National Student Wellbeing Program

07 August 2023


I rise to speak on the motion moved by the member for Forde, and following the member for Monash, and I commend the member for Forde for this motion because, at the heart of this motion is something that I think everyone in this place agrees on—a matter of paramount importance, and that is: the wellbeing of Australian schoolchildren. We know that students who are happy and supported have a greatly enhanced capacity to learn and thrive, and it sets them up for the rest of their lives.

We also know, thanks to the Productivity Commission's recent report, that one in five young people from 11 to 17 years of age experience a high level of psychological distress. This reality should be unacceptable to us all. But this is not confined to a single demographic. It affects youth across Australia, and particularly those in out-of-home care, those with disabilities and First Nations students. The upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and recent natural disasters has also exacerbated these conditions, and it has been a particularly tough time for young people in Australia over the past few years.

Student attendance, as a gauge of student engagement, reflects the state of wellbeing in our educational system, and, sadly, falls in attendance have been seen in all sectors—primary and secondary, urban and rural, government and non-government schools. In 2015, nearly 78 per cent of students attended school on nine of 10 days, but, by 2019, this had dipped to 73 per cent. Following the pandemic in 2022, that rate has plummeted further to a mere 49.9 per cent.

To address this crisis, the government is embarking on a transformative journey, the National Student Wellbeing Program. It's not a mere change in name; it's a promise to our students and their guardians that we are committed to their welfare. This program will empower schools to engage student wellbeing officers or chaplains. Sixty-one million dollars has been funded annually over five years, and schools can access funding of up to $20,280, with additional support for remote areas available. These officers and chaplains will provide much-needed support for students and their families. This will include pastoral care; essential services, like breakfast clubs; excursions; and workshops for parents. Their presence will help bridge the gap not only in the education system but in the broader lives of these young Australians.

Our commitment is not solely financial, though; it is backed by passionate voices across the educational spectrum. Sally Egan, formerly of the National Catholic Education Commission, underscores the importance of these funds, saying that 'these much-needed funds will help to support the provision of additional professionally qualified staff,' and that 'addressing student wellbeing is crucial to support student engagement in learning'. Margery Evans of Independent Schools Australia has said that the measures in the budget for the wellbeing of students show that the government understands the importance of these issues.

This initiative builds on a strong foundation. An independent review of the former National School Chaplaincy Program highlighted its significant role in supporting student welfare. The review recommended expanding qualifications to include mental health competencies. Consequently, the renamed program, the National Student Wellbeing Program, takes a more inclusive stance and allows schools and parents the choice to engage a secular student welfare officer as an alternative to a chaplain.

But our support doesn't stop there. The Student Wellbeing Boost is an integral part of our commitment. This is a $500 million investment aimed at helping students overcome the pandemic's mental health impacts. The Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, Emma McBride, notes:

It's been a tough two years for students and the Albanese Government has a plan to help them bounce back from the pandemic.

That's so important. This boost includes a voluntary mental-health-check tool, providing schools with the means to identify and assist students in need. Additionally, $192 million will be distributed to schools for mental health and wellbeing support. This can encompass hiring more psychologists and counsellors, organising activities to enhance wellbeing and implementing proven mental health initiatives.

Our goal is clear: to create a better and fairer education system that caters to both academic achievement and emotional wellbeing. We envision a future where every student has the opportunity to succeed and where their wellbeing is at the heart of their educational pursuits. It is our responsibility to ensure that our schools are nurturing environments and places where our students can flourish academically and emotionally. That's exactly what we're trying to do.