quickly and it won’t go to the maximum level of suspension.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) if they don’t respond after thirteen weeks?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think it’s highly unlikely that that will happen. I think it’s much more likely that parents will understand that they have to take their responsibility seriously and that’s what we intend to pursue.

JOURNALIST: But at the end of that thirteen week period of stopping payments will they theoretically ride it out?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as I’ve just said I don’t expect that to happen. I think we could go through a whole range of theoretical possibilities. I don’t think that will happen. I think what will happen is that we’ll sit down with the parents, they’ll understand their responsibilities and if we have to have a temporary suspension, it will be for a relatively short time.

JOURNALIST: But if a parent did choose to ride it out ….

JENNY MACKLIN: I’m not going to go through all the hypotheticals……

JOURNALIST: That is an option Minister……

JENNY MACKLIN: These are all options but of course you’ve got to talk in realities not in hypotheticals ……

JOURNALIST: But you’re the one who put a maximum timeframe on it. So what happens after thirteen weeks if they still aren’t in school?

JENNY MACKLIN: Then it will role over and start again. We understand how important it is to get parents to get their kids to go to school.

JOURNALIST: So they won’t start getting paid again?

JENNY MACKLIN: No they won’t.

JOURNALIST: Is there a scenario where children will miss out on the essentials of life because their parents aren’t getting their Centrelink payments?

JENNY MACKLIN: Their parents should make sure that they go to school. That’s an essential of life.

JOURNALIST: Even the most severe cases when you’re dealing with people who may be drug addicts or alcoholics, will Centrelink or the school physically go to the homes of these families and speak to these parents, who presumably they’ve either (inaudible) or struggled to get to an interview?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think you’ll find that a lot of Principals already do that, already engage very very closely with their parents and when there are difficulties of the type that you’ve just described the whole purpose is to help resolve those difficulties. We’re talking about situations where parents won’t take their responsibilities seriously. Where there are issues that need to be attended to of the type that you’ve just set out, of course what we want to do is work with the school, and make sure that we do everything to help those parents get their kids to school.

JOURNALIST: So in that instance will it be the Principal that will go perhaps to a parent’s house. Is there a structure for them when this happens that Centrelink will know what to do?

MICHAEL SAWBRIDGE: (inaudible) for parents who aren’t responding to phone calls.

JOURNALIST: Will Centrelink be visiting homes to ensure …..

JENNY MACKLIN: Look these are individual circumstances that we would need to work out with the school. It is very likely that the school will have the relationship with parents so we will be very much taking their advice.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

JENNY MACKLIN: Not by Centrelink, no.

ANNA BLIGH: But it is actually against the law not to send your children to school, and as part of this program we’ll certainly be looking at those people who consistently refuse to send their children to school. I have to say that these sorts of things haven’t proved to be much of a deterrent to some parents in the past so the combination of legal action for them failing their duty with the possible suspension of their welfare payments, we hope will focus their attention on this much more seriously.

JOURNALIST: What sort of additional resources will go to schools and Principals to help them carry out these new requirements?

ANNA BLIGH: What’s required of our schools as part of this trial is firstly that classroom teachers do exactly as they do now and they just keep good attendance records, and that Principals will be the point of contact with Centrelink. What Centrelink will have at their disposal as part of this trial will sometimes warn case officers to work with that family. So this will see a real combination of State Government agencies through education, with Federal agencies through Centrelink, putting in many cases, case workers and social workers in touch with some of these families.

JOURNALIST: Is communication going to be going out to families if it starts next term?

JENNY MACKLIN: Certainly in the way they’ve done it in the Northern Territory. We’ve had Centrelink contacting parents and in this case we’ve got around 2,000 parents who will be contacted, who will be told about it and in the case of the Northern Territory at least, we then had meetings with the different communities to talk about the implications. And then of course the school will kick in because they won’t need to work with every single one of these parents, many of them will be doing the right thing by their kids. The school will then be able to meet individually with the parents and talk to them about this new trial.

JOURNALIST: Are all these 2,000 parents, their kids aren’t readily attending school at the moment?

ANNA BLIGH: No, no, that’s the number of parents……

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s the point I’m making.

ANNA BLIGH: That’s the number of parents in this district who are currently receiving Centrelink payments by way of family payments.

JOURNALIST: And on any one day do you have statistics as to how many Queensland children who aren’t going to school?

ANNA BLIGH: Well you can access it at the end of term. You can look at it in every school what percentage of attendance they’ve had on average over the term. The school can tell you on a daily basis, yes.

JOURNALIST: How many children will there be out of 2,000 parents?

ANNA BLIGH: There will be many many parents who are receiving Centrelink payments in this district for whom this will mean no difference whatsoever because they are doing the right thing every day sending their children to school. It’s those parents who are failing in that fundamental duty who we will be looking to work with and make it clear just how important school attendance is.

JOURNALIST: How many are failing?

ANNA BLIGH: Well it’s different in every school at every time, and the point, I think one of the other really powerful points about what we’re doing here even though it’s in a limited area, the point that the Principal made earlier. Many of these families are very mobile, they will take their children out of a school when a school really starts to put pressure on them about attendance and simply move to another school and then the process starts all over again. In this case, Centrelink will be the single point of reference that we (inaudible)

JOURNALIST: The total of this area is 2,000 parents (inaudible) how many can we assume are not sending their children to school ……..

ANNA BLIGH: We don’t make any assumption about that. What we know is that where are (inaudible) experiencing chronic counselling and lower than State average attendance. We haven’t in the past cross referenced which ones of those are on Centrelink payments because the two levels of Government have worked separately. What this does for the first time is bring that together.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) could this program be extended to all (inaudible) Australians?

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s why we’re doing it as a trial and doing it in two jurisdictions here in Queensland now and in some parts of the Northern Territory. And once we have the data from the trials we’ll be able to see whether or not it has been effective. And what it does demonstrate is that together we are prepared to try new ideas to address the problems of chronic truancy where children are not attending school on a regular basis.

JOURNALIST: So you are saying if the trial does work …….

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ll do the trial and look at the results. That’s the purpose of the trial. But what it does demonstrate is that we want to try some pretty tough measures to see whether or not this will work to improve attendance in schools.

JOURNALIST: So theoretically it could be no one on Centrelink payments that these children don’t attend school but you don’t know who they are (inaudible)

ANNA BLIGH: Hypothetically, that is theoretically possible but we know anecdotally from Principals that that is very unlikely. Really what we’ve got is two different levels of Government, two Government agencies, the Education Department and Centrelink, who have kept their own data and never shared it. What we will do here is share that information for the first time.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) some parents will lose their children?

ANNA BLIGH: Only in circumstances where there was an assessment that the child was in serious harm or threat. So some of the hypotheticals that people were putting before, I would suggest might move from an attendance issue to a child protection issue but only in extreme cases.