In conversation: COVID-19 and education

Students Emily, Sonany and Michael from VicSRC’s Executive Advisory Committee talked to representatives from the Department of Education, Nick Beckingsale (Executive Director of Learning Teaching and Pathways/Acting Deputy Secretary of School Education Programs and Support) and Dr Marion Frere (Executive Director, Strategy and Integration Division, School Education Programs and Support) a couple of weeks go about how COVID-19 has impacted education in Victoria.

Watch the full video here: VicSRC Facebook



Benita: Hi everyone. My name is Benita and I’m a staff member at the Victorian Student Representative Council, the peak body for school-age students in Victoria. School has been turned completely upside down for most Victorian students over the last couple of months thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ve had tons of questions from students about what is going to happen next. So we’ve recently learned that there will be a staged return to face-to-face education for most Victorian students over the next few weeks, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the rest of 2020 will look like for students in Victoria. So I’m really excited to be joined virtually here today by some students from VicSRC’s Executive Advisory Committee and a couple of people from the Department of Education and Training to have a chat about what the rest of the year is going to look like and try and answer some of the questions we’ve been hearing from students. So before we kick off, I’m just going to get everyone to introduce themselves really briefly and I’ll start with you Emily.


Emily: Hi everyone. I’m a year 12 student at Bendigo Senior Secondary College. And I am also a co-chair member of the Student Executive Advisory Committee.


Benita: Michael?


Michael: Hello. I’m Michael, as Benita said. I’m a year 12 student that goes to Suzanne Cory High School and I’m a part of the Executive Committee for VicSRC.


Benita: Sonany.


Sonany: My name is Sonany. I go to Catholic Regional College St Albans and I’m in year 10.


Benita: And Marion.


Marion: Hi everyone. My name’s Marion and I work in the Department of Education and Training. And one of the best bits of my job is that I’m responsible for working with our partners like VicSRC and making sure we do the best that we can to work together to achieve greater outcomes for students.


Benita: And finally, Nick.


Nick: Thanks Benita. Hi everyone. I’m Nick Beckingsale. I’m normally the Executive Director of a part of the Department called Learning Teaching and Pathways, which covers curriculum and assessment and vocational education and training and pathways and a range of programs and policy around that. But at the moment I’m Acting Deputy Secretary of School Education Programs and Support, which is a fairly large part of the Department. And I think it’s in that capacity that I’m involved in this conversation. So it’s nice to join you all.


Benita: Great, thank you so much for joining us. The group of students we have heard the most from over the last couple of months is students who are in year 11 and 12 and who are worried about what’s going to happen while they’re trying to finish their schooling this year. So Nick, I might just ask you first, we’ve heard from the Department of Education and Training, but the plan is for a sort of compressed exams schedule at the end of the year. Can you speak a little bit about what that might look like?


Nick: Yeah, thanks. Thanks Benita. So, I suppose the great news for you is that, if you are in year 12 this year, you will be able to sit your exams. I hope you think that’s great news. We’re luckier than some countries who would be going through their, in the Northern hemisphere, going through their exam periods at the moment. I’m aware that Ireland, for example, is cancelled its leaving certificate this year because they would be sitting it now and obviously that’s not a great time to be sitting exams. So, if you consider that good news, in Victoria you will be sitting your exams. But as the question sort of indicates, it might be a little bit different this year than in the past because the government, as you said Benita, did announce that the scheduling of VCE might be a little bit later this year, possibly December. And they also announced that the GAT would happen in October or November instead of June. And obviously if you set the exams a bit later in the year, that squeezes some of the other things that happen over the summer. The marking of the exams, the calculation of ATAR scores and so on. So there may need to be a compressed VCE exam schedule to make sure that the exams are completed, that they’re marked and that they can support the provision of an ATAR to students. It’s actually not the Department’s job to work out what a compressed examinations schedule would look like. That’s the role of the VCAA. And they do that every year, they do the examination schedule each year, and it’s a pretty complicated process because they’ve got to find, make sure that there aren’t any conflicts, for any students and that, as much as possible, students don’t have to take more than one exam a day. And if you’re doing a compressed schedule, that obviously means the exams happen over a shorter period than usual. And that makes the VCAA’s job a little bit harder to eliminate conflicts and minimize the possibility of students doing more than one exam on any day. I guess for students the compressed schedule means less time between exams on average, but obviously the compressed schedule is because of exams being a bit later and that means you get a bit more preparation time. So, in answer to your question, we don’t really know what compressed examination schedule might look like. I know the VCAA will be wanting to make some announcements about examinations scheduling as soon as possible, but I was pretty interested, particularly from perhaps Emily and Michael who are doing year 12 this year, if they had a chance to send a message to the VCAA about what to keep in mind in a compressed schedule here’s your chance to do that – what would your priorities be?


Benita: Emily, let’s start with you. Do you have a response to that?


Emily: Yeah, for sure. I think that with keeping students in mind, having a compressed schedule is going to be something that’s really challenging. Exams are typically like peak stressful moment in year 12, because it’s really like the culmination n of 12 years of that student’s education. And a lot lies on that, if you choose whatever tertiary pathway that you choose to take. So I guess a big concern would be how are they going to ensure that a student’s mental health is really factored in as well as how the adjustments are really going to align with how they have less in certain area of studies and Unit 4 guidelines and how that will factor in with the length of exams. But also now that we are returning to school in, most of us in two weeks, are we still going to be having an extended timeline? Is it going to be still shortened? Is it going to be brought forward again to a more natural timeline because we do have the opportunity to do so now.


Nick: Yeah, I think those are really interesting questions. What has happened as a result of yesterday’s announcements that there’ll be a staged return to schooling and with VCE and VCAL students being in the first group of students to go back, what it means essentially is that, it’s only been six weeks of remote learning for those students. And initially we thought it might be a lot longer. Certainly we were expecting the whole of term 2 as a real possibility and perhaps longer than that. But it is looking at the moment, and these things are hard to predict, we don’t quite know what’s going to happen with COVID-19, but if there was a resurgence, things might change. But, it is looking at the moment, if things are managed well from here and people stick with the health advice and behave properly in public places, we might have a normal semester 2, which would obviously raise the possibility that we may not need to take advantage of a compressed exam schedule. So, at the moment things are looking a little bit more comfortable than they were five or six weeks ago. So I think you’re right, Emily, that yeah, you’re right to point out the concerns and the extra stress. But you’re also right to point out that, it may not have to go that way. So, we’ll see how we go in semester 2.


Benita: And Michael, what would be your message to VCAA in working out what’s going to happen with exams this year?


Michael: I think to me it’s far more academically sort of… keep in mind the subjects, a lot of the subjects especially the Arts and languages, have two exams with the oral or performance earlier, and the written exam later and to keep in mind that if you were to make a compressed exam schedule without spacing those out and giving those students the same opportunity as before and not forcing them into an unfavourable situation.


Nick: Yeah, they’re really good points Michael. It is interesting that, I think when you get your table, you’re always comparing it to everybody else, trying to look at areas where you might feel like you’re a little bit hard done by cause you’ve got to do Philosophy one day and Physics the next day and Mathematics the day after that. So, it never works out perfectly for anybody. But that’s a really good, really good tip about how to make sure that people aren’t structurally disadvantaged and the way the timetable’s created.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. And Michael, while we’re hearing from you, so obviously we do have kind of a later exam timetable, that means that the ATARs are released later as well. How are you feeling about applying for university next year and potentially applying for interstate universities?


Michael: So personally for me, I am trying to keep my options open as much as possible. So I’ve been looking at lots of interstate universities and like, what options they have there for future and for, sort of, what courses they have. So personally I’m kind of stressed out a little bit by how exactly this will be affected because say I want to apply for Sydney University, but they get their ATARs earlier because we have a delayed schedule or something like that. Do I stand any less of a chance comparatively to them into getting into the course?


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. And Emily, are you kind of having the same hesitations around applying to uni?


Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Again with similar situations like applying for universities, is like a big milestone in a student’s life, if that’s the path they choose to take. The biggest thing is if we’re having an extended exam timetable, universities are going to have to cooperate as well and support the students as much as possible in the similar aspects. But they’re also really going to have to come together even though they are working against each other in some sort of competitive way about getting the students that they want to take those courses. But you know we’ve seen different responses like the ANU and similar universities who are only taking year 11’s results for a certain amount of students like entrances. And I think that a lot of students are either really positive about that and some are really negative because a lot of people see 11 as a bit like, easing into VCE and then year 12 is when it has to step up. Other people just like try their hardest throughout the whole time. But I think that there’s real disparities between how universities have responded and a lot haven’t even responded at all, which is something that really needs to be announced or spoken about.


Benita: Yeah. Great. And Nick, I know that it’s not really the remit of the Department of Education to provide ATARs or to do anything to do with university entrance, but have, can you speak at all about whether the Department’s been speaking to universities about changing their timelines or what’s being done to support year 12 students?


Nick: Yeah. Again, it’s, you’re right it’s not the Department’s primary role, but, I can totally understand that students might be concerned about how any delay in the examination processes or assessments might affect the timing of results and the ability to get into a course they want either here or interstate. I assume that other States are in the same position in terms of needing to think about how the examinations assessment processes work at the end of the year. You should, should be assured though that universities right across the country and curriculum and assessment authorities like our own, the VCAA are working together on this and a whole range of other things that relate to COVID-19 and they are trying to make sure that students are not disadvantaged in terms of entrance to university and that everyone gets their ATAR on time to lodge an application and can be considered. This has also involved some discussion about whether unis might start a bit later next year. I don’t know what the, that was a very early consideration. I’m not sure whether it’s still being actively considered. But it’s obviously I think everybody’s interested in universities particularly that entrance to university is open and available and students who want to go on to tertiary study in 2021 are able to, and that this is all done equitably. Part of the work of VCAA is doing with VTAC and Victoria is to ensure that students do receive their ATARs and tertiary offers at the same time as other jurisdictions. And of course we were talking before it may turn out that things run a bit closer to normal than we all thought this year and that, than we thought when these sorts of ideas were first floated and it might not be an issue in the end of the year. So, the earlier return to onsite learning may well be in everyone’s favour, but we’ll just have to see how that all goes.


Benita: Yeah. There’s still a lot of questions to be answered I think. And yeah, and from what we we’re hearing from students, I think a lot of students understand that those decisions take a lot of time, but they just want to be kept in the loop.


Nick: Yeah. It’s really hard when you’re sitting there on the edge of your seat and wondering what’s happening. And I’m rest assured, if you’ve ever been involved in any sort of negotiations across seven states and territories can be a particularly, complicated process. But normally when you find yourself in an environment like this where it’s driven by some sort of, crisis people are much quicker in the decision making. And the collaboration across jurisdictions is very, very effective. So, I’m sure that those discussions are progressing well and hopefully you won’t need to wait too long to find out how that’s all going to happen.


Benita: Yeah, fantastic. And I know that often when we’re talking about year 12, we focus a lot on students who are undertaking VCE, but we obviously also have students in Victoria who were doing their VET studies this year and I understand that they need sort of have a certain number of accredited hours to be able to achieve their VET certificates at the end of the year. And so, Nick, I’m wondering if you know much about how VET students are being supported to do that when they’re not physically allowed to be at school and whether that timeline might change with the return to face-to-face learning.


Nick: Yeah, I’ll talk a little bit about that. So it’s been important to remember that, VET students aren’t just VCAL students, VET students can also be VCE students, and there are I think about 14 VET VCE subjects that are specifically for VCE students. So I’ll talk a bit about both categories if you like, VCE and VCAL, I think you probably will have seen that there’s a very strong focus in all of the work that’s been done to date on senior secondary students, making sure that they are supported as much as they can in remote learning, for example they’re part of the first stage students returning to onsite learning on the 26th of May and they were prioritised on the provision of laptops and internet access to students who didn’t have them. They’ve been allowed to attend onsite in small numbers to do assessments and practical work that can’t be done remotely and that’s been particularly important for VET students. In some ways VET’s been a bit more complicated to do remotely than other VCE or VCAL subjects because of the training component that often includes practical, hands on sort of activities. And they’re often done off-site at a TAFE or another training organisation. And sometimes that involves mandatory work placement as well with and employer so there are a number of things that we’ve been doing to support VET students more particularly. On the training side we’re fortunate that TAFEs and RTOs haven’t closed, they’ve been operating this term as usual and been making adjustments for students to continue their VET subjects. Obviously, very complicated area because the requirements for different VET studies are very different. Some of them, like Business Studies, are pretty well-suited to an online learning environment and can be done remotely quite successfully. But the ones with practical components mean that you often have to spend a certain amount of time in the work place, or a certain amount of time doing hands-on things as part of your training package. So for example if you’re doing equine studies I imagine there’s a certain amount of time you have to spend with a horse, to show your ability in grooming or changing horse shoes or whatever they do in equine studies. And need to be able to do that before you can be awarded the VET qualification. And in some cases you can only qualify when you’ve done the minimum hours of workplace learning or demonstrated certain competencies in the workplace. We’ve been telling TAFEs and RTOs that they need to do everything they can to allow school students to continue their VET studies online or onsite if they can operate in a way that meets health requirements. Essentially what we’ve been doing is encouraging them to focus on the theoretical aspects of their training, there’s a call for knowledge components sometimes, focus on those theoretical aspects during remote learning because they’re more suited to an online environment and concentrate on the practical elements when students return to onsite learning, probably later this term. The VCAA has also extended the time available to complete mandatory practical elements of work place training, so that’s been extended into early 2021. Just on the work placement side, if you are doing a VET subject that involves a work placement that can continue this term, and has been continuing, as long as the student and their parents and the school and the employer all agree that the health requirements can be met in the workplace, social distancing and hygiene and other things. But obviously some employers aren’t able to operate at the moment and this might be affecting VET students in some cases. So they’ve got a few options there. In some cases it’s best to just defer the work placement for term 3. And then the priority this term can be on the training component of their VET studies. In other cases it might be best to try and find an alternative employer. And there are VET staff in schools and local learning employment networks and others who can help students find an alternative employer. And we’ve got a, we’ve actually got a website that lists employers who are offering places to people. And in some cases, if you’re part way through your workplace learning, you can get formal recognition for a sort of reflective task on how that went and that allows you to, complete it even if you haven’t done the minimum hours. So there are quite a few options there to help students who are doing VET/VCAL might just say a little bit about VCAL particularly though, because, I think there’s been a lot more information going on and out to schools and students about VCE and VCAL. That’s partly because VCAL by its nature is a much more flexible certificate than the VCE. And although the VCAA had a very close look at VCAL and what changes might need to be done to it to suit the current remote learning environment, they’ve actually come to the decision that you don’t really need to make many changes at all because it’s so flexible. Students have been given more time to complete their VCAL as has VCE students. But, if you’re doing VCAL, you’re required to do about 90 hours of VET and most students complete that in their first year of VCAL. So it’s very unlikely they’ll need the extra time, but it’s there if they need to. But generally the flexibility in VCAL and in terms of the way assessments are done and the numbers of assessments means that there’s enough flexibility in it already. It doesn’t really have the tight arrangements that VCE has in terms of assessment processes.


Benita: Fantastic. So it sounds like there are lots of options for students who are doing VET and VCAL. And they might just need to kind of explore what those options are or talk to their VET or work or VCAL coordinator at their school to work out how they can kind of complete it in the next few months.


Nick: That’s right. And we’ve published all of the information about this flexibility on our website and on the VCAA’s website so the schools have access to all that information about what sorts of arrangements can be put in place to either defer or, find another, RTO or find another employer or uncouple the training from the workplace requirements temporarily if they need to. So there are plenty of ways to be able to do that.


Benita: Yep. Fantastic. We’re going to move on from year 11-12 students in a minute, but we do have one more question. We’ve had a lot of questions from students about whether special provisions or special consideration is going to be kind of changed I guess to reflect how this year has happened. I guess we’re returning to face-to-face learning a lot more quickly than we anticipated, but for some students who don’t have a reliable internet access or don’t have a really stable home environment, having six or eight weeks where they’re not at school is still a huge chunk of time and can still feel like a really big, kind of burden and big gap they need to catch up. Nick, do you think that the, kind of the current special consideration system will, would it, would it be expanded or does it capture already, the kind of circumstances we’ve seen this year. Can you speak to that at all?


Nick: There are no plans at the moment to change the eligibility requirements for special provision. As you know, it’s for very particular personal circumstances that might affect a student’s ability to classroom learning or school-based assessments or external exams, things like that generally applies to students who have a serious illness or significant impairment or disability. And these things can really put you at a serious disadvantage right throughout the year in learning or in completing assessment tasks. Things like internet provision should already have been resolved for students because they, VCE/VCAL students were prioritized and the distribution of, of laptops and internet access devices at the beginning of this term. So, I’d be interested if you know, of people who haven’t been able to access to the internet. There are, there was a chance, I guess that if you don’t live in a 4G area a SIM or a dongle isn’t much help to you. But the intention with special provisions is that, the current eligibility requirements remain. So, I don’t think that that’s, I don’t think the VCAA is looking at changing that for any specific conditions related to COVID-19. And I think now with the limited amount of time the students will have had out of school, that they’re probably, confirmed in their view that they don’t need to change the requirements. But I wouldn’t mind hearing from students about that and what they think about special provisions and what the particular circumstances are during the pandemic that might require the VCAA to think a little bit differently about those provisions.


Benita: Yeah. Emily, do you have something to add to that?


Emily: Yeah, sorry, I just wanted to like point in that obviously there are already special provisions for like vulnerable students in different situations, but in saying that, there are like additional circumstances like what we’re going through right now that still need to be accounted for. Obviously students who suffer some sort of physical, mental or learning disability already have accommodations made. But if you think about having to learn from home, how is it, how can it be accommodated for them to learn themselves on their own without support that was not made for them and still keeping track with their VCE or VCAL, all their requirements, and feel prepared and confident with what they’re doing. If they have a parent who might have other children to support as well or they don’t have a caretaker who can be at home in the house. There are certain situations like that. And also the mental health effects. Like obviously there are students who do suffer severe anxiety and they get accommodations for exam situations. But the COVID-19 has really affected students who may not have been aware of their own mental health, and how it affects them at home. Like just like the facts and statistics are proving…youth suicide rates particularly in secondary levels alone, I think that there needs to be some sort of recommendations like that to really recognize how difficult remote learning has been even through just this short period of time.


Nick: Yeah, that’s a good, good point Emily. And I was also just thinking about students who already have access to special provisions and whether their circumstances might’ve been made more complicated, during remote learning, whether the access they have to, to aides or assistive technology or anything else might’ve been compromised. And it would be very interesting to have a look at their circumstances and whether there might be a case for additional support. But I know that, if you come under special provisions, you normally have a management plan and that can be looked at and that can be adjusted and the support group can be expanded to help you with that. But if you, if you’re not already accessing special provision and there’s no ability to accommodate that within the existing criteria, then it might be something that we need to have a look at. I’m not exactly sure what the criteria are. And there might be a more sort of general, often you find with criteria there’s a list of various specific things and then a sort of general catch all at the end, which allows the flexibility for unforeseen circumstances to be taken into account. So, I might just have a look at that and talk to the VC AA about whether there is any flexibility in the criteria for special provisions.


Benita: Okay. Great. Michael, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?


Michael: Personally, I think a lot of things is about like, especially around COVID-19, and how families have been affected because of that, especially if you look at like people having to do more social distancing, say away from their own family members, if say one of them have caught it, but at another location and then haven’t been able to go back to their family and support them. Especially if it’s like a single mother, a single mother with a child, what if the mother caught it and had to go into hospital and the child was left on their own or had to transfer to another location. That supporting of special circumstances that happens because of the virus.


Nick: Yeah, there are all sorts of possible examples that you can think of that, that may have affected people. And I think that goes to the, to the point about the need to look carefully at the eligibility criteria and whether there is the flexible scope in there that you often see and those sorts of things. So I will have a look at that. We actually have been very lucky in terms of the low numbers of infection rates in Victoria and I think that has all been managed really, really well by the Chief Health Officer and the Premier and the Department of Health and Human services. And so in other countries you would have seen a lot more circumstances like the one you just described, Michael. And I think we’ve been very fortunate in Victoria in the way this has been managed and that’s minimized that sort of circumstance for everybody.


Benita: Yeah. Fantastic. That was a really good discussion and lots of things to think about going forward for sure. I know that we all love to talk about year 11 and 12 students, but there have also been thousands and thousands of other students who’ve been really affected by remote learning over the last couple of months. And Sonany, you’ve been sitting there for ages while we’ve been talking about VCE. You’re a year 10 student. One of the things that we’ve heard a lot about is students kind of reshaping how they structure their day and stuff to better create a barrier between their school time and their home time because they’re doing everything from home. So Sonany, can you talk a little bit about how you’ve managed that over the last little while?


Sonany: The way I try to do, like manage that is by having a routine. I try to wake up in the morning every single time at eight o’clock. I try to have a one-hour break to just relax after school, and I also have a spot for me in the living room that like when I sit there, no one distracts me.


Benita: Yeah. Awesome. That sounds really great. Michael, how about you?


Michael: Yeah, so I think one of my tips and one of the things I’ve tried to keep to is definitely stick to your school timetable and follow that period by period. Even if you don’t have classes on at that time, try and get up and study at that time. Even though I haven’t followed it very well so far. A lot of like, make sure you’re getting up and following it and sticking to the same time table because you’ll be on that as soon as you go back to school as well. So if you can stay in the same motion, then you’ll just be like, seamless transition as well as trying to find a very separate area for between your home time per se and your school time or your study time. That’s good because then your brain can very much just think that and go, I have to work now I have to focus between, oh yeah, I can relax and do whatever I want.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. I think they’re both really good points. And Emily, how about you? How have you gone with creating a bit of a, a work-school balance or that’s not right? School-life balance.


Emily: Yeah. I don’t want to be this person that’s really just like negative, but I mean I’m in the same situations as Sonany and Michael. Like I’ve really tried to structure out my days and stay as in sync with what it would be like in a school environment itself. But, and I think a lot of students across Victoria have tried to do the same thing in order to keep routine and structure, which is really important. But, it’s all good and well, when you say it and you try to act it, but it doesn’t change your mental state when there’s such a difficulty between now that you’re stuck at home, it’s really difficult to find the distinction between having to study and be in a school aspect and then not have a space where you’re able to relax and really just start to look after yourself. Because now that you’re all, you’re at home the entire time, you can’t distinct between the two.


Benita: Yep. Yeah, absolutely. Marion, how do you, how have you’ve found working from home and are there any kind of lessons that you think can apply to a school situation as well?


Marion: Well, I actually wanted to just ask a question from a personal perspective. As a mother of a year 10 student and a year 12 student, one of whom is loving it and actually finds themselves much more productive. And the other one not so much and isn’t finding herself achieving much at all at home. So, you know, yes or no to remote learning. What are you thinking?


Benita: Michael? You go.


Michael: For me I have some friends who are really enjoying it, but personally for myself I’m a hard no because I would spend a lot of time at school learning and then I’d spend time after school there as well as studying before I would come home often because often I didn’t myself like being as efficient as I could at home compared to school and also just I was able to bounce off my friends in terms of learning and like learn from them, get help from them which I can’t necessarily do as easily because I’m not right there next to them in the classroom and we can’t talk. And they are also, I don’t have a load of things I would do at school, which would help with my learning, such as easy access to counsellors or access to my teachers all the time, even if they’re online because they would be, they have their own lives that they have to deal with at home that they’re not easy access during say lunch time or recess time or after school.


Benita: Sonany, how about you? How have you found remote learning?


Sonany: I’ve been very very productive. I’ve done a lot of like work. I like remote learning. I actually would prefer to start term 3 as normal physical school. But I miss my friends and I miss teacher support and yeah.


Benita: Yeah. And Emily, how about you?


Emily: Yes, similar to Michael. I think it’s really interesting. I have a close friend who really enjoys at home learning and now that he has to go back in two weeks, he’s like really struggling with anxiety and having to be back in that space. But for me, I need to be back in school, I just, it’s something that is really helpful. I can see how my motivational levels differ from being at home all day to having the distinction between being at school. If I’m at school and I come home, I can continue to study for another four or five hours, which I need to do for year 12. But now that I’m at home, when I’ve, when school finishes technically at 3:30, I can’t bring myself to do any work because I’m so like just mentally drained.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. Nick, do you have any thoughts on that?


Nick: Oh yeah. I think part of it also Emily and I, I noticed this working from home is that there’s no variety and I think the variety of locations can reenergize you if you have a bit of a break and a bit of a bit of travel time during the day can reenergize you. But I mean, but frankly, I’ve found I’m hopeless at drawing boundaries between work and work and rest in my life when I’m working from home, work seems to kind of bleed into everything and not very good at controlling. In fact I went out for dinner the other day and my son looked surprised and said, dad, we say less of you when you’re working from home then when you work from work. So that was kind of sign that I’m not managing this very well myself, so I wouldn’t take any advice from me about how to do this. I do try and provide a bit of structure in the day and I get a bit angry if I can’t meet that structure like missing my morning walk this morning. But, beyond that yeah, very, very bad at providing a proper schedule. But, excuse me. I think that some students are thriving with a lack of a structure in their day and it allows them to set their own pace and do things when they feel like they’re ready to, and if they get frustrated with something and they can’t see their way through a problem, they go outside and get fresh air, come back and tackle it again and I think there’s definitely two different sorts of people. There’s the ones who need structure and the ones who prefer not to have it and it’s the ones who prefer not to have it who are often doing quite well in remote learning.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. And Emily you kind of touched on this when you were speaking just earlier. One of the things that I think a lot of people look to schools for is mental health support for young people. Can you speak a bit about what your school has, I guess, been doing for you if anything while you’ve been learning from home? And also what you think will be helpful as you return to face-to-face learning.


Emily: Yes, it’s really interesting. Sonany and Michael are going to tell you about the great things their schools are doing and it’s going to be really positive. But once again my school has not been that great, I think that at the beginning they tried to do it what they can along with the recommendations, provided by the DET and all the funding that was placed for mental health support. But, for my school specifically, the support has like really just been targeted at those who have kind of been highlighted as needing support already as seeking through school through the counsellors and wellbeing centres on their own. And since we’re at home, the focus just stays on them and it hasn’t been on the entire cohort of students which has been a bit difficult because sometimes it really needs to have the effort made by them to just reach out and call and say how are you and then the conversation opens. There is so much stigma around actually saying I just need a bit of help right now and I think that going back into school is going to be very difficult to re-transition back into the environment again. And I think that something that really needs to kind accounted for is some sort of check-in for all students across the board to just see how they can be supported individually.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. I think they’re really good points. And something that needs to be thought about over the next few weeks as well. Sonany, you’ve had a pretty positive experience with wellbeing support at your school.


Sonany: Oh yeah. So I think that when we return back to face-to-face learning, potentially having classes involving sessions with the school counsellors or psychologists, to just like check in and see how they’re going. See what they’re doing, what they need to improve and just have a general chat to get that sense human connection again. Cause I know we haven’t done that a lot. Also maybe having a youth worker at schools. And I think a lot of schools should have them too, because my school has it, because they work so closely with students, and from what I’ve seen at my school, our youth worker has formed a really good connection with the students. It somewhat lifts their spirits and attitudes toward their learning.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really good insight. Michael what’s your experience been like with wellbeing support and what do you think you need going forward?


Michael: With wellbeing support, my school really is often really strong with wellbeing. So they’ve really tried to push it especially while we’ve been at home. So it’s been, we’ve had e-counselling open and offered to all of us be it just a call or a chat or like a text chat as well. So we have that open and given to us by the school and there’s also been some, well from our teachers as well have been really putting in work so a lot have been, they’ve given us like these dance videos of them doing a dance, over a song. Huge group of them, especially with like their pets, they got their pets to do stuff alongside them and to just try and say to students, we’re here for you. There’s been a lot of pressure, not pressure per se, but there’s been a lot of very positive good vibes coming out of the school in an attempt to get us to follow suit and to like take care of ourselves be it mentally or physically. To go exercise, lot of teachers have been putting up tips or the counsellors have been reaching out to people especially all around.


Benita: Yeah great. And Nick do you have any thoughts on that from I guess the perspective of the Department of Education around support for students as they return to face-to-face learning and I guess for the rest of the year as we kind of live within this pandemic world.


Nick: Yeah I was pretty interested to hear Emily’s comments because obviously there are a lot of health and wellbeing supports available to schools. Sometimes through specialist staff and the government’s trying to get a mental health practitioner into every school by 2022. But there’s often a bit of a need for more active outreach from the school to the student to check on how they’re going, and try and uncover things that are a bit covered sometimes. As you say there’s a bit of stigma in putting your hand for support sometimes so it’s nice if somebody actually asks you rather than having to wait for you to put your hand up. We are very interested of course and actively planning for the return to on-site learning and will be providing all schools with advice on how to do that well not just in a kind of operational sense. How to run the school when you’ve still gotta have social distancing in place for teachers and adults. But things like how to plan for the return to a normal teaching and learning program and how to plan for and understand and deal with the sort of things the students might need on a health and well-being front as they come back to school, how to explore the experiences they’ve had and how they look for signs that students might be a bit more distressed or needing other sorts of supports . So we’ll be helping schools with some tips about how to do that. And we’re developing some, I think we’re doing some work with VicSRC on mental health which is really great because they’re kind of student-led resources which means they’re gunna hit the target right, they’ll have the, be developed by people who need them, so they should be quite effective. But we are also just looking at things like some video resources that we can provide to schools that are a bit more about how to think about the future in a hopeful way. They’ll focus on things like in the good side of remote learning, what students learn about themselves, what they enjoyed about it, and certainly everybody enjoys not having to commute to school so there were positives for everybody in the remote learning experience. But also just how to think about the future in a really hopeful way and what people are looking forward to. I think it’s a perspective that can be quite helpful for people to just think about the world and your own future and your relationships in different ways and we’ll be trying to help students and support them to do that.


Benita: Yes, absolutely Another cohort Nick that we’ve been quite conscious of is year 6 students, who are going through a fairly large transition at the moment. With, I think they’ve may have already had to put their preferences in for their schools to go to next year so I’m wondering whether there is any sort of extra support from the Department. Knowing that a lot of students have not been able to attend kind of open days and I guess with the return to face-to-face learning we’re probably are going to be able to have an orientation but I think a lot of students have been quite anxious about going to year seven next year. Do you have any insight into that?


Nick: I think you’re right that normally term 2 is the time when students in year 6 and their parents are doing secondary school tours and going to open days and exploring the schools around them and trying to make a decision about which one is their preference. And some of that hasn’t been able to happen this term not in a normal way anyway I assume that schools and parents have been finding ways to explore the schools without actually getting there. A lot of it is reputation and talking to other parents and so on. That process of thinking about what school your student wants to go to and helping them select it is still continuing. And once the decision’s been made, I think all of the orientation and familiarization and other processes the schools themselves organize, the Department gives them a bit of advice about it, they organise it mostly themselves, all of that will go ahead. Students will have all of the normal opportunities to find out about the school that they’ve been placed in, they’ll have a state-wide orientation day in December that’s going to go on as normal. Schools organize additional transition days for year 6 students on top of the orientation day and early in term one there’s the social events schools organise just to help the kids get a bit more familiar with school environment, and the teachers and the other students and how the school works and things like that. So, I think the orientation and familiarization processes will continue. What has been disrupted is the ability to go to open nights and things that help with the selection of the school. I think we’re doing a bit of work with VicSRC or intend to, on some student-driven resources, about the transition and how to make it effective. There are some schools that have developed, students have developed, their own apps and things that give information about their high school and they pass it on to year sixes as they come in. It answers the sort of questions that students are interested in, the basic stuff like where you fill your water bottle and that sort of thing, not just the sort of high level thing about who’s the year level teacher and what’s the timetable like but some of the nuts and bolts of going into school, can make you feel a bit more comfortable about it. There are a few more things that we’re planning this year from the Department to help with the transition. We were going to be doing that anyway, unaffected by the COVID-19. But I think students will find the normal familiarization, orientation stuff can go ahead and will be.


Benita: That’s really good to hear. And I think will help a lot of the year 6 students as well. So one of the things that we are really passionate about at VicSRC is student voice and also ensuring that student voice happens wherever students are learning from. Sonany, can you speak quickly about how student voices kind of kept going at your school while you’ve been learning from home?


Sonany: From my own experiences, my fellow student leaders and I are able to connect to the student body by doing a visual survey. Occasionally we’ll just ask questions about how they’re going what they would like to see changed. And we got some advice back about wanting to video chat. Cause initially my school didn’t have a video chat. And my school the school leaders decided to make a proposal to the college leaders, we told our principal and everything to put Google Meet into place, and now we have it.


Benita: That’s really fantastic, that’s such a good example of student voice. And the school being really responsive to it as well. It’s great. Emily, what’s been your experience at your school?


Emily: Yeah, we’ve actually kind of really come together, our student leadership team in this time because students look to students and other support when things get a bit rough. And I think, one of our biggest achievements apart from how we approach Anzac Day during April, and what we did for that was we reached out to our entire student cohort and got nearly 800 responses, and we have 1800 students in our school, about how they want their remote learning to be managed and what kind of support they would like from students and that has involved setting up online platforms to do different games or activity groups and homework support clubs, and just online forums that have been monitored and things like that.


Benita: Yep, fantastic. And Michael, how about your school?


Michael: Yeah, so I’m a bit more on the outside, because I’m not a part of my school’s SRC. But I think that allows me to have a kind of special perspective because I’ve seen how hard they’ve have been trying to reach out to us and then connecting us to school more. So the SRC, they had set up things like a discord server so we can have a thorough connection. Then there’s been times where say we’ve had a Q&A with our principal on Zoom for each year level, so we’ve also been able to have a direct connection through school and ask whatever questions we need. And there’s been a couple other examples such as them putting up questions on Instagram saying what do we want to ask the school council or what do we want the student council member to take to the school council and different sort of questions and just reaching out to us constantly about what we want to know. And I think that’s been really done well by my school and by a couple other schools as I’ve seen as well.


Benita: It’s really good to see schools being really innovative I think, and using technology really well. That’s great. And Nick, do you have any thoughts on that?


Nick: You asking me because I put my hand up, my virtual hand? I was actually gunna ask, I think it’s a really interesting, when you go through a period like this and you’re doing things quite differently and you’re forced to. some of them you find it quite effective and some of them are quite ineffective. But I was wondering whether some of the things you’ve been doing to engage with other students, either in the school or within a VicSRC context across the state are things that you’d want to hang on to and continue to use as engagement tools as you go forward. Because there are some things that, some of the things you’ve been talking about, I think would sort of greatly expand the reach of VicSRC and to students across the state if you were thinking about views or doing polling or other things or you know, just the use of these conferencing platforms where you can have chat rooms and you can have polls that sit alongside that. They’re really good ways of doing a quick sounding of sometimes quite large numbers of people. And I was kind of interested in whether you think any of these things you’ve been doing you want to continue with or expand.


Benita: Michael?


Michael: So I think this period has been like a big innovation period for student voice and also like business as a whole because I think everything, or most things that we’ve learnt to do or have started to do during this period we can really take back because I think there’s no reason for us to stop doing them, because people will always be connected to the internet. It’s not like as soon as the quarantine’s over we’re going to throw away our laptop or never touch Zoom again or Instagram or anything like that. We’ll still have them all. So I think VicSRC, SRCs and pretty much everyone should still try and keep doing what they have been doing, but to combine it with like real life per se and to really drive sort of connection between us all and to that idea of reaching out to those who might usually be unable to.


Benita: Sonany, do you have any thoughts on that as well?


Sonany: I definitely agree with Michael because it’s a very good way to get information. I think schools, VicSRC and SRCs should continue to use surveys and online platforms.


Benita: Any more thoughts from you Em?


Emily: Yeah, just on our organizational level, I think it’s worth pointing out that during this entire time, our student voice website has had a 150% increase on foot traffic, which is really showing that the awareness of students really looking through our organization for the information and the ability to have their voice heard. And I think it’s really impactful that during this time they’ve come to look for us, But now the wider reach has been created and they know where to look to get their voice out there. And I think it’s definitely something that can be utilized going forward now.


Benita: Absolutely. Marion, you put your hand up?


Marion: I think it’s a great opportunity for us in government working with all of you to get so much more student voice into what we do. As we’ve learned like really, quite simple ways, but they were absolutely technologies that we weren’t using six weeks ago, only six weeks ago. So lots and lots of exciting possibilities in there.


Benita: Yep, absolutely, and that’s a really quick segue into my closing question to everyone, which is: even though in about a month, almost all Victorian students will be back to face-to-face learning. What can we learn from this last couple of months, to make education and student voice better for all students in Victoria? Nick, I’d like to ask you first.


Nick: Yeah, I do think it’s a really interesting question, and it’s something we’re thinking about within the public sector, because obviously we’ve been talking about a paperless office in the public service, started about 20 years ago, and suddenly it happened six weeks ago. I haven’t seen a piece of paper in six weeks. And so this has really disrupted in a pretty positive way, the way we work. And I think potentially might have some really interesting lessons for education and student voice as well. We’ve talked a bit about remote learning and how, in some cases it suits some students really well. They can set at their own pace, they can work flexibly, they can ask for more challenging work if they want to push ahead. They have less distractions, less pressure from their peers. Bit more time during the day because they don’t have to commute. All of these are things that we really want to try and understand and capture and try and work out whether they can be replicated in a sort of onsite teaching environment. And then there are the students who probably haven’t been doing that well, and we need to understand what it was that didn’t work for them. And learn from that because we do use virtual learning a lot more commonly these days, to provide programs to rural and regional students who wouldn’t be able to access them otherwise. We’re building them into the Victorian High-Ability Program and so on. So we really need to understand how virtual learning works and what makes it work effectively. And a lot of that’s going to be needing to involve talking to students about their experience with it. One of the interesting questions I think is about student agency and learning and how that’s changed during remote learning. I wouldn’t be surprised if in many cases students have found themselves a lot more active in their learning and felt a lot more empowered and in control. And then if that’s the case, did that contribute to them learning more or learning better. And we’re going to have a much more technologically savvy teachers and students and schools, and everyone is getting very good at these kinds of meetings these teleconference trip and meetings. And how are we going to make the most of that? So it’s a really interesting question and I’d be interested to see what other people think about how we capture some of that and make it real.


Benita: Yeah, absolutely. And VicSRC will be doing some work over the next little while to kind of get some of that information about what students have found really good about remote learning and provide some recommendations to the Department of Education around what we can do moving forward. Emily, I’ll go to you next. What have you found really great and what can we sort of take back to the physical classroom?


Emily: I think that the most obvious takeaway for me about everyone’s experience for remote learning is how flexible our education system really is. I think it’s been the same way for a really long time, and how we’ve all powered through these last couple of weeks is really showing that it doesn’t need to be how it’s always been. I think it really opens an opportunity for us to change things because it doesn’t need to be as systematic, we’ve shown how it can be changed and accommodated to different students and its needs and just how we’ve done so well, just in this remote learning, where we’ve had to make the decisions. I can only hope that it’s just going to change and be so much better now that we have an opportunity to see the differences.


Benita: Absolutely. Michael, what are your thoughts?


Michael: I think all of us here probably really agree with what Emily said. And I think that idea of looking at that flexibility going forward, how can we make, how can we learn from this is I think very much: flexibility is key and we can do it. And that we shouldn’t be afraid to make sweeping changes to the system if we have to. Or if we think that you could even be a little bit better, we should just make it. And I think it’s shown how, even in chaos, we can thrive and especially that we have the means to do it. And I think more on what exactly can we take back from this? I think personally for me, it would be the use of these systems such as Google Classroom to give us a spread of work and allowing us to go through it as we please, instead of just going, you have to do this, this and this in this order exactly by this time in the classroom and you can’t do it outside and it’s just giving people more time to sort of make it more logical to them and to learn in their own way, rather than learning one single way in front of the teacher, they can learn from a million different resources online.


Benita: Absolutely. And Sonany, we’ll finish with you. What do you think we can learn as we go back to the classroom in a few weeks?


Sonany: I definitely agree with Emily and Michael, I would like to add to that. So maybe having more interaction with students from teachers as well through online, focus on building mental health through the counsellors and potentially having more online platforms, for instance, Google Classroom and Education Perfect to assist teachers in distributing information and making it an easy access and an easy way for students to get their work assigned. Also, maybe connecting and partnering with the broader community as well, because I know that during this time, everyone’s just being inside and maybe the schools connect with their border community, for example, like food banks that will be able to assist everyone and show a sign of unity again.


Benita: Yeah, great. Nick?


Nick: Yeah, just thought I’d make a sort of closing comment. And it’s building a bit off what Michael and Emily were saying about flexibility. I think it is astonishing the sort of adaptability we’ve seen in people and in schools and in the whole system over the last six or eight weeks. And if someone had said to any of us three months ago that in a month, the whole system, the whole education system is going to be delivered remotely. We would have said not a chance, it’ll never happen, not a chance in the world. I just think it’s a really strong testament to everybody involved, all the students, all the teachers, all the principals, that this has worked in a much better way than anybody would have anticipated it. So not only worked, but in some cases it’s been very very effective. And that’s part of the reason we really need to try and capture these understandings and build them into whatever we do next. But it is a really strong testament to the things that everybody has done, everybody in this Zoom conversation and everybody in every school across the state to make it work in the way that we have. Pretty extraordinary, really.


Benita: Absolutely, and I think it’s also a really good indication of how teachers and educators and policy makers and students can work together to make something work really quickly as well. And making sure that all of those views are taken into consideration when we’re making this system better for everyone.

Thank you so much to everyone for this conversation today, it’s been really enlightening. I’m really glad that we made the time to have this, and I think we’ve answered a lot of questions for students going forward. So thank you all so much.