James Merlino is confronting a big challenge: To resuscitate Victoria's run-down education system, its 1526 public schools and the state's embattled TAFE institutes.
This system collectively suffered budget cuts of more than $2 billion during the previous Coalition government's four-year term. Now the new Labor government has promised to inject $1.3 billion back into school operations in its first term and give parents, teachers and principals new hope for the future.
Having left opposition behind, Mr Merlino occupies the grand, top-floor office of Deputy Premier, with views over the Treasury Gardens. Seated at a round mahogany table, the new Minister for Education speaks frankly about the impoverished state of many schools and outlines his plans to restore parents' confidence in the public system and in the teachers and principals responsible for the 565,000 children now enrolled
"We have prepared the legislation to boost spending on education by $1.3 billion, including $220 million for Catholic and independent schools," Mr Merlino says. "I was very keen to hit the ground running and the legislation will be introduced on parliament's first sitting day on Tuesday week."
During the election campaign, Premier Daniel Andrews and Mr Merlino spoke optimistically about making Victoria "the education state". He says it was it was essential that the legislation was in place "from day one" - though much more would need to be done.
Labor's election promises include a $510 million allocation for capital spending on refurbishing government schools and building new ones in Melbourne's ever-expanding suburbs and beyond. Mr Merlino says construction tenders for 11 new schools in the state's growth corridors will go to tender shortly but the immediate focus will be on the May budget, to ensure a significant capital program is in place.
On average, the former government's first three budgets provided about $200 million for capital works for new schools and upgrades of existing ones, he says. That was less than half of what was needed and far less than the budgets of the last Labor government, which averaged $467 million.
"When you have a capital program cut like that, the growth corridors are not getting the schools they need and run-down schools are not being upgraded. One of the most amazing stats I've heard in recent years is that we've had a 500 per cent increase in moving portable classrooms around Victoria, because the schools are not being built! The portables are being ripped out of one school community and relocated where there is high demand because of the previous government's under-funding."
James Merlino is the son of an Italian migrant who arrived in Melbourne in 1961. He was educated in Catholic schools and has an honours arts degree from Melbourne University. Married with three children - one starts prep this year - he was elected to the Yarra Ranges council in 1997 and became its deputy mayor before standing for the state seat of Monbulk. He won the seat easily again last November.
A former Minister for Sport, Recreation and Youth Affairs, and Minister Assisting the Premier on Multicultural Affairs, he took over as Police and Corrections Minister just before Labor lost the 2010 election. He was - and probably still is - little known to the Victorian public, but the high-profile education role will change that.
Mr Merlino shows a keen understanding of the problems facing state school principals and teachers, and a strong determination to tackle them. He says many principals had told him that under the Coalition government they had never felt more isolated or less supported, while schools were "left to rot".
"I am passionate about tackling disadvantage and assisting vulnerable families. I'm really proud of our plans: state school relief is providing uniforms and half or more state schools are getting them," he says. "Then there will be our efforts to tackle parental disadvantage with restoration of the camps and excursions fund and the state schools relief program, along with roll-out of school breakfast clubs."
Well before last November's state election, Mr Merlino led a team of 12 strategists preparing Labor's platform for when it won government. The 88-page document they produced includes 10 pages outlining more than 90 detailed plans for schools and TAFE that would lift the spirits of anyone involved with state education.
Given its ambitious scope, it seems likely that Labor will need more than one term to achieve the document's goals. However, Mr Merlino knows what he wants to achieve. Well before the election he devised an action plan which he has since implemented. He says the task facing Labor is more than just repairing the damage caused by the Coalition's $1 billion cut to the education budget, the slashing of capital spending on schools by 50 per cent and the more than $1 billion taken from TAFE.
"If we are going to be the education state, we have to do more than that. I'm not here just to clean up the mess left by the Baillieu and Napthine governments; it's about what more we can do. Making Victoria the education state means we need to address the plateauing of student performance over the past decade. So it's about addressing the quality of teaching in our schools, it's about tackling disadvantage.
"I don't shy away from raising expectations or demanding excellence, we should all do that when we talk about the education of our children. Outside of being a husband and a father, I think being the Minister for Education will be the most important thing I will ever do. This is about having a clear sense of direction, about improving educational outcomes for our kids by providing real pathways, real opportunities."
Labor's ambitious plans include the creation of a series of multi-million dollar technical centres across Victoria that local schools will be able to access and where students can learn a range of practical skills.
Mr Merlino says this is not an attempt to reproduce the technical schools of the 1970s and '80s where children finishing grade 6 had to make a choice whether they went to a high or a tech school, depending on their academic or vocational aspirations.
"Where we fell down in the past was the lack of real engagement between the tech schools and industry. The new technical centres in each region will be focused on the pathways that exist for school-leavers in those communities, what the job opportunities are, where the jobs of the future will be," he says. "We need to get it right in terms of the engagement and roles of TAFE, universities and employers in each region with the schools and students involved."
Harried and hard-pressed principals tried through much of last year to find out what had happened to the billions of dollars that was supposed to flow to disadvantaged Victorian schools as a result of the Gonski report. As Mr Merlino says, that report was the most significant review of school funding "in a generation".
"Gonski made absolutely crystal clear the link between poor educational outcomes and educational disadvantage: socio-economic, regionality, disability and so on," he says. "But schools say they have not received one cent out of Gonski and the former government refused to answer questions on this. I have asked the department to undertake an immediate investigation and we will be releasing the details of what the former government signed up to, how much money they did receive and where that money went."
Mr Merlino says the real battle will be with the Abbott government over years five and six of the Gonski reforms - where the biggest investment in schools was to be made. Mr Abbott has refused to commit the federal government to provide additional funding beyond the first four years.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of Victoria's four giant education regions, created by the former government to prove that nine could go into four by reducing nine former regions into four and creating another problem for Labor.
"You have this ridiculous concept of a region running from Albert Park to Mallacoota, it makes no sense," Mr Merlino says. He said his priority is working out how to provide a commonsense, practical support to schools at a regional level".
"The challenge in a portfolio like education is that there are so many things one could do to improve the system, so you have to decide what is the highest priority and then work your way through them," Mr Merlino says. "For me, it is tackling disadvantage and having a strong and sustained capital program. If you don't maintain your buildings, if you aren't building schools to meet the demand, the pressure builds and builds until, in Victoria at present, it gets to breaking point."