Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

School attendance measure


JENNY MACKLIN: Okay. Thanks everyone for coming along this morning. If I can first of all thank Cath and the school for having us here, particularly for being prepared to come in on school holidays. And if I can congratulate the school for being such an outstanding place of learning. It is terrific to be able to come to such a great school and see the opportunities that are being provided for children here at this school.

And it’s very pleasing also to be here with Mark McGowan the West Australian Minister for Education and Training, to make this very important announcement today.

Both the Federal Government and the West Australian Government understand just how critical it is that children are enrolled to school, to go to school and attend school on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it’s the case that in some instances, not all parents are making sure that their children are either enrolled to go to school or make sure that they’re attending on a regular basis. So together, both levels of government have agreed that we will start a new trail here in Cannington. It will apply to around 1000 parents and what we’re going to do is make sure for those parents who, in this area, are receiving welfare payments from the Commonwealth, that we make sure that their children are both enrolled to go to school and are attending school on a regular basis.

Parents will be required to demonstrate to Centrelink where their children are enrolled to go to school. If parents don’t do that, after some encouragement from Centrelink, then they will have their welfare payments suspended for a period of time, up to 13 weeks. Once they get their children enrolled, their payments will be backdated. Parents are also, of course, required under West Australian law to make sure that they attend school on a regular basis. We want to make sure that happens and what we’re doing today is really adding another tool to our efforts to really make sure that children do go to school.

What we’re announcing today is that parents, principals and, of course, both levels of government, will work together to improve attendance at school. Principals and parents have a responsibility to make sure that there is regular attendance. If the principal, after working with the parents, can’t get the child to attend school regularly, they can come to Centrelink and once again a parent’s welfare payments will be suspended, until the child is attending school on a regular basis.

We want to work in the first instance with parents. Principals do that on a daily basis now. We know that parents also, in many cases, are helped to get their children to school. This is just another part of the armoury to help us make sure that children do attend school on a regular basis. We have already announced this measure in six other communities in the Northern Territory, in the regional town of Katherine in the Northern Territory and a number of smaller Indigenous communities.

It’s the first time that this approach has been put in place in a suburb in a major metropolitan area in Australia and if I can thank the West Australian Government for being prepared to work with us, because of their determination, like us, to make sure that children go to school on a regular basis.

I might just ask Mark to say a few words.

MARK MCGOWAN: All right. Do you – I’ll just say a few words, then you can ask us both questions, whatever.

Right, thanks very much Jenny for that and it’s been a pleasure to work cooperatively with the Federal Government. It’s a new experience for us to have a federal government we can work with well, to achieve good outcomes for the state of Western Australia.

We’re very pleased as an education system to participate in this initiative. What this is about is about making sure that students, children, kids are at school. We want to break the cycle of welfare dependency. The best way of doing that is to make sure someone has a job. The best way of getting a job is to have an education, therefore, you have to go to school if you want to break that cycle. And this initiative is about ensuring that young people go to school.

Most parents, the vast majority of parents do the right thing, they want to do the right thing. They want to see their kids educated properly. However, there are some people that are not participating in the system, for whatever reasons, and they’re often very good reasons. But we want to make sure that their kids have the very best chances in life, by having an education. And by making sure they get to school, making sure they attend school regularly, that is the best way of dealing with this issue that is out there.

We’re trialling it in the Cannington district. We’ll see how it goes and at the conclusion of this trial, we’ll work out what the results are, but we’re prepared and keen to work with the Commonwealth to achieve outcomes in su…important area in the future.

This is a tough love approach. In a way this has been cruel to be kind to some people. But the most important thing is to make sure that young people are attending school and this initiative, we think, will be an important way of getting to that outcome.

QUESTION: What are the truancy rates in WA Mark, particularly in the Cannington area?

MARK MCGOWAN: It’s a diffi…it’s a – truancy is a different thing to non attendance. So what you have is some students who don’t attend and that might be for very good reasons in which the parents give a reason and that might be because the child is sick, because of any number of family reasons, the child might not be able to attend and those reasons might be quite legitimate for why you can’t attend school.

Truancy is where there is no reason given and there is probably no good reason why the child is not attending school. In this particular district, there’s roughly eight per cent of students, or sorry, I’ll put it this way, in this particular district, 92 per cent attendance rate is the norm and that’s roughly the state average. However, of those eight per cent who aren’t attending, many of them are sick, many of them might have parents who they’re helping to look after on a particular occasion, or siblings. They might be travelling. There might be any number of reasons. But amongst that eight per cent, some of them are not attending school for no good reason. And so they’re the ones that we are targeting. We want to make sure that those students get to school.

You can’t help it if your child is sick and there’s very – good reasons for not attending school when you’re sick, because you might spread an illness to other students in the classroom. But amongst that eight per cent of people who aren’t attending school on any given day, there are some for which there is no good reason.

QUESTION: Given that it’s a referral process, do you have the principals on side with this and are you confident that they will refer them now?

MARK MCGOWAN: Talking to?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think you’re the one.

QUESTION: Either one.

MARK MCGOWAN: Look, we will manage this centrally, so we get all the statistics coming to us from public schools about attendance levels and about who needs to enrol. Centrelink has details in that regard as well. We’ll manage this centrally. But I’m sure that principals in schools will be very happy to see that the maximum number of students attend school on any given day they can.

QUESTION: But just the process. If you could just sort of explain it. If a child isn’t attending, it’s up to the Education Department or principal? What’s the process there?

JENNY MACKLIN: The process will be in the first instance that Centrelink will require parents to indicate where their child is enrolled at school. So the first responsibility is for the parent to demonstrate that to Centrelink and we want proper evidence of enrolment.

When it comes to attendance, it really will in the first instance be an issue between the principal and the parent. Principals have that responsibility now and they carry it out very well. They – many of them put a lot of effort into trying to get non-attenders to come to school and they work with parents and with children to improve those attendance rates.

What we’re going to do with the Western Australian Education Departments – and of course the principals will need to be involved – is to make sure that they give that information to Centrelink when they feel they can’t do any more with the parents.

And then Centrelink will contact the parents and indicate that their welfare payments are going to be suspended until they get their parents – get their children attending school regularly.

QUESTION: If parents welfare payments are cut off how do you ensure that children aren’t worse off?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think that’s the responsibility of parents.

One of the principals that I spoke to in Katherine about this said to me that he knew seven parents immediately for whom this might be the trigger that would actually get the children to school.

He was working with a number of parents, getting the children to school in a cooperative way, but he had seven families in his school that he just couldn’t get to have them, get their kids coming to school on a regular basis.

We expect that this – to use Mark’s phrase – tough love approach will actually get parents to recognise that they have the responsibility, and in the end it is the parents responsibility to make sure their children attend school on a regular basis.

QUESTION: And also are you, are you punishing the parents who can ill afford to be punished?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’re, we’re making sure that children are well looked after so that they come to school on a regular basis. That’s our fundamental responsibility.

We make these welfare payments available to parents to help them care for their children. Caring for your children very much includes making sure they go to school on a regular basis, and that’s what this measure is all about.

QUESTION: Based on previous experiences, are there still some parents who ignore these requirements?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well this is the first time this has been tried.

We recognise that there are some very successful programs already operating that work with parents, where we have problems of children non-attending on a regular basis. And some of those programs do work. There’s no doubt about that.

But there are other instances where children just will not attend school, and we think that there are examples of that being, taking place where parents aren’t taking the responsibility they should be.

And, yes, it is a tough love approach but one that we think is in the interests of children.

QUESTION: Would the Federal Government look at rolling it out nationwide? Is that the plan in the end?

JENNY MACKLIN: In the first instance we’re doing it in a number of trial sites. As I mentioned we’re going to do it in the six sites in the Northern Territory; here in Cannington in Western Australia, and we’ll do it in one other metropolitan area, and we’re still discussing and finalising that place.

Of course the whole purpose of this is to do the trial, look at the impacts, see if it works, because what we can’t have in Australia is the very high levels of non-attendance taking place in some parts of Australia.

As Mark has indicated, this part of Perth is typical of other suburbs, but there are some areas in the Northern Territory for example where we have 2,000 children who aren’t even enrolled to go to school. That is just unacceptable. Those children aren’t going to get a good education if they’re not enrolled to go to school and if they don’t attend on a regular basis.

QUESTION: Mark, do schools have the resources and the support to be able to follow something like this through in terms of managing truancy and non-attendance?

MARK MCGOWAN: Schools work with families to attempt to get their, their kids to come to school. And principals, teachers, officers within the school work with families to get that sort of attendance up.

And that’s particularly the case in the country, and I’ve seen some magnificent examples of principals actually going around knocking on the doors of some families and saying, come on, out of bed, kids have to come to school today.

Those sorts of initiatives are already out there, and schools do a very good job of trying to get kids to school.

This is another part of that armoury. This initiative is another part, another way in which we can improve attendance rates.

This is all about mutual obligation. If you get welfare payments, you have an obligation to make sure that your kids come to school. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of families. The vast, vast majority of families on welfare do that. We want to make sure that they all do that.

Of all the things that might work, in relation to that small number of families that aren’t meeting their obligations, I think this has a very very high prospect of success.

QUESTION: Mark, what other areas have caught your eye in the State that this could be a, have a positive effect in?

MARK MCGOWEN: Well we’re going to trial it here in the city. It’s being trialled in the Northern Territory, which is predominantly in regional rural Northern Territory. So, it’s going to see how it works in those sorts of communities.

This is the first time in Australia that this will be trialled in a city location, with 14 schools in the, in this region. We’ll see how it works in the city as to whether it can be rolled out any further afield than just this area, and how it goes.

I have an inkling, I have a feeling that of all the initiatives that we try, with some of those families that haven’t responded to those other initiatives, this is the one that will work.

QUESTION: What’s the time line for rolling that out?


JENNY MACKLIN: We hope to have it started at the beginning of the school year next year. So, there’s been a lot of work already been put in place with the West Australian Government, there are Centrelink systems that have to also be put in place of course, so we think the best time is to start it out with the new school year next year.

QUESTION: How does this, how does this relate to the Federal Government’s approach to Indigenous Affairs, particularly the intervention in the Northern Territory?

Is this a direction that you’re heading down in terms of an overall strategy on Indigenous Affairs?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well of course we’re doing this here in Cannington and demonstrating that we take the view that all children – doesn’t matter what their background – should attend school on a regular basis.

That’s a very important principle on the part of the Federal Government and the West Australian Government.

We want children to be attending school on a regular basis. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are attending school on a regular basis.

And that’s why we’re here today.

QUESTION: It’s fair to say though, that, you know, Indigenous people are going to be probably one of the main targets of this sort of initiative, isn’t it though?

JENNY MACKLIN: Not here in Cannington. No. The whole purpose of doing it here in Cannington is to recognise that we have children from a range of backgrounds who are not attending school on a regular basis. And both here in Cannington and in the other metropolitan site that we will choose, it is to really say to parents, you have a responsibility to make sure your children attend school. We’re going to work with you to make sure that we get your kids to school, but if you don’t really come half way with us we are going to suspend your welfare payments until the children get to school.

QUESTION: Wasn’t the east Kimberley also mentioned in the Federal Budget? What’s happened to that?

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s a separate initiative. I can explain that as well if you like.

Basically, what we’re doing with, once again with the West Australian Government, and I think it is really significant that the Western Australian Government has been prepared to work with us in this way – what we’re doing, both in the Kimberley and here in Cannington, is saying that we will work in cooperation with the Western Australian child protection authorities, if the child protection authorities here in Western Australia recommend that children would benefit from their parents welfare payments being income-managed, then Centrelink will do so.

So that is about to begin, both in the Kimberley and in Cannington. But it’s a separate measure from that which we’re announcing today.