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'Biggest schools shake-up in 40 years'... but Govt still has more questions to ask

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The explicit outlawing of corporal punishment in schools and a tenfold increase in fines for truancy headline a raft of reforms in a long-awaited draft bill the Weatherill Government has dubbed “the single most significant legislative change to education and early childhood services in South Australia for more than 40 years”.

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But a long-touted shift that would give principals greater autonomy to fire underperforming teachers remains a distant aspiration, with a draft bill released to InDaily today retaining authority for contract termination on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance or misconduct with the Education Department’s chief executive.

Early this year, Close flagged bringing legislation to parliament by year’s end, but appears to have missed her own deadline, instead today releasing a draft new Education and Children’s Services Bill for consultation, with a view to bring finalised legislation to parliament next autumn.

The draft bill purports to overhaul the existing Education and Children’s Services Acts.

A statement to InDaily from Education Minister Susan Close said the Government “is seeking feedback on whether principals should have the power to both hire and fire staff”, saying the new legislation “makes it easier for principals to keep good staff and modernises arrangements to deal with unsatisfactory teacher performance”.

A series of fact sheets to be distributed to stakeholders also refers to “making it easier for all schools to keep good staff so that they can focus on great teaching and learning”.

But the draft bill retains the authority for hiring and firing full-time staff with the bureaucracy, with no mention of devolving powers to principals.

Instead, the minister’s office clarified, the question is to be formalised in a “YourSay” survey early next year.

The question of delegating performance management powers to principals has been hotly debated, with decentralising authority to individual schools a staple of the Liberal Opposition’s policy platform for the past two elections.

Close said she wanted “to hear from principals, teachers, parents and other stakeholders on our proposed reforms”, insisting: “We are making sure that our principals and teachers have the powers and support they need to ensure our students get a great education.”

“Supporting all students to reach their academic potential is what schools are dedicated to,” she said, pointedly ending her sentence with a preposition.

“This legislation is aimed at providing the legal framework to achieve that goal.”

Close first suggested the truancy crackdown in March, with the draft bill formalising mandatory attendance provisions, with penalties for the parents of non-attending students increasing from $500 to $5000 without a valid excuse.

The draft also introduces a model for “family conferences”, empowering the chief executive to convene a roundtable with caregivers if a student is regularly absent from school.

The proposed bill would also enshrine SA’s opposition to corporal punishment in schools into legislation for the first time since laws allowing use of the cane were repealed in 1991.

The proposed new laws stipulate that corporal punishment “must not be imposed on a student”, with breaches to be dealt with under misconduct provisions.

Among other proposed changes, the new act would introduce powers to bar people who trespass on schools sites and impose fines of up to $2500 on people who behave in an offensive manner or use abusive, threatening or insulting language.

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