I am delighted to rise and make a contribution on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership) Bill 2021. I have to say it was pretty exciting to hear the news that this is going to be established, a teaching academy. It was only earlier this year, when speaking on a reform bill in this Parliament, that I called on the government to establish a Bastow Institute in Shepparton as part of the education plan, not knowing of course, as no doubt the government knew then, that they were working hard on putting together this announcement.
So the Victorian state government has now announced this new authority, which will deliver a new Australian-first program of advanced professional learning for high-performing teachers in government, Catholic and independent schools, and the academy is to begin its operations next year. I am incredibly pleased with the regional component of this and the fact that so many regional areas are included in it. Back when I was calling for a Bastow Institute of teaching leadership to be located in Shepparton, it was with a view of ‘Let’s just have something in regional Victoria, let’s have one institute such as this, even if it’s a branch of the institute located in Melbourne’. Here we see that there will be regional centres located in Bairnsdale, Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Mildura, Moe and Shepparton.
Of course to have this happening in Shepparton is just an excellent thing, given that we are in the midst of probably the greatest educational reform that our region has ever seen, with the Shepparton Education Plan and the first stage of that being the combining of the four secondary colleges into one school, Greater Shepparton Secondary College. While the transition has been taking place last year and this year and facing many challenges, at the start of next year all of those students will move into a purpose-built new school that it is just outstanding to see being built. The facilities inside it, the structure of it, will just be extraordinary for the students and teachers who go into that.
Already visits are happening on a regular basis, with student walk-throughs and teachers going through it and just saying, ‘Look, we’re blown away by it’. It is great to see that positivity and the fact that just last year $120 million was in the early budget of 2020 to facilitate the building of that. And of course throughout the COVID period that building has just been able to continue to be built, such that we are now seeing on the site of the Greater Shepparton Secondary College, on the old Shepparton High School site, the new college.
It is certainly the talk of the town, and I can say that education has never in our community been discussed in the way that it has been over recent years. The spotlight on what was happening in our region and the need for educational reform was being overlooked and it was overlooked for many years. I am pleased to say that when the Shepparton Education Plan was announced in 2017 it was on the back of strong advocacy from our community and concern about the falling enrolments, falling attendances and lack of aspiration and outcomes for young children. I think for all students we need to understand that they need to leave school with a pathway. Whether that is university, TAFE, apprenticeships, whatever, they need to have a pathway when they leave school. We were finding that that was not the case: many flexible learning centres, young people just going to a school for a few hours each week, absolutely being lost to the system. So this is an opportunity to really turn that around, and if kids see something as fantastic as this new building is, they will realise that they are valued and that someone cares about them and that they are deserving of a good education.
But it is not just about buildings, and I think that is what this bill really recognises so strongly. It is about what happens inside them. To give teachers who live in regional areas the opportunity to undergo that level of professional development—that they had been crying out for—in their home communities is so important. All professionals in regional communities struggle with access to the professional development, attending conferences, all those sorts of things that are so critical to staying up-to-date and delivering the best and the latest, whether it is medical, nursing, teaching, legal—you name it—there are all of these requirements for professional learning, but sometimes it is incredibly arduous to access them and to feel like you are getting what you need. I can honestly say that in every professional development opportunity that I have ever taken in my life I have always come away with something, learned something. Even if it was the worst conference I had ever been to, it is fair to say you do always pick up something or network with someone that allows you to bring back something new to your community and help them through it.
Shepparton has high levels of disadvantage; it is no secret. We also have the largest Indigenous population outside of Melbourne in Shepparton and Mooroopna, and we have seen that they have not been achieving the outcomes that they want for their community or that indeed anyone should think is suitable. We also have a really diverse multicultural community, and it is almost a new community in a way, because back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s we saw different groups of refugees or migrants coming to our community and being absorbed into the community. In more recent decades we have had people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, multiple African countries, many Middle Eastern countries and, very much more recently, Afghanistan. To see what is happening there at the moment and to hear from our local community members of their concerns for what is happening in their home countries is really quite devastating, but they all have children who are desperate to access education and want the opportunity to get an education.
This change that is happening, there is no doubt, has been very challenging, and there has been a group of very concerned parents, very angry parents, and very volatile and vocal opposition in some quarters to it. But I am pleased to say that by far the majority of the community of teachers and principals have worked so hard throughout this period to ensure that the change that is taking place will facilitate these children and give them the chance they need to get an education.
One of the outcomes in regional areas and in our region was the lack of young people going on to tertiary education. That is starting to change. Just recently, with the building of the new fish hatchery in Shepparton, the TAFE college in Shepparton is now offering courses to young people as they are leaving school to actually engage in a whole range of occupations around what will be an opportunity at the new fish hatchery just outside of Shepparton. So it is also a case of looking at what you have got in your area, developing on that and offering careers and opportunities for young people as they go forward. We want young people to be able to access that level of education within their own communities.
In the few moments I have left I think it is just important to say that part of the work of the Shepparton Education Plan must be to look at what services will be provided for young people in our schools who are on the spectrum or have variable learning capacities. At the moment they are being overlooked. They are not getting the resources that they need to enable them to find a way forward in their lives. Not only that, they often hold back mainstream classrooms and they often exhibit behavioural issues as a result of them not being engaged in the classroom, so I am working very hard with the government to try and advocate for a much better opportunity for those young people in our community.
For our teachers, being able to access this sort of teaching excellence opportunity will be greatly welcomed by them, and I am just so supportive of the fact this is going to be also available in Shepparton. It is a huge investment that we have had in our community in education, and while it has been challenging for our community, its success will absolutely depend on our community and every part of our community. I can see the change happening. I can see that, while it has been politicised, the understanding that young people need opportunity and need education is there.