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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
16/03/2016
Electoral education

HARVEY, Mr Simon, Director, Parliamentary Education Office, Department of the Senate

STUDHOLME, Mr John, Education Manager, Parliamentary Education Office, Department of the Senate

WEEKS, Ms Maureen, Clerk Assistant Procedure, Department of the Senate

[10:38]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. You are our last witnesses this morning. We have just had Senator O'Sullivan leave and we have taken an apology from Mr Gray, so we are slightly depleted but nevertheless we will challenge your thoughts, I am sure. Do you have any opening statements?

Ms Weeks : We do. Good morning. Organisationally, the Parliamentary Education Office is part of the Department of the Senate but has a whole-of-parliament and national parliamentary education responsibility. Reflecting this fact, the Parliamentary Education Office is jointly funded by the two chamber departments. Strategic oversight of the Parliamentary Education Office is exercised by the Parliamentary Education Office Advisory Committee, which is jointly chaired by the two deputy presiding officers.

The role of the Parliamentary Education Office is to produce and deliver parliamentary education training programs and resources for students, teachers and schools. Apart from programs for teachers and student teachers, the parliamentary education's focus is on students particularly at upper primary level. The Parliamentary Education Office also plays an important role in supporting members and senators in their parliamentary education dealings with students. Its primary focus is upon parliamentary education—educating Australian students about the function, role and procedures of the federal parliament. To do this, it has a number of programs: it has those programs that it conducts at Parliament House and it has an outreach strategy, which includes a website that has a number of resources for students and teachers alike. We also have a liaison and collaboration role, which means that we collaborate with other parliamentary education offices throughout Australia and the Pacific, and just recently some of the educators have been involved in training for Pacific women.

CHAIR: Well done.

Mr PASIN: Thank you for coming along. I begin by acknowledging the work that you do in this place. It is literally fantastic. But, having given you a compliment, I am going to go to a potential criticism. I have been engaged in the role-play on a number of occasions, because I enjoy being with my students when they are doing that. It mimics the opening of parliament, particularly of the House; I cannot speak about the Senate. I see that over 90 per cent of them choose a House setting, if you like, for their role-play. We mimic the opening of parliament, the Speaker walks in and the students are standing, but what we do not do is recite the prayer. Is that a deliberate decision that has been made by the PEO? Are schools given a choice, particularly faith schools?

This criticism has come to me via faith schools who have participated in the program, who were present during the opening of parliament and saw the opening of parliament and then were with me in the role-play. They came to me and said, 'Look, I think this is of concern.' I have bided my time and I wanted to do it in this forum rather than in a more explosive forum. Can we have some commentary around that—whether it is a deliberate decision or whether schools are given a choice? Presumably, if we are mimicking the opening of parliament, we should be true to it. So, anyway, it is probably a question for you Simon, is it, or Maureen?

Ms Weeks : I am happy to take that question. The purpose of the role-play is to give students an experience about how legislation is passed through the parliament.

Mr PASIN: Sure I get that.

Ms Weeks : To do that, we set the context. We do have a general discussion about the concept of representative democracy and how representatives are chosen and, to give them a flavour, we do have the Speaker or the President coming in. As I said, the primary purpose is about legislation, the law-making process. So the role-play starts, if you like, at that point. If you have experienced it you would be aware that it is actually a concentration of the legislative process.

Mr PASIN: Absolutely it is.

Ms Weeks : So a lot of things are missed out of that process, including some of the rituals at the beginning of the day. I do not know about the House of Representatives, but certainly at the Senate we very seldom start the day directly with legislation, so we do not do all those little bits and pieces. The prayer is regarded as part of those matters at the beginning of the day and not as part of the legislative process.

Mr GRIFFIN: The same as welcome to country.

Mr PASIN: Is the welcome to country acknowledged in the role-play?

Ms Weeks : No.

Mr Harvey : Not formally, no.

Mr PASIN: No. There are materials, aren't there, that are read from? I have seen them. They are laminated.

Mr Harvey : They are sort of scripts that guide the stages of the role-play, that is correct.

Mr PASIN: I would appreciate just one of those scripts being given into evidence.

Ms Weeks : We can do that.

Mr PASIN: Now, having moved past that, has the PEO thought of providing professional development to teachers in this space in particular? We have just heard some evidence about the challenges, particularly in regional settings, for teachers with requisite skill and understanding.

Ms Weeks : Yes, we do quite a lot in that sphere, including developing resources for teachers to access how they can conduct their parliamentary education, or that part of the civics program, in their own classrooms. There is a lot of material that is produced for teachers that indicates which part of the curriculum the material addresses. Yes, we do quite a lot in that sphere.

Mr PASIN: How do we get the message to teachers that the PEO resource is there? I must say that I engage with a lot of schools and a lot of teachers, and I put them in the direction of your material. But I am disappointed to tell you that I am often the first person to draw that resource to their attention. What strategies do you have in place?

Mr Harvey : Primarily, our resources sell themselves, in the sense that our major reach resource is our website, which has over 1 million hits—so, obviously, a lot of people are finding it quite easily—and also word of mouth. We also target teachers that come here to the role-play program. We provide them with additional PEO resources that they can then take out and conduct role-plays in the field and so forth. We have also developed a resource catalogue which contains a list of all our resources, and I think I provided a copy of that at the round table. That is made available. The big problem with advertising, obviously, is that more customers are just a resource issue. It is a cost issue; it involves money.

Mr PASIN: And speaking of the resource issue, part of the work you do is in outreach—you send officers out into the regions?

Mr Harvey : Correct.

Mr PASIN: Again, thank you for that, because people from my electorate in particular are finding it more and more difficult to get to Canberra. It has cost them over $1,200 now, and the rebate is $60. Can you give me an idea of the scope and scale of that outreach? Is it two officers for—

Mr Studholme : We set up a strategy at the end of each calendar year where we look ahead at our data to see where we have had visitations from schools coming to Canberra. The basis for that information comes from the exploration of those groups that are coming to Canberra. We will note where we can see that there is a significant deficit. Then, at the end of that process of looking at which electorates are underrepresented here in Canberra, we then correlate that against where we might have been on previous outreach visits over the previous few years. So we will make a choice to go somewhere that has seen us the least over recent times.

As a result of that, we will put together, usually, about three outreach programs. An outreach would generally be for a week in an electorate, and would involve two officers who would spend a lot time phoning all the schools in the electorate—particularly the ones that have not been to visit Canberra. They are the ones that we are really trying to target. We will target them first; we make those phone calls. But as we set up the program for that electorate we would also contact the member of parliament for that area and say, 'This is what we'd like to do. We'd like to undertake this program as a partnership.' There is an opportunity for us to deliver our role-play program in the school and, at the same time, there is an opportunity for the member of parliament to attach to that program and speak about their work as a representative. Our belief is that this gives the best possible way for students to be able to identify that there are real people who have that job of representation in the electorate. That combination seems to work very well.

Mr PASIN: An average of about 90,000 students come through the PEO, which is phenomenal. Well done! Signing them in, alone, would be a job. How many people did we service via outreach?

Mr Studholme : Via outreach we would be seeing in the vicinity of about 3,000 per year. It is not a large number, but the logistics of actually putting together an outreach in an electorate is far more difficult than us putting up a banner and saying, 'Come to Parliament House to visit, and we will take everybody on the hour.' It involves travel between places. If it is a country electorate we have big distances to travel. It is a useful addition to that.

Mr PASIN: None of this is meant as criticism; I am trying to understand the scale and scope. I want to move to interactive video conferencing, which is a space the PEO seems to be, quite sensibly, considering. Has the PEO thought of taking some of its resources and more efficiently using them?

Ms Weeks : Yes, in the last 12 months it has become something that is viable. I do not know whether you are aware, but there is a pilot project for videoconferencing in committee rooms.

Mr PASIN: I saw that committee room 1R4 is tricked up.

Ms Weeks : Yes. On the back of that project, we hope to establish a small videoconferencing room just for the PEO. As you would understand, if you are going to offer it as a service we cannot be in a position where we get bumped from the committee room, so we need to have a space that is our own.

Mr PASIN: A purpose-built facility.

Ms Weeks : We have gone so far as getting a quote. That was a lot more than we can afford, so we are now trying to work our way through that quote and work out what equipment we actually need and what we can put on the long finger.

Mr PASIN: This report is an opportunity for you to get some decision-making grunt behind that push. It might be worthwhile, if we can, for us to see the scale and scope of what you are talking about, because we will be making some recommendations and we will be hard-pressed to go past this as a recommendation. I do not know how that can work, but I think we need to know how much money we are talking about and those kinds of things.

Mr GRIFFIN: I am sure that information could be provided by the witnesses on notice.

Mr PASIN: We asked David Pattie of the Department of Education and Training what the relationship was like between the Department of Education and Training and the PEO. He took that question on notice. You might be able to answer it, but he was not immediately aware of how closely you work together. If you have to take it on notice, that is fine.

Ms Weeks : I think one of the important points to make is that the PEO is not an executive area, so we work to the chamber departments, as I indicated, and that indicates the separation of powers. On the use of PACER to bring students to Canberra, I might get Simon to speak of little bit about that. That is probably the closest relationship that we have.

Mr Harvey : There is a PACER advisory committee, which, as its name suggests, advises on the PACER scheme. It is chaired by the education department. The Department of the House of Representatives is the parliamentary representative, but we work closely with our colleagues in the Serjeant-at-Arms' Office so we get feedback on their meetings and provide statistics and so forth. That is in the PACER field only, I might add.

Senator REYNOLDS: I would also like to echo my colleagues' congratulations to your team, because I know students from Western Australia get a lot out of it. Particularly coming from WA, it is quite a challenge for a lot of schools to do that. Do you keep any surveys or reports after visits on your perceptions of political and government literacy? When people come to you—either the students or the teachers who escort them— how much do you think they already know when they get here about our system of government, our Constitution and our parliament? Do you keep any assessments, either qualitative or qualitative, of that?

Mr Studholme : We conduct surveys at least annually. We are in the middle of a process at the moment of conducting a survey with every school group that comes through, and we will do that until we get approximately 250 teacher responses. We ask every teacher in charge to complete our short survey. Those questions are very much geared at the level of participation that they have been involved with in the classroom. We do not ask for a lot of qualitative information from them. We are asking more about their involvement with the PEO website—have they been to PEO resources, and so on.

We ask about the effectiveness of the presentation that we deliver; we want feedback on that. We are looking for overall satisfaction with the program that we deliver. We would also ask them about the relevance of our program to the curriculum and whether it has a good mesh with the curriculum, either the Australian Curriculum or the state curriculum because both are being used still. Then we might put in there some other useful questions that will assist us with developing future resources.

One very fine example is the interactive video conferencing facility that we have just been discussing. For a number of years we asked, 'If this was made as an offer, would you be interested in using this from your school, not as a substitute for coming to Canberra but in addition to?' Overwhelmingly, they say, 'Yes.' It is a kind of a broad tool to find out whether the programs that we are offering are meshing well with what they are trying to achieve in the classroom. Overwhelmingly we get a very positive response. But we are not asking so much the questions that are trying to discover their belief or their assessment of students' knowledge. That we leave to other assessment processes, which are done more across the whole of Canberra by organisations like the National Capital Educational Tourism Project, who engage outside academics to conduct surveys and to do a longitudinal survey of before, during and after the process to try to gauge that.

Senator REYNOLDS: Is that more about their experience with Canberra or more about what they have learnt?

Mr Studholme : It will target each institution to try to get some specific information about the response to that institution and the knowledge levels about that subject area.

Senator REYNOLDS: Chair, that might be an interesting thing for us to get hold of.

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator REYNOLDS: We could have a look at that.

Mr Studholme : They are due to release one in April this year, I believe.

Senator REYNOLDS: There are several aspects to the reason for my question. Firstly, the most frequent questions I get as a senator are: what is a senator, where do you represent and what does the Senate do?

Mr PASIN: That question is from me.

Senator REYNOLDS: I guess that is for colleagues in the House of Representatives. It is not just from school students but it is teachers who say, 'What area do you represent?' And I say, 'I represent Western Australia.' They then say, 'I know that you are from Western Australia, but what area do you represent for the Senate?' Then you go into the green ballot papers and the whole process. It is quite pervasive. I talk to my other senate colleagues and they have a similar experience. It is not empirical evidence that we have poor civics education. It just seems that when you have the students coming through, while that is not your primary purpose—it sounds like the methods that you employ are very robust and appropriate for what you are delivering—that it would be interesting because, how many students do you—

Mr Studholme : We have 90,000 students.

Senator REYNOLDS: That is a great sample size from across the country to ask a quick question up front—like a bit of a pop quiz—and then assess afterwards and actually go into that quantitative and qualitative assessment of how much knowledge they have actually gained from it. Obviously it has to mesh with the civics education they develop. It just seems to me a bit of a wasted opportunity to not do an assessment of the cut through at the different age groups of how many people can name the Prime Minister, how many can actually say what the Senate does and how many people know that we have a Constitution. If you could take on notice whether it would be possible to do this and how it could be done.

Mr GRIFFIN: I think it is interesting but the problem I have with it is that is 90,000 students out of—

Mr Studholme : There are 3.7 million primary and secondary students in Australia currently.

Mr GRIFFIN: For example, we are reviewing and assessing the students from schools who are able to and who actually decide to make the effort to come to Canberra. Many of them would have done some preparatory work beforehand so they would be better prepared than the average student, and they are at schools that are in a situation—

Mr PASIN: It is enough of a priority that they run a program.

Mr GRIFFIN: Exactly. It is a big sample, but my concern is that it is not representative. You have to be careful about how you assess that in terms of it, but I think it is an interesting question.

Senator REYNOLDS: Could you take that on notice? That is a good point, but it does seem to be a bit of a lost opportunity, particularly now when you can easily do up surveys that are based on iPads or phones. People could even do it in five minutes before they get here. They could go online and do something.

Mr PASIN: I will tell you what would be just as valuable, and that is a survey of teachers.

Senator REYNOLDS: That would probably be more valuable.

Mr PASIN: I was not going to say it. Taking Mr Griffin's point, you would expect that the teachers who bring students are amongst the cohort of the teachers, on average, who are better informed. Getting a handle on how well they are informed about these things would be interesting, even if that was an online resource to be completed before or after—

Senator REYNOLDS: Both.

Mr PASIN: just to get a feel. I get the sense that there is a dichotomy as wide as the proverbial church in my political party between teachers who are more knowledgeable than I am about processes and teachers who just kind of say, 'What's a senator again?'

Mr GRIFFIN: We all say that!

Mr PASIN: I will stop the jokes.

Mr GRIFFIN: Who is joking? I have a couple of other questions. One general point is that I think the work you do is fantastic. I take your point on the videoconferencing. Ideally, it would be a situation where you had your own facility to operate on a daily basis, but I would also say that the context in which this building operates means that some of these committee rooms are vacant for huge periods of time. The capacity to run programs out of there when parliament is not sitting, which is most of the time, is significant. It is there as a facility, and it can be used. There are also certain days of the week when it is not likely to be used, given when committees meet. Obviously there may be occasions when a booking needs to be bumped, but it is not that often. I would strongly urge you to think about that very carefully or, if you want to respond to that, I am happy to hear it.

Ms Weeks : I certainly think that we can use the rooms when they are vacant. We would be running that in addition to our scheduled program. We have actually identified a room. It is just a question of fitting it out.

Mr GRIFFIN: Which is a question of cost, which is an issue that you are conscious of, and it has always been something that has impacted on the capacity of how well you can roll out your programs.

Ms Weeks : I can indicate to you the extensive problems that the PEO experienced in only having one purpose-built committee room to do our education training when schools come to Canberra, which has recently been alleviated by us getting another space. The difference that that extra room has made to our capacity to run programs is huge, and so we are using that to inform what we might experience in going to one of two or four very limited spaces in Parliament House for videoconferencing.

Mr GRIFFIN: I understand your point, but I have to say that the thing that I find most annoying about this building is that it is very much like a school. There are large amounts of time when it sits dormant and unused.

Ms Weeks : I take your point.

Mr GRIFFIN: There is a much greater capacity for it to be utilised more effectively, and your very point around videoconferencing massively expands that capacity—

Ms Weeks : Hugely.

Mr GRIFFIN: because it is not tied to the event itself or the location itself.

Ms Weeks : As I said, we certainly have the intention to use those spaces when we can.

Mr GRIFFIN: I think it would also be a great way to trial the success of what you might be looking to do as well.

Ms Weeks : We have already run a trial. We hired space at Questacon, and we did three very successful videoconferencing programs. I think we have moved past the trial stage. It has proven itself. It is just a question of organising all the bits and pieces that we need and getting the budget for it.

Mr GRIFFIN: Given your experience as educators in dealing with civics in Parliament House, I know that role-plays have been very successful in that. Would you care to make any comments about what you think works? Are there any brief comments that you might have on the national curriculum? Obviously you focus on the national parliament for students and teachers who come into contact with you. As I said, I think 90,000 students is fantastic, but, as you mentioned, there are over three million students in Australia. There is a big gap. Overwhelmingly, the sorts of activities required will be occurring beyond your remit but, given your experience, you might like to make some comments about what sort of things should be priorities.

Mr Harvey : In terms of what works, the role-play program has now been going for over 25 years. The feedback is extremely positive.

Mr GRIFFIN: Is that age group related at all?

Mr Harvey : Yes. It is primarily at primary level, but we also do some secondary ones.

Mr PASIN: On that, what percentage of students come in their final year of primary school? Is it 90 per cent?

Mr Studholme : You are looking at one in six students in Australia.

Mr PASIN: Sorry, we are at cross-purposes. What percentage of the 90,000 that come are in their final year of primary school—year 6 or 7?

Mr Studholme : Eighty-five per cent of the 90,000 are in year 6, the final year of primary school.

Mr PASIN: I have always had the concern that it would be much better to have year 10 students, who have a better and more mature understanding of our democracy, in this building than year 6 or 7 students, some of whom have a very mature understanding, but the overwhelming majority of whom have a very basic understanding. It becomes a bit like a political theme park for them. That is not a criticism; you do great work, but I do not know how you change that, because it is so hard to—

Mr Studholme : We feel the same.

Mr Harvey : I think the key driver is the curriculum, obviously. The schools themselves make a decision on when they will come to Canberra; it is not a decision that we influence in any way. It is overwhelmingly in the upper primary years that they are looking at civics as part of the curriculum. That is why they come.

Mr Studholme : It is an organisational thing at the school level too. It is a very difficult for secondary schools to be able to organise excursions—

Mr PASIN: A week away—

Mr Studholme : because they are so siloed into different subject areas. Everybody is doing a different stream and different subject areas. That last year of primary school is about the only time in the schooling experience that you can actually bring a group of students for a whole camp for a week in Canberra. We would agree: we would love to work more with secondary students, but getting access to them is the difficult thing. The challenge is to find other ways to do that. We think videoconferencing is one way of doing that. We think that going to them in their classroom digitally or electronically is even better than trying to organise an outreach, which also has certain prohibitions around it.

Yes, primary schools are our core audience by virtue of the fact that the schools dictate that to us. But role-play is certainly the powerful vehicle that we use as a model here. That teaching methodology is one that we try to inspire all teachers to use as well, because—

Mr GRIFFIN: Do you think that is age related?

Mr Studholme : It is not age related; it works on everybody from lower-primary school right through to adults. Everybody understands the idea that if you play, you can get in a focused state to be able to learn. It is amazing how it will generate a great sense of understanding and empowerment by putting people into the position of understanding how the parliament works. That is what we are trying to generate all the time. It brings all the different intelligences into the equation as well; it is not only the kids who can stand up and speak, but also the ones that listen and the ones that like to touch the objects and get dressed up. All of those things are part of that experience.

CHAIR: I want to associate myself with the kind and complimentary comments of the committee for the work that you do. Thank you. When you go out on road trips, do you advise the members that you are going?

Ms Weeks : We do.

Mr Studholme : It is the first step.

CHAIR: Wonderful.

Mr GRIFFIN: If you would like to pass on any other comments and suggestions in respect of particular things that you believe work, can you speak to the secretariat or possibly even knock together an A4 page which we could take as an additional submission? We have not had time to cover that too much.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide additional information, would you please forward it to the secretariat. Thank you to committee members for their attendance today. Thank you to the secretariat for their outstanding work and thank you to Hansard.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 11:10