Wednesday 29 April 2015

Hansard of the Legislative Council

 Second Reading


[5.00 p.m.]
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, there have been strong arguments for and against the abolition of the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority, as we have heard.  A number of concerns have been expressed over the past few weeks.  They seem to have been well answered in today's briefings.  I thank the Leader and the office for providing those briefings because they were very well placed to hear both sides of the argument.  People had the chance to express themselves.

I am going to refer to those briefings quite solidly during my presentation.  I tend to agree with the Government's argument that since the TQA's establishment in 2003 its role has changed.  Its functions have reduced as the education and training system has evolved nationally.  This is demonstrated by the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which now regulates the higher education sector, and the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which regulates vocational education and training nationally.

Things changed dramatically in 2011 when Tasmania transferred its powers in regard to vocational education and training to the Commonwealth.  I am paraphrasing from the second reading speech here, but it seems to me that the TQA has a much lesser role now than it did in the years after its establishment.  The Government states that it looked carefully into the models operating in other states and territories, and that it has had extensive consultation with all school sectors, principals, UTAS, TasTAFE and other groups and individuals.

I am no expert in education standards, but the Tasmanian Assessment, Standards and Certification model is backed by a strong argument, although not everyone is totally convinced that it is the best replacement for the TQA. 

I want to go to some of the notes that I made during the briefings this morning and highlight some of the things we heard.  We heard first of all very early this morning - in the middle of the night some would say, at 9 o'clock - professors Eleanor Ramsay and Michael Rowan and Dr Graham Burbury.  They explained they were here to present to us as private citizens, not as Education Ambassadors, which is an organisation that has developed under their guidance.

Professor Ramsay said that 'this is a watershed moment for Tasmania.  This is a chance to collaborate, for us to pause and be certain that we have the clarity in what is being developed.'  Professor Rowan made an interesting quote of Michael Field who said, 'Before we can move forward, we need to speak the unspeakables.'  It was an interesting reference.  We seem to be speaking about the unspeakables if the reference was to this particular part of our education system.

Professor Rowan said this bill is unsafe and to drop the board is unsafe, and the bill should be laid aside for an inquiry.  He said the model is likely unworkable.  He talked also about the governance, 'TASC fails the most basic test:  conflict of interest.'  We have heard quite a lot about that.  He said that in the British system they always have independent bodies. 

He also expressed concern about the Department of Education ruling over the Catholic and private schools.  I think we have seen that they have been involved in the process.  I will go on with what Professor Rowan said - 'Who supervises the CEO?'  He was quite concerned it was the minister who did that.

In 2008 there was an upgrade by TQA of the TCE and our levels dropped.  It was designed to lift our standards, but our completion rates fell.  He also expressed concern, along with Professor Ramsay, about the OH&S of the executive officer, about the disputes, the arguments, the uneven marking, calculations, cheating.  How is the system going to cover these issues for the OH&S of the EO? 

Consultations were talked about.  As people would be aware, I am a great critic of government consultations, processes.  There always seems to be disagreement that consultation was done properly.  We heard that consultation papers were given to participants, but were then taken away from the participants before they left the meeting so that they did not have a chance to take accurate information back to their base camp, whatever that might be.  They felt they really did not have that strong information to project back to the people or the organisations that they might want to relay the knowledge to.  It is not an acceptable method of getting to the heart of the problem, and it was a comment that it was a process of consent. 

The professor said he asked the question of the department's secretary, would another state put the minister in the responsible situation?  He claimed that the secretary of the department said 'no'.  I thought that was quite an interesting statement.  He also said we cannot ask a person in a department to give judgment on that organisation, suggesting the conflict of interest was there for that person in that organisation - a simple conflict of interest in respect of good governance.  There was a question from the member for Hobart, Mr Valentine, that clause 15 was of concern.  The professor thought that it was making it easy to get his way.

We heard also that he suggested that a private school principal had told him that the whole process is to run Reg Allen out of town.  That was quite an interesting statement and observation, although the school principal was not named.

There was talk from the professor about the higher percentage of students from Tasmania going interstate than other states.  We did hear later of course that a high percentage do go but they are good ones.  They go on and they do succeed.  I have always said that about Tasmanians, particularly our younger ones who go on to further education, that they do represent well, that they do seem to have had a good grounding in Tasmania, those ones that reach those high levels.  It was interesting to talk about that high percentage but I think that is a positive. 

The oversight on quality assurance is compromised because the staff will get the money from the department they are scrutinising.  That relates to the point that was made before.  There was no indication about money savings.  The lack of independence is the concern and towards the end, his final statement was why are we contemplating such a foolish idea. 

That was the presentation from those citizens, not Education Ambassadors, Professor Ramsay, Professor Rowan and Dr Graham Burbury.

We heard then from the TQA board.  I must say, Leader, it was good to have Hansard record what we heard this morning.  I am not sure -

Ms Rattray - I do not think it is back yet.

Mr Valentine - Yes, they are here.

Mr FINCH - We have the copies of it.  It was really good to make reference back to that and get them as -

Ms Rattray - I just found it.

Mr FINCH - Yes.  And to get them as quickly as we could from the office of the Leader and they came through, so we were able to use those for reference points. 

With the TQA board, we heard from Warwick Dean, who said, 'heartily pleased about funding of the states curriculum'.  The board has pointed out the deficiency to write curriculum.  Capacity has changed, and that is a good thing.  The quality of the curriculum is important and the gatekeeper needed to produce outcomes and for students to get maximum results.  He also told us about a gathering of private school people who were celebrating that curriculum was going to be funded in the new model.

The clear position was to get on and do something about education in this state.  He talked about some of the disasters that we have previously had with initiatives in the Education department.  He did not give examples, but I think we understood those disasters.  He said stop talking and get on with it. 

Bobby Courts talked about quality and standards, in conflict at times.  She thought things were open and transparent, that they are committed to their strategic plan for the TQA and recognised a deficit in poor retention.  No extra resource for course development was an issue for TQA and they have voiced these concerns and believe that an independent body should be retained, an independent body.  She said there was a substantial risk in abolishing the TQA; cost savings will not be realised; and consultation was tightly controlled - again that criticism.  And that this is the first time that anyone has asked for the board's view.  That is in conflict with what we heard from the Leader, who said that briefings were offered to the board and to individuals, and the offer was not taken up. 

Other comments were that quality assurance is lacking for the new set-up; undue influence by the secretary and the minister is possible with the change; syllabus development is supported and the independent expert governing body must be in place and they would like to be involved.  I would expect that comment from people who are committed to the betterment of education and who have been making that contribution through that opportunity with the TQA.

We heard from Professor Gail Dennett who talked about the Victorian and Queensland experience.  Mainlanders think there could be a concern about our system that might disadvantage our young people; they may have to sit an entrance exam or something similar which might disadvantage them.  That is a projection into the future of what might be.  Data collection was a concern; student data in one and info into another, and that could cause delays.  She suggested that was an enormous risk.  She said that at the moment there is 99 per cent accuracy with the data.  She said there was not a good level of curriculum expertise by teachers particularly.  That was a point, I think, that she was making - I do not know whether she meant now or in the future, probably in the future.

John Thompson made the observation that business was not represented on the board or a vocational educator.  More consideration of those who cannot achieve their TCE was something that he recommended. 

We heard from Liz Banks, who looks after curriculum and development for government schools.  She said there has been some anxiety and the new model will provide teachers' voices in a clear framework.  She said it will present opportunities for standards to remain high.  TASC is just as independent as the old model.  She has more confidence in this model than other board members.  She feels the consultation has been good and she was involved in that.  Data in the new model will be managed by people in the department, but expertise can be capitalised on. 

David Hudson said the situation is not correct, but the new framework puts the situation at risk.  Teachers teach and curriculum work is off the side of their desks.  But Liz Banks feels that support for teachers will be there with the new plan.  I have probably quoted enough from the observations that we had but we had terrific presentations from Professor Saddler and Professor Nicol from UTAS.  Also Brian McNab and others. 

I want to talk about Mike Frost who helped to set up the TQA.  He said, among other things, and I quote from the Hansard report-

It is reassuring that the proposed changes to create TASC are relying on amended existing legislation because it tells you that that legislation from the start was good and we always felt it was.  We always felt the TQA performed as we wanted it to. 

Mr Frost understandably defended the TQA and was largely critical of the proposed changes.  I quote -

When we set up the TQA we undertook over a two-and-a-half to three-year period, not a six-month period, an extensive consultation, a genuine consultation with major stakeholders both in this state and elsewhere.  That consultation included international operators and in particular the then CEO of the Victorian Qualifications Authority, Dr Dennis Gunning, an international authority on qualifications management. 

In terms of that consultation we know what we finished up with stood amongst the best in the world in comparison with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, in the work that we were aware of that has been ongoing in the European Qualifications Framework and the Victorian Qualifications Authority, or the former Victorian Qualifications Authority.  So it has worked as we planned it, as we intended it to.  That is why I say the amendment is interesting.  That it is an amendment bill to what was a pretty strong original bill. 

However, evidence from the Education secretary Colin Pettit, and Ms Leanne McLean from the office of the minister, and others, was compelling.  To quote Colin Pettit from Hansard -

You have heard a lot of emotion this morning just in the time I have been here.  It appears the emotion has overridden what we are here to do.  That is to discuss the legislation.  I would rather come back to the legislation and take the emotion out of it.  I will start by saying the only emotional bit I had and my officers had is that the sole driving force behind this change is to make sure it is better for Tasmanian kids so they can be global citizens.  Whatever you decide, that has to be at the forefront of what you do. 

I want to clarify a few things I have heard in previous conversations, following up from Leanne.  There has been nothing personal about this.  This is about making a change for a contemporary Tasmanian education system that is going to lead us for the next 20 to 25 years on a way that is really positive.  You have had a lot of data thrown at you and that data has been used to support the view that if you change it, the world is going to get worse.  That data exists because of the TQA's role for the last 10 years.  The data is about the last 10 years.  We need to put that into context. 

Mr Pettit went on to address one of Mike Frost's other criticisms -

Mike raised the issue of quality assurance all the way through.  I am sorry to take you back to the model but when we built the structure we had that at the front of our minds.  How do we make sure that the quality assurance at all levels, not just in the curriculum area, but in the accreditation area, is in-built so you and I, all of us, can say we are as good as anywhere else in Australia. 

We do that in a range of ways.  In the model we have built two structures.  On the curriculum side there is a standards officer who is independent of those eight or nine people we talked about before.  That standards officer must apply the standards of the curriculum against the development of the curriculum as it is happening.  That is about streamlining.  Making sure we are not going off on a tangent and making sure our standards are high and they are at a level we have all agreed to because these standards will be public.  On the TASC side, there is scope to have an accreditation committee.  If you remember the chart, there was a whole box of committees down here.  An accreditation committee will be part of that.

We think we have built in some very strong checks and balances to make sure that not only is the curriculum well developed, but the accreditation has some really clear measures so that it maintains the standard.

Mr Pettit also addressed the suggestion that the minister would have too much power under the amended bill.  He said -

It limits the minister's power compared to the existing legislation.  The existing TQA legislation says the minister can direct the authority to do whatever they wish it to.  This says they can only do it in line with policy that has been agreed to at a state level, which is the accreditation.  We have built in structures in here that are really strong and limit the powers of the minister in particular, but strengthen the direction of the whole organisation. 

From the second reading speech -

TASC is an independent office established by this bill.  It is constituted, as I said earlier, by the executive officer, a position that will be filled by way of merit selection and be responsible to the minister.  TASC is not subject to the control or direction of the secretary of the department in regard to the performance or exercise of its functions and powers.  Section 14 of the TQA act remains and this section explicitly establishes this independence.  The department will continue to provide corporate support to TASC in the same way as it currently does for the TQA.

I have carefully studied the arguments for retaining the TQA; they are well put and they are well meaning.  Things have moved on since 2003.  I will admit that I had a number of reservations about this bill, as others did, as the information came to us.  It was a bit like a merry-go-round ride, up and down and up and down, and cogent, strong arguments have been put forward.

We have had really good briefings from the department to balance those.  I feel that the concerns have been largely addressed in today's briefings and particularly in the responses by the officials to questions from members and with the answers by the Leader to those questions that were put forward by Professor Ramsay.

It is not all done and dusted yet and I anticipate the rest of the debate and what might be argued if we go to the Committee stage.  I have, from the start, generally supported the thrust of this bill and after today's briefings I am more confident in that support.