Motion: Homeschooling | Sue Pennicuik

Motion: Homeschooling

I am rising to speak on behalf of the Greens on motion 448, which was moved by Mrs Peulich, to disallow certain parts of the Education and Training Reform Regulations 2017.
Wednesday, August 23, 2017 - 12:00pm
Sue Pennicuik

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — I am rising to speak on behalf of the Greens on motion 448, which was moved by Mrs Peulich, to disallow certain parts of the Education and Training Reform Regulations 2017. Like many members, I have received much correspondence on this issue over the past few months — at least six months, possibly more. I would like to thank everyone who has written to me and say that I have read all of the emails I have received from people who have written to me — and some of them have written more than once. I would like to thank the people I have spoken to, both in person and over the phone, on this issue, and thank the representatives of the Home Education Network that I met with a little while ago.

The Greens' education policy includes support for homeschooling options for parents to educate their children at home, if they meet the requirements to provide a balanced education, core educational outcomes and social interaction with their peers. I have given a lot of time to this issue. As I said, I have read all the emails and considered the issues raised. I have read the regulatory impact statement that was prepared with regard to the regulations, as is required for all reviews of regulations as they sunset after 10 years. I have also compared the previous regulations with the new 2017 regulations, and I have also looked at the regulation of homeschooling in the other states and territories. So I have spent a lot of time on the issue.

I understand that, as has been raised by previous speakers, a certain percentage — I think 15 per cent was mentioned — of children who are being homeschooled have been pulled out of school as a result of bullying or other abuse that they have experienced at school, and it is very, very concerning if that is the reason. That gives parents a role that perhaps they were not necessarily looking for — to educate their children at home. As Ms Bath has said, it is a big undertaking to educate your children at home, particularly over a number of years.

Of course there is also a large number of parents who choose to homeschool their children in any case — not as a result of something that may happened to the child at school but as a proactive decision that they have made. I personally know many parents who are homeschooling their children, and I know many people who have been homeschooled. I acknowledge as well the point made by Dr Carling-Jenkins, that the outcomes of homeschooling in terms of the achievements by children who have been homeschooled are very good — in most cases, not all cases.

I think it is imperative to say at the start of my contribution that while it is important to acknowledge and support the rights of parents to homeschool, it is also important to ensure that the best interests of the child are always at the forefront. Unfortunately there have been reports — and Ms Symes went through some of those — with regard to a minority of parents who may not be doing the right thing in the education of their children. So it is important that there are regulations in place to make sure that the minority of parents who are not doing the right thing with regard to homeschooling, resulting in their children not getting the outcomes that we all wish to see from homeschooling, are under the oversight of the Department of Education and Training.

We have a system in Victoria and in other states of Australia where education is compulsory. Under section 2.1.1 of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 it is compulsory for students to be either registered at a school or registered for homeschooling. It is compulsory that education is occurring in either of those settings. Also under the act a parent of a child of compulsory school age must not, without a reasonable excuse, fail to comply with that section — that is, to compulsorily register at a school or for homeschooling. There are a number of reasonable excuses under section 2.1.3, including section 2.1.3(fa):

the parent of the child has provided another excuse —

other than the other excuses that are set out under this section —

for the failure and the principal of the school accepts the excuse as a reasonable excuse …

The principal must ensure that record in writing is made of the reason, if any, given by the parent.

This is an issue that has been raised with me in correspondence I have received in relation to parents whose children may be subject to bullying or other discriminatory actions or abuse at school or who are having other difficulties at school. The concern that has been raised with me is that the regulations would not allow a student to not attend a school.

It is clear under the act that students must be enrolled and attend school unless there is a reasonable excuse. That is in the act; the act has primacy over the regulations. Even if certain parts of the regulations are disallowed, what is in the act will still prevail. The regulations are merely ways to operationalise what is in the act. There has been no change to the act that requires that all children of a compulsory age must be enrolled in a school or registered for homeschooling. The proposed regulations do not prevent a student from being removed from school or impose any new requirement on homeschool families. The change to this process is that the period for considering an application for homeschooling has been extended from 14 days under the previous regulations to 28 days to allow the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) sufficient time to assess an application that includes a learning plan, which I will go to in a moment. It is anticipated that the majority of those will not take 28 days to be assessed.

As is currently the case, it is understood that there may be situations where a parent would like to remove their child from school prior to receiving approval for homeschooling. This may be for reasons such as illness, stress, bullying or other difficulties. In this situation a parent could contact the principal to discuss the situation. In these cases the child can be excused from school and homeschooling can start immediately while registration is taking place. Principals are aware of their responsibilities in ensuring that in the case of a 'reasonable excuse' from parents, a child can be excused from attending a school for a period of time.

If a parent decides the child would benefit from a homeschooling environment, the parent should contact the VRQA and start to prepare a registration application and a learning plan. The VRQA will need a number of days to review the application to ensure that it contains all the necessary information, and to assess the learning plan. For some applications the registration process will be quick and for others it may take longer. This is information that people will already, I think, be aware of, but it is important to put on the record.

During this interim period the child of compulsory school age must remain enrolled at the school. If the parent chooses, the child's school may be able to support the parent and child during this time by providing materials, homework or guidance. Once the VRQA has assessed the application as suitable, the child will be registered for homeschooling.

It is important to note that where a parent requests their child be excused from attendance at school and discussions with the principal have not led to a resolution, the department has a comprehensive parent complaint policy that provides mechanisms for complaints relating to schools and principals to be addressed by the regional office, or the central office, as appropriate. If the department cannot deal satisfactorily with a complaint the parent could contact the Independent Office for School Dispute Resolution for assistance.

These processes for providing the principal with a reasonable excuse for the removal of a student from school have always been in place and they do not just apply to homeschooling. They would apply to a parent wanting to remove a student from a school for those reasons but not necessarily going on to embark upon homeschooling. It is a general application. It applies to any parent who wishes to excuse their child from attendance at school for any of these reasons, and that is set out in the act.

In terms of homeschooling, with the change from 14 days to 28 days to allow the VRQA to assess the learning plan, that is the change that has come in under these regulations. But I note that the particular regulation which refers to the 28-day period is in fact not going to be disallowed under this disallowance motion; it will remain in the regulations under the disallowance motion put forward by Mrs Peulich. Regulation 74 regarding the application for registration of a student for homeschooling and the 28-day period will remain in the new regulations under Mrs Peulich's disallowance motion.

I should say too that after I had received all the emails, spoken to a number of people and met with the Home Educators Network I wrote to the minister about the issues with the plan, with the 28 days and with regard to research et cetera and I received some response to that outlining what the requirements of the education plan will be. I know that it is a key concern of many in the home education community that this really is the main new requirement under the regulations.

Before I go into why I think it is not an onerous requirement that is being put into the new Victorian regulations I just want to go to the role of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, something which has also been raised with me by a number of correspondents. They have raised to varying degrees issues about the role of the VRQA in homeschooling, with some correspondents even questioning whether the VRQA has any role in homeschooling. However, it is important to put on record that under section 4.2.2 of the Education and Training Reform Act relating to the authority, one of the functions of the authority is to register students for homeschooling. That, as I said, is the role of the authority under the act.

Also under section 4.2.2 of the act relating to the role of the authority, the authority also has a role to exercise its powers to ensure that minimum standards are maintained by providers and organisations it has registered — that is, schools.

Mrs Peulich made the assertion that the VRQA does not require minimum standards of schools, but it does under the act and it is required to under the act.

In that same section, subparagraph 4.2.2(g) states that the authority must ensure minimum standards are maintained by schools and in homeschooling, so that —

Mrs Peulich — What are the minimum standards? Where is that defined?

Ms PENNICUIK — In the regulations. Section 4.3.9 of division 2 of the act states:

(1)   The Authority may—

(a)    register a student for home schooling in accordance with the regulations; and

(b)   cancel the registration of a student for home schooling if—

(i)    the parents of the student or the student refuse permission to authorised officers of the Authority to review the educational program, material or other records used for or related to the home schooling of the student to determine whether the requirements of the registration or the regulations relating to home schooling are being complied with; or

(ii)   the parents or the student fail to comply with the requirements of the registration or any regulations relating to home schooling.

I say that because even if regulations are disallowed, the authority still has the power to do these things under the act. The act is not being changed.

I turn to the issue of the education plan, which I have received a lot of correspondence on. Many people have been very concerned about it. As I said earlier, I have looked at the requirements in other states with regard to the provision of a program or a plan under their regulations, and, as has been mentioned by Ms Symes, Victoria is the only state that does not require some sort of education learning plan to be provided by parents who are homeschooling.

The proposed regulations will introduce a requirement for parents to provide a one-off plan and to provide in that plan what type of materials they will be using and how they will comply with the eight learning areas. But in the case of Victoria the learning plan is intended to be a flexible document tailored to the needs of the child. It does not need to contain a day-to-day lesson plan. It is a framework for the first 12 months of schooling. Unlike in other jurisdictions, there is no requirement to follow any particular curriculum or methodology as long as the plan addresses the eight key learning areas: English, maths, sciences, humanities and social sciences, the arts, languages, health and physical education and information and communications technology. The purpose of requiring parents to submit learning plans is to ensure the quality education of the child while maintaining flexibility for parents throughout the child's education.

I know flexibility in the way homeschooling is carried out is very important to the homeschooling community, and we support that. I do not see how the provision of this outline or framework is going to be an onerous requirement. As I said, it is required in every other state and territory. In many other states and territories the requirements are much more rigorous and onerous than even the new requirements in Victoria. For example, in the ACT, Northern Territory and Western Australia the learning and education plans are assessed during home visits. Home visit assessments occur in every state except Queensland and will not occur in Victoria, even under the new regulations. For example, in WA parents have to demonstrate that the program and the child's learning achievements are satisfactory within the first three months of providing the plan.

The Greens are not going to be able to support the disallowance motion. As I have outlined, we do not believe the regulations are going to be onerous. There will be, as Ms Symes has outlined, an advisory group made up of homeschooling and Home Education Network representatives — elected by them — who will be able to be very intimately involved in how this works out in practice. I feel that these regulations bring Victoria more into line with how homeschooling is regulated in the other states.