I respectfully acknowledge Traditional Owners and Custodians of country across Australia ‘Dhawura nguna dhawura Ngunnawal. Yanggu ngalamanyin dhunimanyin. Ngunawalwari dhawurawari. Dindi wanggiralidjinyin.’
I am pleased to introduce the first Annual Report of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE or department). Formed on 1 February 2020, the new department brought together child care, education—from early childhood through to higher education—skills and employment.
The challenges of 2019–20 were unprecedented, with Australia experiencing drought and bushfire emergencies, and then the outbreak and spread of COVID-19. These challenges impacted all Australians in some way and the department played a significant and important role in delivering the Australian Government’s response.
Teams and individuals across the department demonstrated a commitment to public service by delivering responsive, timely and evidence-based policy and programs. Our agility came to the fore to ensure we could best respond to the needs of the communities we serve.
Our department continues to deliver the Government’s priorities, support our ministers, and serve our communities and sectors, to take a lead role in the nation’s recovery.
Improving educational outcomes
In late 2019, Australia’s education ministers signed a new declaration—the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration—setting out their shared vision for education and their commitment to improving educational outcomes.
The declaration will shape our work into the future, along with the reform work already in train under the National School Reform Agreement, which commenced in 2019 and continues until 2023. Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been steady progress in implementing the eight national policy initiatives under the agreement, including completion of the Review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training, led by an expert panel chaired by Professor Peter Shergold AC.
Work is also on track to establish the new national evidence institute, which will provide practical support to teachers by translating research and evidence into effective strategies they can use in the classroom, and the Unique Student Identifier (USI) for school students.
Accessing child care and education through adversity
Enabling families to access early childhood education and care services, along with ensuring the delivery of education in schools, were critical elements at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to be important aspects in our recovery efforts.
Our response has been swift as we have worked to enable families to access early childhood education and care services and deployed support through business continuity payments and the Community Child Care Fund (CCCF). We also supported the Government’s announcement of a one-year extension of funding for universal access to preschool – securing certainty for the sector and children’s early learning for the 2021 calendar year.
Providing ongoing access to education was also a key consideration for National Cabinet. When the COVID-19 National Principles for School Education were agreed, we worked collaboratively with state and territory governments to ensure the continued delivery of school education during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was essential to create a sense of normality for students across the nation, even as delivery methods changed, the routine of school continued during the most trying of times.
Preparing and equipping Australians for the future
A skilled workforce is a significant contributor to our nation’s economic outlook and maintaining our skills and education system has been critical to the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our department delivered continued support for apprenticeships, including incentives for employers, working closely with the business and industry sectors to ensure training will continue to meet workforce skills needs.
We supported reforms identified in Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System, and began implementing key elements of the Government’s Skills Package.
The National Skills Commission (NSC) was established, under the leadership of the interim National Skills Commissioner, to anticipate critical skills shortages and help the skills system respond to the needs of Australian businesses. The National Careers Institute (NCI) was also established as the authoritative source for careers information and connecting job seekers with information, support services and pathways to get back to work – and to get young Australians and school leavers into work.
Under the Government’s JobMaker plan, work began on linking funding to skills demand and business requirements, simplifying the system, implementing performance monitoring in skills training, and reviewing subsidies, loans and other sources of funding.
Quality and accessible higher education
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a significant challenge to the higher education sector. Implementing the Higher Education Relief Package supported universities and other higher education providers to continue teaching and provide subsidised short, online higher education courses.
The 2020 academic year saw the introduction of performance-based funding to universities to improve student outcomes and increase participation of Indigenous students, those from a low socioeconomic background and students from rural and remote Australia.
Significant reforms to the higher education funding system, announced by the Minister for Education in June 2020, will be a major focus as we work with the sector’s key stakeholders to co-design many aspects of the reform package in the period from 2021 to 2023.
Support Australians to prepare for and find employment
Employment and pre-employment programs continued to help Australians prepare for, find and take up employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an unparalleled increase in the number of job seekers who used employment services was recorded. The jobactive caseload more than doubled to over 1.4 million people by the end of the financial year.
The department worked closely with stakeholders to continue to adapt, modify and improve policies and programs. The Jobs Hub platform was launched to help connect job seekers and organisations who were hiring. Streamlined job seeker registration and referral processes were introduced and the National Customer Service Line expanded. There were also enhancements to the Career Transition Assistance and Transition to Work (TtW) programs and reforms to the Harvest Labour Scheme that supports the agriculture sector.
There was continued focus on the future of employment services, including delivering the New Employment Services Model from July 2022.
A culture of delivery, connectedness and collaboration
Against the backdrop of this year’s unprecedented events, we did not lose sight of our people and establishing a culture of delivery, connectedness and collaboration.
An internal integration taskforce was established to shape how we work as one department. Working with colleagues across the department, the taskforce has led actions that instil connected ways of working across education, skills and employment. Our integration activities included: effective new governance structures; a strengthened focus on data and digital services; establishment of policy and data communities of practice; work on new people, workforce and learning and development strategies; and the re-establishment of employee networks. An interim corporate plan provided a consistent planning framework.
The department also had a strong, coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic that focused on the health, safety, wellbeing, and support of our people in all our offices nationwide. We supported more than 3,500 individuals to work from home, and new collaboration and call centre technologies were rolled out. Through challenging times we developed a positive, supportive and inclusive culture—a foundation that unites us in achieving our purpose.
Strength in diversity, inclusion and capability
The department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion embraces the unique skills and qualities of all our people.
Establishing a dedicated Senior Executive Service (SES) cohort of Diversity Champions, coupled with the launch of our new employee networks, provided a strong foundation to strengthening our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Investment in learning and development and capability building remained a priority. As many sectors moved to online delivery, we implemented new methods of professional development, enabling departmental staff to build their capability through online learning.
The department's better integration, links and relationships, internally and externally, offered new possibilities for increased engagement with stakeholders across our portfolio areas. I look forward to strengthening and broadening this approach in the years ahead.