It’s been called a bribe and a wedge — a $3 billion cheque for Catholic and independent schools to ignore the edict from the Andrews Government to teach kids from home, writes Richard Willingham.

It’s been called a bribe and a wedge a $3 billion cheque for Catholic and independent schools to ignore the edict from the Andrews Government to teach kids from home.
The Federal Government’s carrot, bringing forward money earmarked for later this year, has frustrated the Victorian government and angered local independent schools.
It also flies in the face of previous comments Prime Minister Scott Morrison made earlier this month: “If you are going to school in Victoria, there is only one person you need to listen to and that is the Premier of Victoria.”
Throughout this crisis Morrison has been keen to keep children in classrooms as much as possible. It has been a major point of difference with the states, in particular Victoria which was the first to send kids home.
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Victoria’s independent school’s association, which represents 220 schools and 145,000 students, says the ultimatum has put it in “an extraordinarily difficult and unfair position”.
If the matter wasn’t confusing enough for parents about who to trust, the money has been welcomed by the federal independent sector.
Many of these schools are not elite private schools and like other businesses around the world have struggled in the age of coronavirus. They have been asking for financial assistance, but they don’t want to be “bribed” as one official put it.
“Expert health advice, not money should determine whether or not a school fully opens,” Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said.
Federal Government offers early access to 25 per cent of next year’s funding for religious and independent schools
Pressure mounting to reopen
Led by the Federal Government, there is pressure mounting for students to return. This announcement has been weeks in the making. There has been pressure behind closed doors.
Reopening schools would help not just their education, but also the economy, because many parents say they cannot work from home and supervise study.
Some teachers are also finding the change in work difficult. Literacy and numeracy are at risk too from prolonged time away, academics warn.
But Andrews is resolute.
And he is not afraid to stand up against the PM, which he did at a recent National Cabinet meeting to reiterate it was the states that ran schools, not Canberra.
His government wants more data on how much of this godforsaken virus is actually in the community. It is a cautious approach that has been entirely consistent. There will be no change to restrictions for another fortnight.
Andrews has an abundance of political capital and the state appears to be ignoring any pressure on the schools front, he repeatedly tells Victorians that he shares their frustrations but warns without restrictions people will die.
Eighteen people have already died from the virus in Victoria.
Andrews is more than willing to stand up to the Prime Minister in the National Cabinet, his March alliance with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to hasten widespread shutdowns is proof that Victoria won’t wait to act.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Federal Government intervention was “completely inappropriate”.
Parents split on class lines
The cautious COVID-19 policy is one that Andrews believes can help the state out better in the long run for recovery. Critically, it does not want to see a second wave.
Victoria is adamant that its expert health advice is that its unsafe to reopen schools, the oft-cited reason is it does not want the nearly 1 million students, parents and staff moving around the state potentially spreading the virus.
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Consultancy group Red Bridge, part-owned by a former Labor official, has been holding focus groups via Zoom during the crisis.
Its studies shows that there are two groups of thought on reopening schools, which are split largely along class lines.
The pollster said more middle class suburban families, many working from home, are keen for schools to return. It is smaller cohort but one that has a louder political voice and knows how to get it heard in the media.
The other includes people on the frontline of the crisis, including nurses, as well lower socio-economic, outer suburban and regional communities who still have fears about the disease and aren’t ready to send their kids back, as inconvenient as home learning is.
The door is ajar for changes
May 11 is when the current state of emergency laws expires. If any restrictions are to be lifted, it will be after that.
Parents are still being told to plan for a full term two at home, but the door is ajar for a policy shift if the data allows it.
One idea being floated is that some students may return to class this term, particularly senior high school students and prep pupils.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
The Prime Minister has put economic recovery as critical to success, the challenge in Victoria on that front is very big and involves education.
The biggest sector of the economy, international education, has been decimated.
And it’s not a sector that can simply flick a switch and return to normal.
If safe to do so, it is one part of the education sector the Government will be more than happy to get students back to work.
What you need to know about coronavirus:
Some parts of Australia have had no new coronavirus cases in more than a week.