Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: The Hon Jeremy Rockliff

Illustration of The Hon Jeremy Rockliff and Tim Bullard for the Teach, Live, Learn podcast

Tim Bullard: [00:00:02]

Welcome to the Teach Learn Live podcast. I’m your host, Tim Bullard Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania. Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light on how we connecting students and young people to succeed. Every day in our classrooms we’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners and I see great school leaders making a real difference in many people’s lives. Join me as we get to know more great teachers, curious learners and inspiring families and communities who teach, learn and live in Tasmania.

Kids voices: [00:00:41]

Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles]

Tim Bullard: [00:00:42]

Today’s guest is Jeremy Rockliff, Minister for Education and Training and Deputy Premier for the State of Tasmania. Jeremy is a North West Tasmanian who grew up on a family farm in Sassafras and apart from farming and rural life, Jeremy has a strong empathy with public and community services and has worked with a number of organisations, including Lifeline North West, Natural Resource Management, Landcare Groups and Youth and Family Focus. Jeremy campaigned successfully in 2002 to become an MP for Braddon in the House of Assembly and up to 2014 had held a number of shadow portfolios. In 2014 under the newly elected Liberal government, Jeremy was appointed as Deputy Premier, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Primary Industries and Water and Minister for Racing. And since then, he’s held a number of portfolio areas, most recently as Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing, Disability Services and Community Development, Trade, and Minister for Advanced Manufacturing and Defence Industries. Quite a portfolio. Welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:01:49]

Thank you, Tim. It’s great to be here.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:52]

So for those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the role of a politician, can you tell me a little bit about your job in the Tasmanian government?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:02:00]

Well, I can. And if I just start with the very basics, really. Firstly, I’m from the North West coast so I represent Braddon, and Braddon really was pretty much from where I am now, Sassafras, Port Sorell, the entire West Coast, Smithton and including King Island. So it’s quite a big electorate, a very diverse electorate. And the first thing I’ve got to be mindful of, and we work hard at, is just representing our constituents. So we’re shoulder to cry on. We help people with applications for whatever that might be and a lot of housing issues and things like that, a lot of things. So that base job is so very, very important. So I must never forget that because I would never be Deputy Premier or Minister for Education without firstly being elected. So that’s my main game. But in government, it is a whole lot more complex. I had 12 years in opposition as a local MP and being in government, you are very, very busy. A lot of meetings, a lot of time. But you can do some really good stuff and it’s really where you can make the biggest difference. And I think most importantly, really think about what you want to achieve, because it’s such a privilege to be a minister of any portfolio and being able to think, how can I make the biggest difference? Because it might not last that long. So you do as much as you can whenever you can do it and it’s really busy, but it’s great. And you meet so many people and I’ve seen every corner of Tasmania in my role.

Tim Bullard: [00:03:27]

So obviously, you’re involved in a lot of community-based organisations in your younger days, but you made a decision fairly early to enter politics. What sort of motivated you to take that course?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:03:40]

Well, when you said I was elected in 2002 in the intro, I thought it has been a long time. And when those first few years in parliament seemed to go quite slowly because it’s really, really challenging to get your head around from being a farmer to a local member of parliament and so it’s gone very quickly. So I was 32 when I was elected. So I’ve always been interested in politics, not necessarily for one particular side or the other. Our members, a young person just interested in the machinations of politics. So I had to write a lot of editorials and opinion places and keep an eye on what was going on politically, mainly around us in Australia and Tasmania and further afield. So politics has always fascinated me. I remember my parents weren’t necessarily – they didn’t push me into politics at all. My dad was a local government councillor, who did a lot of community stuff. I had to go building, I remember, my father was an Apexian – in the good old days and APEX is a great organisation there were up to 40 at that stage you know, young men really then. And I remember going during bus shelters with Dad for a local area. And I guess that community ethic that was role modelled as a family sort of played a factor in me putting my hand up for some of these community organisations. And I got involved in my side of politics at around 19 or 20, which was an interesting experience. But I realised that if I ever wanted to have some political ambition – and I never really thought as a young person that actually had the courage to do so to be honest – I though oh I like politics, I like playing a role – but could I really put my hand up? That’s a big challenge. But I realised if I wanted to one day, you just can’t sit back and be a member of a party. You’ve got to actually get out there and learn more about the community. And so I was directed towards some of the things I’m passionate about and at that time and Lifeline was one of those passions.

Tim Bullard: [00:05:44]

Now I’ve been through a long list of portfolios that you hold or have held. But the constant since you’ve been in government has been education and training, as well as the portfolio of Deputy Premier. What’s your passion for public education? Why are you constantly drawn toward that portfolio?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:06:03]

Well, thinking back it may well of been the influence of my grandmother, who was a passionate educator – and most certainly would have never supported my side of politics, I hasten to add. Occasionally I run into people in Hobart that were taught by my grandmother. And that may have been an influence. Her influence, I think would have instilled the influence of my father that believed in education, as did my mother, that you got to get a good education to do what you can walk out of school. All those sorts of things. And so that was probably instilled into me. And I guess I developed a passion for education, probably since I’ve entered parliament and I’ve witnessed what it can do and how it can transform lives. And you come into contact with people that are products of the public education system and how it supported them. And the light bulb moment goes on, really, and you realise that, you know, it can actually make a huge difference. It wasn’t just my parents telling me this. You see people and how their lives have been transformed positively through public education. And you can also see that some people are born in very challenging circumstances and I think the best way to support people are sticking with it and challenging backgrounds or circumstances. It’s true that education, environment and public education provides a vehicle.

Tim Bullard: [00:07:33]

So, you know, I was really fortunate because we have basically unlimited access to schools right across the state. And I know you spend a lot of time visiting schools and classrooms and talking to principals and teachers. What really inspires you when you walk into one of our schools?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:07:51]

Well, the leadership of the school is always so very important. And I love speaking to principals firstly because they normally greet me at the front gate and you can just see the spark in their eyes and they’re just so enthusiastic and proud of their environment and their school. And I think that responsibility they also feel is that it’s not just about perimeters around the school gates, that they have a whole of community responsibility and they’re so very proud of their kids and their students and supportive of their staff as well. And that that’s conveyed into the assistance and the teachers and teacher assistants and one that makes up a school. And, you know, we’re talking right now during the whole COVID-19 times, Tim, and the level of appreciation that you and I see when we visit a school, I think has been very much extended throughout the whole of Tasmania as people have been educated in different learning environments, including at home. And I think I respect crowd school leaders, our teachers and everyone who makes up the school was just almost tenfold, what it was perhaps beginning of this year.

Tim Bullard: [00:09:03]

So you’ve spoken around that responsibility for outside the school gate, not just the perimeter. And certainly, that’s something that I’m seeing more and more. I’m really interested around your push on wellbeing that’s happened through education and also with you holding the portfolio of Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing? Why do you keep such an emphasis on child and student wellbeing?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:09:30]

Because it conveys, well it combines, sorry, two of my passions really. That’s education. That’s mental health. And you asked me a question about why I go into politics. I’m not sure I answered that in that rather long garbled answer. But essentially with my farming background, if I go back a bit, people might think, oh well I went into politics because of farming and farmers getting a better deal in regional communities. And that’s largely right. I was a young farmer. I thought we should be rewarded more for what we did. You know daylight to dark and we weren’t, but it was when I joined Lifeline and became a Lifeline telephone counsellor that I realized there was a whole world out there that wasn’t so black and white. And as a young, single farmer with limited life experience, the world can be very black and white. And it’s not until you’re on the phones at two o’clock in the morning speaking to someone that’s in the process of ending their own life that you realise and the reasons that are conveying for that, that you realise that the world is not black and white there are a lot of grey areas. And that experience really reinforced the values that I had. And the world is made up of a very eclectic bunch of people. And tolerance and acceptance was what I learned, acceptance is a better word than tolerance, is what I learned from that experience.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:10:47]

And I realised that mental health was back then a big issue and the stigma around mental health and wellbeing wasn’t well known or talked about as much as it should, particularly in young men. And a lot more needed to be done. And I witnessed some of my close acquaintances and friends in the very depths of despair as we all go through certain times of our lives, and I think those experiences, I thought to myself, well, wellbeing is important and the world is a lot more complex for kids these days than it was when I was growing up. There are a lot more things to think about, do, watch, absorb. You can’t always turn it off either, it’s there in their face for these young kids and that impacts on their wellbeing and their mental health and whatever I can do to wear both hats in the mental health and wellbeing, space and education space, I will do. And I’m just so amazed by what’s happening in the Department of Education and the leadership that’s been demonstrated within the Department in this area as well, and giving our kids a voice. No one would have asked me at all at school probably how I was feeling or what I thought about things in terms of my own reflections. But to give our kids a voice through the survey and other things that we’ve been doing, I think is just amazing and important and a great opportunity for our schools and teachers to learn from our kids and support them better.

Tim Bullard: [00:12:19]

And I suppose what was interesting was that during COVID how we had the wellbeing check-in, allowing teachers real-time information around how students home were feeling. That was a real shift for us. But under that, too, was what we could do about that, when we were learning at home. And I suppose one of the other themes that’s really come through is that idea of the Department moving much more into the space of partnerships.

Tim Bullard: [00:12:46]

So as we moved into wellbeing as we moved into learning off site, that idea of partnerships has also become a key theme under your government. What can you see in terms of the way that education is sort of growing into that space of being a partner rather than a sole provider?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:13:02]

Well, I was always very conscious when I took over the responsibility in 2014, that there was a lot of discussion about how do we engage the whole of the community in the education space. And, you know, schools are often blamed for things that happen outside their remit. And I thought, well, hold on we all need to take responsibility for this and all of us need to be more involved in our schools and our parents’ engagement also. If we can create an environment where we’re just not seeing our schools as a place, we drop off kids at 8:30 in the morning, pick them up at 3:00, and how do we involve our parents, carers, our families and our community more in our schools? So they are truly a part of the community, as we often say.

Tim Bullard: [00:13:48]

So one of the things that you’ve done is to set up the Workforce Roundtable recognising I think in that partnership spirit, that it is a whole of community issue to raise the quality of teaching. Why did you think that was a good idea and that the time was right to do that now?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:14:09]

Because I learned a lot through the experience of reviewing the Education Act, and that’s four years of age right now that hadn’t been renewed since about 1994. And that was a really interesting experience for me because it forced, or encouraged, us, me, I guess the Department, to go out there and consult with the community on what they want for the next 20 years for their Education Act. The principles that applied and objectives of that Act became almost a bit of a focus in many respects. I’ve mentioned it here earlier around the fact that irrespective of your circumstance or background, everyone has that fundamental right to a quality education and that quality education is the public education, everyone should have access to that. And your earlier question leads to this as well. It also taught me about the fact that a lot of barriers to people’s participation in education, might be their circumstance, their home environment, a disability, trauma, and I suddenly realised that there’s always barriers to provide education that we need to get rid of as much as possible, and the wellbeing, space and mental health and wellbeing space can be a barrier. And how do we support our kids to work through these times and their personal experiences to engage them better in their education.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:15:33]

And so that experience of the 2016 Act reinforced that to me, but also that spirit of cooperation. There was a lot of input into that. We had feedback from various stakeholders that loved or loathed some of the areas that we were actually trying to change in that Act. And that taught me the value of making sure that every single person who has a stake in something so important as education, needs to come to the table and have a say. And so the Roundtable where we had such a huge, diverse group and we don’t always have the Australian Education Union around the same table or hadn’t probably previously, but having them and the University and Tim, the Department of Education and Teacher Registration Board and principals, it was a great collective, if you like, and spirit of collaboration and saying, you know what, we’ve got our new Act. We’ve got our teachers coming on board. How do we make the most of this and get the best possible quality out of listening to everyone.

Tim Bullard: [00:16:39]

So I’m really interested, we’ve talked about wellbeing, we’ve talked about teacher quality and the Workforce Roundtable. What do you think is next in education? You’re basically, you know, a bit over halfway through this term of government. What’s next for you in terms of continuing to improve education in Tasmania?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:16:59]

Well, we’ve got to make sure that what we’ve committed to, that we can deliver. And that’s what’s been important as well in the last 12 months. And you’ve been through too Tim, and again, the student voice was part of this, and that is what is the Alice Springs Declaration, which we went through. So that set some goals nationally for education. And through that, we really raised the flag and the importance around equity, around education and the provision of equity. Picking up on some of the things that I spoke about in terms of the objectives of the Act, you know, getting rid of all those barriers to education that may well be inhibiting a person to engage effectively in education. Ensuring that education has that resource available to support kids to learn. It’s important to me that includes our commitments we’ve made in education, of course, and seeing those through. The infrastructure development as well. It’s important that our kids do have that modern learning environment and we’ve got to plan for that. So I want to stay that course.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:18:10]

But the next thing is just really thinking outside the square, I suppose. We’ve had a greater sense of, I think, collaboration across all stakeholders in education in the last few months and I think COVID-19 brought everyone together on the one page. There’ll be agreements and disagreements on a certain direction, no doubt, but we can do it if we need to do so. What’s the last couple of months taught me is that when the chips are down, people do rally around and forget all about who’s wearing what hat and any past prejudice we might have. So I would like to see a greater spirit of collaboration build on that in terms of a way forward for where we take education next. And we had a 150-year celebration of public education just last year where we did celebrate the wonders of public education and we need to build upon that now. So I guess if nothing else, the last couple of months and indeed building upon the last few years, I’ve learned more and more about education and become more and more passionate about it, because, as I said, I can say that the true benefits from it and it’s about maintaining that principle of equity throughout. But it’s also utilising that spirit of collaboration that’s being developed and those relationships that have been strengthened to really think, look what is possible? We just shouldn’t be putting our preconceived ideas in little boxes. We need to open all those boxes up and put them on the table.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:19:40]

Equity is the core principle but there are a lot of things we’ve done, Tim, that probably not many people really know too much about outside of our school world and our world that you and I work in. The nine to 12 review was a very good exercise and that’s been across sectoral collaboration. So I’m very interested in seeing what we can do in terms of the senior secondary area as well and how we can – we often talk about the job ready generation – which is kind of like a government kind of line, I know. But how do we really prepare our kids for the next thing and the world? And the world changed a bit in the last couple of months. So how can education be really adaptable, flexible to support really quite massive changes? I’m interested in ensuring we can really do, I think, build on the vocational education and training space as well and the senior secondary area that we can do more there. And I’m conscious of the fact that the conversation I’ve been having around the11 and 12 space hasn’t always been about years 11 and 12 and then university. There are so many other options and pathways a young person can explore and look at and vocational education and training is part of that very much.

Tim Bullard: [00:20:58]

A number of times, as we’ve been talking, you’ve referred to where we are now and what we’ve seen in the past. You said you’ve obviously mentioned COVID, I think for the purposes of listeners we are saying we are still in the midst of COVID, but things are looking positive. What have been your reflections around what you’ve seen in our parents, our teachers and leaders of our school communities in terms of how they’ve shown strength and resilience over the last couple of months?

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:21:26]

Well, I think those values of the Department of Education really have come to the fore. And I think about those values in terms of the values that we are instilling in our students. Resilience, as an example. But in actual fact, I’ve seen all those values reflected in the leadership of our Department, our schools, our teachers whose worlds have been turned upside down. One week they’re teaching in the classroom. The next week they’ve got three kids in the classroom and trying to work out how they’re going to engage their kids online or not, as the case may be. And so how people have adapted to that and enormously quickly out of necessity really, has been amazing. Our principals have led, I think, with really great courage, because it’s very common to feel very anxious and uncertain in these times, that naturally being reflected in some of our staff across our schools as well as all of us. None of us knew what COVID-19 was going to present. We were talking about closing schools for almost the whole year, a couple of months ago, when we weren’t really certain if we could flatten the curve and all those sorts of things. So I’ve been really – I haven’t been amazed because I knew that was always there – but it’s been tremendous to see that all those values and all the leadership skills of principals and others have come to the fore during this, which I think is fantastic to see.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:22:53]

So I’ve learned that we can’t be adaptable, I suppose, in that sense it’s taught us the fact, you know what, we can actually think outside the square. You know, this is not too much well this has been a big challenge. But if something’s presented to you, our natural instinct is to think oh well I just don’t think that could happen. But in actual fact that actually probably can. And it’s a matter of how we go about that. And I think the very collaborative way, that the Department and our schools have worked with our communities is probably demonstrated that is the way. Nothing should be forced on people; it’s about having a conversation. This has been a conversation, about necessity, the COVID-19 circumstance. But we’ve got through it. And our parents, as I said before, I think have and carers and communities, have got a greater appreciation of our teachers. Going off the memes that pop up, the cartoons, reflecting parents’ challenges at home and those subtle messages are there saying, you know what, our teachers do a fantastic job.

Tim Bullard: [00:23:48]

What I’ve heard today is some really great reflections about the need to continue to build equity and engagement through public education. But also, I’m hearing from you that the time is absolutely right to be looking at different ways of doing business. I have to say, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today in such an informal way, Minister. I really thank you for your time.

Jeremy Rockliff: [00:24:11]

Well, thank you, Tim, and thanks for the leadership of the Department as well and to you. It’s been a very challenging time, but these times have taught us, I guess, the importance of our public education provider. And I get a sense that through all this – and we talk about engagement and this is reflected in the attendance back in kindergarten to grade six, people saying, you know what, our schools are great. Our kids are there not just to read and write, but their whole sense of wellbeing and communication with friends and our parents. I get a sense are going to engage with the school communities a lot more as well, which I think’s a positive. There’s always going to be a silver lining to what has been devastating for many, many Tasmanian citizens in terms of their personal circumstances. But in this sense, I think public education is, and is seen to be, stronger as a result of what we’ve just experienced and experiencing still, I recognise. It’s been great to have a chat.

Tim Bullard: [00:25:25]

I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast. To hear more about those people who teach, learn and live in Tasmania. Join us at www.education.tas.gov.au/podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Why not subscribe so that you can keep up to date with what we’re doing? Or if you have a story about an inspiring teacher or student email us at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au

Kids Voices:

Teach. Learn. Live. Tasmania! [giggles]