Tuesday 8 July 2008

In Committee

(Department of Education)

Output group 1
Pre-compulsory and compulsory education

1.1  In school education:
Mr WING - Mr Chairman, I was saying that I can understand how the schools who have students attending the Northern Support School would be rather naturally reluctant to part with funds that they would not wish to use in other ways to have their students go to another school.  I do not believe that should be the criterion for providing the funding for the Northern Support School.  I think the results achieved with children who have particular problems, who have attended the Northern Support School, warrant the Government providing extra funding to ensure that it is able to function to its fullest extent, as it has in the past, without any limitations or restrictions. 

During the hearing of budget Estimates Committee B, the honourable member for Rosevears read at least one letter from parents of a child or children - I think more than one -

Mr Finch - More than one, yes.  Three of them.

Mr WING - Yes.  Three parents of three children who had attended the Northern Support School, speaking of the remarkable difference in their results and their attitudes as a result of having had the specialist care at the Northern Support School. 

Mr Finch - Through you, Chair - I think it was also about the weight that had been lifted off the parents' shoulders, because the parents were at wits' end about how to best cater for the children, and the kids weren't fitting into the school system.  When they got into the Northern Support School they felt relieved that something had been done.

Mr WING - Yes, that is another element of the matter.  I was speaking about the decision being made I think as a result of funding, rather than philosophical matters and results such as those referred to by the honourable member for Rosevears, and I hope he speaks on this here.  The results have been very impressive and most important.  By attending this school, a number of young people with problems at this stage of their lives could have those problems overcome and their futures redirected.  If they are not redirected, these problem children might become involved in vandalism initially, be in the courts before very long and some of them may well be in prison in years to come. 

Apart from the calamity of their lives and the effect on their families, it is imposing extra costs on the community.  It costs a lot of money to keep people in prison and to overcome the damage done by vandalism.  Some of these children have been truants, causing problems for other children, showing no interest in their studies and having no direction.  The Northern Support School, with the specialist attention they have been receiving, has had dramatic results, as we have heard.  Those children will not be able to have the same specialist care and attention if they go back to their schools.  Certainly their schools will be better off in terms of funding to an extent that the honourable Deputy Leader will inform us of in a moment. 

It is a very serious matter and when you have a success story such as exists at the Northern Support School, why change it just because of funding?  We are not talking about vast amounts of funding.  I doubt if there would be any common view in the schools from which these children come that they are better off staying in their schools and that the other students and the staff of the schools are better off by their staying there.  They are not likely to have better results by returning to their schools than the remarkably good results they have had at the Northern Support School.  We are talking about people's lives and the future of children with problems who need specialist care.  It is a very serious matter if, through lack of funding, they are not able to continue to get that to the fullest extent that has occurred in the past.

Mrs JAMIESON - Do we have the breakdown of costs involved in having all these different case management agencies involved in one student who is in the normal school system?  As we have seen with other disabilities and home care, it is sometimes more economical and better for people not to have so many people involved in their lives.  It becomes so expensive when you have various agencies involved with one person within the normal school setting.  I am interested to know if there is any breakdown of costs.

Ms THORP - To answer the question from the honourable member for Launceston, the cost to individual schools is $3 200 per student for 2.5 to three days a week for one term.

Mr Wing - For one term?

Ms THORP - Yes, for one term.

Mr Wing - So we're looking at about $10 000 a year per school?

Ms THORP - As I was saying earlier, under the Student at the Centre reforms, it is up to the schools in consultation with their communities as to how they use their resources to access learning programs.  After this one term schools chose not to continue their support for the Northern Support School flexible programs into the future.

Mr Wing - That's understandable because of the high costs.

Ms THORP - They decided not to go ahead with it.

Mr Wing - For funding reasons?

Ms THORP - As with any budget you have a pool of money to spend and you say, 'We will try spending it on this and spending it on that'.  They spent their funds on this particular program for a term and decided it was not worth it.  Given that the students have not been abandoned at all, staff members from Learning Services North and the Northern Support School are going to work in identified schools in both terms 2 and 3 to develop and implement targeted on-site and off-site flexible programs.  The kids will therefore not be made to leave a situation which, from reports by members, obviously is working very well for them, for a completely standard, mainstream classroom setting.  That will also be monitored under the Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support program which includes extensive data collection, monitoring and reporting, so we will know the outcome.

Mr FINCH - At the invitation of the member for Launceston I will make a contribution - although I think that it has been eloquently covered - about this situation.  I am hoping for some notes to come to me, to refresh my memory about the conversation I had with three parents that resonated very strongly with me.  I could understand the plight of those parents, being for the first time in the system.  They have children who are not progressing and developing at school.  They are at their wits' ends about how to encourage their children to engage with their school work and therefore progress as other children in the class are doing.  This was obviously not the case, in the three examples I was given.  I am trying to recall the numbers; are there 200 a year who use the Northern Support School?

Mr Dean - It was quite a large number.

Mr FINCH - These were three examples from my electorate, out of the 200.  As I embraced this issue and tried to get my head around what was going on for the teachers, the schools and the children involved with the Northern Support School, I could not help but feel that here, as the member for Launceston suggested, was a success story in the Education department.  These children are off the rails, or however you want to describe their behaviour and the fact that they were not engaged in school.  Here was an opportunity to take the pressure off the parents and the school and to enable the children to develop again in the school system.  These children only left, I think, for a term and had part of a week at the Northern Support School and then returned to the school, but parents highlighted to me the change in those children.  It was dramatic and they were so thrilled that their children were able to come back into the school and not be problems after their visit to the Northern Support School. 

That has to send you a message.  It has to say to you, hang on, here we have had a problem, problem solved.  I think it is credit to the staff there and the way the place operated, obviously.  I have not been there to view it for myself, but it was obvious.  Many of the children who go there are troubled children, not getting on with their school.  I cannot think of a better plan than to take them out of the environment which is not working for them, put them into a fresh environment, with smaller numbers and closer attention.  These children came back and the parents said, 'Bang, the weight has been lifted off my shoulders because the children are now back in the system, functioning quite effectively'.  They probably have a different program back at the school and the expectations are not as high, but the children settle down, particularly in relation to their peers.  The comment I had was that they felt more accepted back into their schools. 

That is probably as much as I would like to say without the evidence that I had from the parents.  I could not help but feel that there was a success story and that it was doing the job.  To see that there was some suggestion that funding could be spent in a different way, I do not know what compelled the principals of the school to make the decision that they did.  I do not have an understanding of the imperatives when they set their budgets.  They have obviously chosen to use this money, that I suggest was being effectively spent, in another way.  At our Estimates meeting I think I said to the Premier, 'I hope that you are right with this because I would hate to think that here was a success story, something that was working, and then they decided to change for change's sake'.  I hope it was not for that.  Then for the wheels to fall off that operation not only do we have the children and their parents affected but also the staff.  Spare a thought for the staff there who, in their career development, have probably built their skills through being classroom teachers, they have been specially chosen and probably specially selected to go to the Northern Support School and here they are feeling within themselves, I would imagine, a lot of self-gratification that they are doing a job that is of worth to the school community and to society.  I think the member for Launceston was talking about where these kids go; if they are not picked up and they are not nurtured, what happens to them?  What impact do they have on our society when they develop and grow?  Are they still alienated from society?  And then of course they are into all sorts of trouble simply because of the chip on the shoulder and not fitting in.

[3.00 p.m.]
Here was a program and there was the testimony of parents that the kids fitted in better when they came back.  I was just making the point about the teachers.  They feel that they are part of that development and contribution to the community and then that has counted for zilch when the new decision has been made.  They then find themselves with the uncertainty of being disrupted in their smooth operation and now in the school system they have to find their way into a new landscape.  You might say that will be a good challenge for them to get in and have a go but, as I say, I hope they can take up the challenge and make a success of it because I would hate to reflect on this moment in time and say, 'There you are.  There was a success story that was changed for change's sake and it hasn't worked'.

Mr WING - Mr Chairman, could the honourable Deputy Leader tell us when the program began at the Northern Support School and how it was funded initially?  Is it only in recent times that the schools have been asked to provide $3 200 per term for two days a week?

Ms Thorp - Two-and-a-half or three.

Mr WING - I suspect that this program was established to deal specifically with children with problems.  I will be interested to hear when the suggestion about the $3 200 per term per child was instituted and how long after the programs began for the children with the special problems.

Ms THORP - If I can try to explain how the system works it might be helpful.  The Northern Support School provides a lot of support for what you would call probably 'high needs children' and has done for some time.  Over the past - and I am relying on my memory here - two or three years at the most, I would think, when a lot of the Student at the Centre reforms came through - and it may not even have been that long ago - a lot of money was devolved to schools.  So a group of schools in the area around the Northern Support School, if you like, faced as they were with the dilemma of some children not engaging, banded together, pooled some resources and paid, if I understand it correctly, the Northern Support School to provide a program for these kids -

Mr Dean - Because they couldn't handle them, that's right.

Ms THORP - Well, I would not use the words 'couldn't handle' but probably thought they needed more flexible learning arrangements and were not really thriving in the more traditional school model.  The schools made a decision that they would pool some of their own school resources together to set up a program which the Northern Support School would run for these students.  That is what has happened and now at the end of that term 1 of this year they made the decision that they did not want to continue it any further.  That was a school-based decision -

Mr Wing - When did it start and what was the financial contribution of each school?

Ms THORP - Each school paid $3 200 per student for 2.5 to 3 days a week

Mr Wing - Initially?

Ms THORP - For one term. 

Mr Wing - That is from the beginning of the establishment of this program?

Ms THORP - It might have been $3 100 initially but I have to go right back to the cost of decisions made by those individual schools.

Mr Wing - Through you, Mr Chairman - when was that decision made?

Ms THORP - Which one?

Mr Wing - The cluster decision.

Ms THORP - When did the cluster decide to pool their resources for the purposes of starting the course at Northern Support School?

Mr Wing - Yes.

Ms THORP - I would have to get you that information.  It is quite detailed and not at my fingertips.

Mr Wing - I am just wondering what year.

Ms THORP - I cannot give you detail that I am satisfied with.  But we are not talking of very long ago.  I came from a support service of which there are about five or six.

Mr Wing - As a teacher?

Ms THORP - As a teacher.  I also ran a school for girls with behavioural difficulties called Nangaree School so I do know this area pretty well.  There is a lot of detail to it that I could not really go into here.  But you would like to know when the cluster set-up began?

Mr Wing - Yes.

Ms THORP - When the Student at the Centre reforms occurred whereby schools pooled their money for specific programs, when the decision was made to start this specific program at the Northern Support School, and what the cost has been per student per term ever since?

Mr WING - Yes.

Ms THORP - That would satisfy you?

Mr Wing - Yes, thank you.

Ms THORP - Apart from that, that is all the detail I have.

Mr DEAN - You made the comment then that these children were not fitting into the normal school system.

Ms Thorp - I would assume there are issues.

Mr DEAN - Right.  With these children not being able to fit into the system, how will that situation change?  You have said yourself that they were not able to fit into the normal school stream.

Ms Thorp - No, you are misquoting me.

Mr DEAN - Hansard will pick it up and tell us exactly what was said.

Ms Thorp - Fine, okay.

Ms THORP - Each of the students will be picked up by the Positive Behaviour Support program which includes intensive data collection monitoring and reporting to make sure that they are cared for.

Mr FINCH - Mr Chairman, I have those stories here but I will not elongate my presentation by reading the three.  I would just like to read one and I will use initials so that I do not name anybody.  This is about a pupil at Exeter High School:

'In 2007 � was always in trouble.  He was suspended for most of 2007.  � attended the Northern Support School in the third term of last year.  Last year he wanted to leave school in the first term and felt that the teachers were ganging up on him.  � did not like authority.  Mum thought that the school was trying to get rid of trouble by sending him there.  She was very apprehensive at the start but after a few weeks the change was evident.  � did not want to attend at the start and mum was under pressure.  She had a five-year-old, three-year-old and a 21-month-old baby.  But the change was very dramatic - a total turnaround.  He grew up and the hands-on work helped.  Mixing with the disabled children at lunchtime also was a positive influence.  He has had a traineeship as a butcher but prefers the hands-on trade of a carpenter. 

� was very negative and has changed to being positive.  � now has a goal in life.  The teachers expected a change but not this dramatic.  � has settled down to grade 10 work and he now listens.  The school is very happy with him and feels there is no need for the Northern Support School this year. 

Mum says the Northern Support School has helped many more children like her son who were going down the wrong path.'

That is a solicited testimonial but it is from a parent who has had that experience.  She spoke to me in such glowing terms and high support of the Northern Support School that that is why the questions have been raised in my mind as to whether this will be a good move.  I hope I am proven wrong but I have doubts about this process and what it is going to become.

I agree with the point the honourable member for Windermere made about the school environment, that they are not enjoying it.  As we heard in that story, although it might be just in his mind, the child felt that the teachers were ganging up on him, and we have also heard that from other children.  They are not mixing and assimilating with the other children because of their own lack of life skills.  When they had a boost to their confidence and a better feeling about school and a better understanding of life from these skilled teachers, they came back to the school changed children.  As I say, I hope I am proven wrong -

Mr Wing - Unfortunately you're likely to be proven correct.  That's the tragedy of it - through sheer lack of funds.

Item agreed to.