Dear Minister Merlino,
We hope this letter finds you, your staff and family well. We understand that, as a father and the Minister for Education, you have the utmost concern for students in Victoria and we thank you, and your government, for your leadership during this time.
We are living through unprecedented times, which have created a level of anxiety and concern for all Victorians. Students are particularly concerned about their education, and we believe in the power of governments working together with communities, now more than ever. As the peak body representing Victorian school aged students, we are offering our support and insight into the current situation.
We have consulted students across the state and bring you here a short list of our broad recommendations that we feel reflect the best interests of students.
Recommendation One: guarantee equitable access to the internet, devices and resources
COVID-19 has highlighted the greater need for equitable access to resources for Victorian students. Schools with greater access to resources have been able to ensure access to online learning systems for their students, allowing their education to continue with minimal disruption. We believe all students are entitled to this but this is currently not possible for all schools.
Students who do have access to these options for learning at home have expressed concern that many school-issued devices have limitations like revoked or limited admin privileges and firewalls that hinder access to websites that allow for communication and collaboration.
We would like to discuss the plans in place for ensuring all students have access to 4G connection at home and devices suitable for online learning. We feel that the importance of online resources will only increase and we would like to see options for equitable access to programs, websites and materials on both personal and school devices.
Recommendation Two: support students beyond academic areas
As we move into lockdown and potentially away from physical schooling students are being isolated from face to face contact with mental health workers, including counsellors and psychologists. The prospect of facing an unfamiliar and uncertain education system is a major source of anxiety for many of us.
We recommend that students receive Medicare rebates for up to 10 psychological therapy sessions without a visit to a General Practitioner to request a mental healthcare plan.
Recommendation Three: let’s talk about VCAL/VET
Much of the focus on the impact of school closures has been on those studying VCE. We want to make sure we don’t lose sight of those undertaking VCAL and VET courses. Many VCAL and VET courses will be heavily impacted as the presence of a physical teacher is imperative to course material. There are concerns that there has been a lack of information regarding how deadlines will be amended and how these students would undertake their work online.
We request a discussion around the support these students in particular require to continue their education and strongly recommend that they are consulted in decisions made going forward.
Recommendation Four: be clear about what’s happening with VCE, even when the answer is we don’t know
A major concern for students across the state is the future of VCE, particularly in regards to end of year examinations. Whether COVID-19 disrupts the intended scheduling the VCE class of 2020 many are concerned about the ability to learn effectively they would in a traditional school setting.
We recommend altering the contents of exams in order to accommodate the difficult circumstances students are currently experiencing while being held as close to the intended dates as possible. This recommendation applies to the GAT and VCE Oral and Written Examinations.
We also strongly recommend that students personal circumstances, particularly those students most affected by COVID-19, should be considered as part of the SEAS.
Recommendation Five: talk to us about tertiary admissions
Regardless of how VCE, VCAL and VET outcomes are handled there will be disruption to tertiary admissions in 2021. We acknowledge that there are many possibilities regarding how tertiary admissions might function in such unique circumstances. There is no general consensus among students around how they should be altered and it is unlikely that one solution will suit all students.
We recommend that students are heavily involved in decision making around alternative tertiary admissions in the wake of COVID-19 and that these discussions begin as soon as possible. This will allow students to move through their disrupted final year of schooling with minimal anxiety around planning for the future.
Recommendation Six: consult students in vulnerable situations
Not all students are equally disadvantaged by the consequences of COVID-19. We strongly recommend that the government works closely with advocacy organisations that support students facing pre-existing challenges including but not limited to students who are living in out of home care, from low socio-economic backgrounds, students with disabilities, students with complex needs, Indigenous students and students from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
An incomplete list of organisations we would recommend consulting with includes the YDAS, The Smith Family, CREATE foundation, VAEAI, VACCHO, CMY and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.
Recommendation Seven: keep primary school students in mind
Primary students have voiced concerns about not owning their own devices or struggling to use school provided technology, making online learning a challenge. They are also concerned whether their parents will be able to support them in their learning, particularly those with parents who are also working from home. Finally, grade 6 students are missing out on the opportunity to visit different schools when deciding which secondary schools they want to attend.
We recommend that every effort is made to account for these concerns and consult primary school students when making key decisions that will affect their education.
Students are an essential component in decision-making regarding education, as we are the ones that are most heavily impacted by it. This is our present and our future.
When governments listen to us, they show the community and schools that our voice matters. We’d like to thank you again for your ongoing support of VicSRC, and we are confident that any actions that are taken will reflect the best interests of Victorian students.
We would like to invite you to join us for a video conference to further discuss the topics covered above. We understand that you may not have all the answers right now but we want to support you in finding the most just and effective way forward.
Victorian Student Representative Council