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Estimates Reply – Deputy Premier Rockliff

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Tags: Mental Health, Education, Climate Change

Dr WOODRUFF - I want to speak to a number of matters in Mr Rockliff's various portfolios, particularly Mental Health and Education. I was asking questions of the minister in the Education portfolio on behalf of the Leader of the Greens who has our education portfolio responsibilities. There is an intersection between Education and many other portfolio responsibilities of this Government, not least that of Mental Health and Wellbeing that the minister also holds.

It was a quite pleasurable Estimates briefing with Mr Rockliff because he treats matters seriously and answers questions respectfully. That is a highlight in this Government.

Ms O'Connor - Certainly notable.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is notably different. I want to particularly mention the conversation we had about adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which was an issue that had been raised with me by a number of constituents who were concerned at the lack of diagnostic criteria national guidelines, the lack of services, and the lack of public understanding of adult ADHD in Tasmania. I was gratified on their behalf and everyone with adult ADHD in Tasmania that the minister took that matter seriously and has guaranteed to examine the material which my staff have either sent or will be sending him very shortly. I thank you for that and we will continue to have conversations about this matter in the future.

Returning to the serious issue of the response to the climate emergency, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on young children in Tasmania, there is no doubt that primary school, high school and college students are hugely affected by the COVID 19 pandemic. Although Tasmania has been relatively buffered compared to other states in Australia in terms of the impact on schooling, certainly compared to Victoria where students were required to be at home with parents for months and for a second time, there is no doubt that children in Tasmania are hugely affected.

The recent information reported today from the Australian Association of Primary Principals is that across Australia high anxiety is fueling childhood depression and teenage suicides. There has been an increase across Australia since the start of the pandemic and schools have also seen a rise in bullying and truancy. They say even primary school children are now increasingly harming themselves.

I do not have the statistics for Tasmania. The minister would know more about that than I do but clearly there is a trend and we must be having some additional impacts in Tasmania. It is not just how children respond to crises but it is how their parents are responding at home. One in seven primary school children has a diagnosed mental illness and the leading cause of death amongst 15 to 24-year-olds is suicide. Four per cent of children have a prescription medication for anxiety or antidepressants.

It is concerning that the Government did not prioritise funding towards additional school psychologists and school social workers. There was not substantial extra funding in the Budget for that. It is the case that children may be able to access support through their parents at home, but clearly if there is an issue at home, the school has to be a safer place for children to have those conversations, for children to talk about bullying and trauma, and the complexity of what is happening at home and how that might impact on how they are experiencing it.

The Greens' alternative Budget prioritised substantial extra money for social workers and school psychologists. It can be done, it can be prioritised, and that is a huge gap in this Budget.

The other huge gap in Education is around speech pathology. The minister did not disagree. I asked him a number of times to confirm whether the Australian Education Union in Tasmania's figures for the recommended number of school speech pathologists should be a ratio of 1:500 students. AEU Tasmania says that Tasmania has a 1:1250 ratio. Clearly, more than double the number of students to one speech pathologist. The Government has refused to put money into this, despite the fact we have seen some concerning trends of literacy rates trending downward amongst early childhood years and in the seven to nine-year-olds. That needs an investment in speech pathologists.

I recognise that the Education department has put resourcing across the school system, and I understand the idea of spreading it in many different ways, but there is a specific expertise that only speech pathologists can provide. It is really important that more money should be put into that, given all the other problems that children are facing.

In relation to school psychologists, climate anxiety is an emerging and increasingly huge issue for young people. I raised Mission Australia's survey, the fact that 44 per cent of children in Tasmania have ranked the environment as the most important issue in their lives, and that is up 15 per cent from two years ago - clearly, a huge trend in increasing anxiety and depression amongst young children. We have to support them in the school system.

I want to comment on the matter to do with the eating disorder clinic, which the Greens have been strongly advocating for on behalf of all people in Tasmania who need a standalone specific facility dedicated to managing issues for people with eating disorders. That has been funded in the Budget. We had a long conversation about the step-up, step-down facilities, and where they are distributed around the state, to make sure it is not only focused in the south, but we also have services in the north and north-west. We will keep asking questions. I am satisfied that the information looks as though these things are rolling out, but the devil is always in the detail.

Given the Greens only have two questions in a rotation in Estimates time, it is very hard to get right to bottom of these matters. It is clear there is some goodwill to progress that matter as quickly as possible.

The other issue I wanted to mention is the co-ed schools of New Town and Ogilvie. We remain concerned that the Government is continuing to progress a one-size-fits-all, despite what the minister says. He got as close as he has come in previous Estimates to basically saying that Taroona High School will most likely not be pushed to go to years 11 and 12. On behalf of the community of students past, present and future, both at Taroona High School and Hobart College - and Elizabeth College and the other colleges - I really hope that the minister does not mess up what are already outstanding institutions providing very high-quality support and material to their students.

Forcing Taroona High School to go to years 11 and 12 would fundamentally break the quality of the education at that school. They cannot put more facilities onsite. The footprint is already massively oversubscribed. There are amazing connections already with Hobart College, which is just up the hill. There is no reason not to enhance those connections, put more effort into making that relationship strong between Taroona high school and Hobart College, and I really hope the Government looks to doing that.