Private school funding linked to reopening from coronavirus lockdown attacked in Victoria

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State minister says federal education minister Dan Tehan is asking schools to ignore Victorian health advice

The Victorian education minister, James Merlino, has condemned the “completely inappropriate” decision of the federal government to link Catholic and independent schools’ funding to reopening campuses against state medical advice.

The federal minister, Dan Tehan, has written to non-government schools offering to bring forward one quarter of their funding if they reopen in term two and half their students return to classrooms by 1 June.

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World news | The Guardian

The Victorian education minister, James Merlino, has condemned the “completely inappropriate” decision of the federal government to link Catholic and independent schools’ funding to reopening campuses against state medical advice.

The federal minister, Dan Tehan, has written to non-government schools offering to bring forward one quarter of their funding if they reopen in term two and half their students return to classrooms by 1 June.

The decision prompted outrage from Independent Schools Victoria, which said it placed members in the “extraordinarily difficult and unfair position” of having to decide if they could provide a safe workplace by 1 May, the deadline to apply.

Merlino said the federal plan was “disappointing” because there was no need to link non-government schools funding to their decision to return to face-to-face teaching.

“What the federal government is doing is using funding to force non-government schools to ignore the expert medical advice of the Victorian chief health officer,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “Expert medical advice, not money, should determine whether schools open.”

Merlino said the Victorian government had a plan for a testing blitz of 100,000 people before the current state of emergency expired on 11 May and noted that “settings may change” after that date.

Guardian Australia understands the federal intervention on Wednesday was unwelcome because it attempted to enlist non-government schools into pressuring the Victorian government to back down and also because the state was working on its own plan for a phased return to face-to-face learning in public schools by 1 June.

On Wednesday the federal deputy chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, described 11 May as a “target” after which “there will be many announcements about changes in the way we’ll be living our lives and hopefully getting back to some sort of new normality living in a Covid-19-safe society”.

It is unclear how many Victorian non-government schools will apply for early funding. Merlino said that he “feels for Victorian non-government schools” but the move “won’t force our hand”.

“Every decision we’ve made has been by expert medical advice ... My expectation is the vast majority of non-government schools will continue to follow the advice.”

Merlino argued the federal intervention was inconsistent with Scott Morrison’s statement on 16 April that “if you are going to school in Victoria, there is only one person you need to listen to and that is the premier of Victoria”.

The chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, Michelle Green, said independent schools were “being used as a wedge in a policy disagreement between the federal and Victorian governments”.

“This is unfair and entirely inappropriate when what’s at stake is the health of children and their teachers,” she said.

The chief executive of the National Catholic Education Commission, Jacinta Collins, said Catholic schools “are keen to minimise the disruption on students’ education and return to classroom learning as quickly as possible” but recognised schools’ responses might vary “in response to differing local considerations and differing state health advice”.

Tehan has been publicly lobbying for all schools to return to face-to-face teaching in term two, but has been resisted by teachers’ unions, which want more physical distancing measures in school, and Victoria, which cites its own medical advice in favour of remote learning.

Since the national cabinet recognised states’ autonomy rather than a nationally consistent approach, parents have continued to be confused by a patchwork of different approaches on school closures and remote learning.

New South Wales is set to return to face-to-face teaching in week three of term two, from 11 May. Queensland will deliver education remotely until 22 May, with a re-evaluation to take place by 15 May.

On 9 April, Guardian Australia revealed Tehan had told independent school associations he would impose a new condition in effect requiring them to make classroom learning available or risk losing federal funding.

But even that direction acknowledged that schools must follow “the advice of the health or education authorities of the commonwealth or the state or territory in which the school is located”, leading to confusion particularly in Victoria.


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