Expert Review of ACT Education System is Urgently Needed

An expert public inquiry into the state of ACT education is urgently needed. We need to better understand the trends in education outcomes and inequities in outcomes in the ACT and we need to find out what are the factors behind these trends. Save Our Schools has been calling for this for the past eight years. It is backed up by a string of recent expert and official reports, the latest being a report by the Grattan Institute. Continue reading “Expert Review of ACT Education System is Urgently Needed”

Education Disadvantage is Being Ignored in the ACT Election Campaign

This article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2016

Education disadvantage is the forgotten issue in the ACT election campaign despite its importance to the Territory’s social well-being and economic prosperity. Continue reading “Education Disadvantage is Being Ignored in the ACT Election Campaign”

The Folly of ACT School Closures Revealed

Tuesday January 14, 2014

Education Minister Joy Burch has exposed the folly of the 2006 school closures as an expensive and short-sighted mistake. The loss of spare capacity has now seen new classrooms built in schools only kilometres from closed schools, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Ms Burch started the 2014 year by proudly announcing the completion of $16 million worth of works at Macgregor, Duffy, Hughes, Majura and Yarralumla primary schools (The Chronicle, 7 January 2014, p4). This follows her 2013 in-principle approval for two new private schools in Charnwood and Spence.

Duffy is only a few kilometres away from the now-closed Weston Creek and Rivett primary schools. Macgregor Primary School and the two new private schools are not far from the now-closed Flynn Primary School.

In the Northwest Belconnen region alone, the combined increase in capacity of the three schools (Macgregor expansion and the two new private schools) is estimated at:
• Charnwood (Brindabella College): 194 students enrolled by 2018, increasing to 650 K-12 students
• Macgregor Primary School: an extra 250 students enrolled by 2016 (to reach a total of 700 students)
• Spence (At-Taqwa Islamic School): 800 students enrolled by 2022.

If the two private schools eventually proceed (and neither has been given the green light yet), the combined effect will be to add another 1700 student places to the Northwest Belconnen region. (Potential enrolment growth from Dunlop and Macgregor West would already have been already included in the 2006 planning.)
All-in-all, the 2006 school closures have cost the government tens of millions of dollars, and the community even more in terms of lost services and social capital.

To save a $21.3 million over four years for 23 schools, the ACT Government has spent more than $15 million on new classrooms and on refurbishing existing ones to accommodate new students. And that doesn’t even start to count the cost of new classrooms and schools in the private sector. The huge capital investment that followed, including two new P-10 schools and IT upgrades, promised as sweeteners to surviving schools, were a welcome investment in the sector, but according to government claims, were not dependent on closing schools.

The government has also borne the cost of refurbishing the closed schools for other uses. This has so far added up to around $40 million. Another $1.1 million dollars was spent on “community consultation” after the schools were closed, much of it on consultants. While community facilities are something the community lobbied hard for in 2007, much of this $40 million could have been avoided as many of the closed schools were engaged and active in their local communities, with some doubling up as community facilities in their own right. Some now-closed schools had even proposed more community use as a cost-free, and possibly revenue-raising, alternative to closing their schools. Just keeping Flynn Primary School open could have reduced that bill to less than $30 million because of the cost of protecting the heritage values of the site while adapting it wholesale for other uses.

In contrast, Joy Burch’s own announcements this week show that it has cost about $2 million for an “older school upgrade”. If this had been spent on each of the 23 schools instead of closing them, the total cost to government would have been around $46 million, without the angst and social costs. The actual cost would most likely have been lower: condition assessments for 2006 show that most schools needed an average of around $0.5 million to bring them up to “normal” standard, leading to a total refurbishment cost of around $12 or $13 million.

The total cost of not closing schools could have been around $35 million—significantly less than the $55-or-so million spent so far to close them and keep them closed. And these are just the direct, easily documented costs to government.

It is good news that Ms Burch places a value on neighbourhood schools that her predecessor, Andrew Barr, never understood. Her proud announcement of up to 300 more places at Macgregor Primary School to meet the growing demand from the local area is to be applauded. It is a shame, however, that she does not yet have the courage to make the obvious move and at least apologise for her government’s mistakes, if not re-open closed primary schools rather than throwing yet more money at keeping them closed.

Sarah James

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Flynn and friends raise $50,000 and survive ‘strike out’

Friday August 17, 2007

The Flynn Primary School Parents and Citizens Association has lodged the $50,000 required to continue its legal challenge to school closures and survived an application to ‘strike out’ the action in the ACT Supreme Court today.

The ACT Government’s application to ‘strike out’ Flynn’s action and charge Flynn P&C for all legal costs to date was dismissed in the ACT Supreme Court following Flynn’s lodging of the $50,000 security earlier this week.

Flynn Primary P&C Association President Roger Nicoll said, “Raising the $50,000 is a major breakthrough for Flynn and the Canberra community and it demonstrates just how strongly people feel about protecting our schools and communities and ensuring that governments are accountable for their decisions.”

“With the posting of yet another increase to the budget surplus there seems to be a growing momentum across Canberra, not just to question some of the recent decisions, but to also restore many of the schools closed under Towards 2020.”

“Canberrans have every right to ask why their rates have gone up as much as 50% in the past year, while schools have been shut down and the government runs up a large surplus. In Flynn for example, ratepayers paid $337 or 39% extra rates in 2006–07, while losing its school and only community facility. The added fuel and transport costs for families from closed schools is approximately $1000 to $5000 per year.”

Flynn’s legal action under the Administrative Decisions Judicial Review Act aims to challenge the closure decision and, ideally, restore a school and community centre at Flynn.

Mr Nicoll said. “We understand that the Flynn case may also have wide public interest and appeal as it stands to scrutinise government process.”

“Flynn would like to thank all those groups and individuals across Canberra that have helped us to achieve this significant milestone, and we welcome ongoing support through the Friend of Flynn campaign.”

Further information about the Flynn challenge and how to support it can be found at the Save Flynn School website

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Minister Jumps the Gun on Super-School

Tuesday August 14, 2007

The Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, jumped the gun last week by announcing the start of construction of the new super-school in West Belconnen. The ACT Government has not yet received official approval for the project.

The ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) confirmed yesterday that it has not yet approved the development application for the school. Objections to the application were lodged by some local residents and ACTPLA is yet to rule on these objections (as at the time of writing).

The Minister conducted a formal ‘turning the sod’ ceremony at the site of the new super-school last week. It appears that he was more concerned about getting a photo opportunity in the local media than adhering to the planning legislation for which he is also responsible as Planning Minister.

The ‘turning the sod’ ceremony traditionally represents the formal start of a building project. Indeed, the Canberra Times report (8 August) stated that the ceremony marked the beginning of work on the super-school. If the Minister wasn’t announcing the start of construction, one wonders what the event was all about.

The Minister has acted unlawfully and subverted ACT planning processes by his actions. Objections have been lodged against the project in good faith and according to the due statutory process. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these objections, the Minister has effectively prejudiced the case against them by announcing that construction will start before there has been a formal decision on the objections.

This is a failure of due process. It could also be seen as a blatant attempt to coerce ACTPLA to give the go-ahead for the super-school.

The super-school project has been characterised by a failure of due process right from the start. The ACT Government adopted a ‘take or leave it’ approach by telling parents that the old Ginninderra high school would close in any case if they did not accept the super-school proposal.

The Government failed to establish a genuine consultation process around the proposal and refused to supply adequate information on the proposal or to examine the educational, financial and social impact of closing schools in the area.

The ACT Government has consistently ridden roughshod over parent concerns about the loss of access to neighbourhood schools associated with the building of the super-school and its potential to lead to further school closures in the region. It is now apparent that the Government is prepared to ignore its own planning laws in order to get its way.

Trevor Cobbold
14 August 2007

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Dismay from Cook P&C

Friday June 8, 2007

Cook Primary School Parents & Citizens Association is dismayed that the large 2007 ACT Budget surplus has confirmed that the ACT Government’s massive program of school closures is unwarranted.

Any competent government would only have opted as a last resort for large scale school closures, with the associated distress and anxiety inflicted across the Canberra community.

Instead, the Stanhope Labor Government has blundered its way through a series of unwawrranted, knee-jerk measures in recent months, on the spurious grounds of averting acute financial collapse in the ACT.

The decisions on cuts to bus services, and hospital pay parking, have been reversed.

We can only hope that the Government will, belatedly, see reason and reverse its appalling school closures decisions.

Debbie Newton, School closures community liaison officer,
Cook P&C

7 June 2007

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Consultations on Future Uses of Closed School Sites

Monday May 21, 2007

The Minister for Territories and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves, has announced a two-stage community consultation process on the future use of schools and pre-schools closed at the end of last year.

Primary schools in Flynn, Hall, Chifley (Melrose), Mt. Neighbour, Rivett, Tharwa and Weston closed at the end of 2006. Also included in the consultation process are two former primary school sites in Downer and North Curtin.

Details of the consultation process

An independent consultant will be engaged by the ACT Government to seek community views on potential future uses that could be made of all closed schools. This stage of the consultation will seek input on four suggestion put forward for discussion by the Government and will also seek suggestions from the community on other possible additional uses.

Stage 2 of the consultation will seek community views on which of the potential uses identified in Stage 1 would best utilised for each particular site.

Stage 1 will take approximately 2 months during July-August. In this period, community forums will be held in Belconnen, Woden/Weston, Tuggeranong and Hall and Tharwa villages. Stage 2 will occur over 3 months following Stage 1.

The consultant’s report shall be delivered to the Government towards the end of the year and Cabinet will make its decision in January or February 2008. The terms of reference for the consultancy are still to be developed.

The four generic uses to be discussed in Stage 1 are:

  • School buildings fully retained with unleased land added to the urban open space network (including the school oval);
  • School buildings fully retained with partial site development within current land use and unleased land added to the urban open space network;
  • School buildings partially retained, with partial site development for other uses and unleased land added to the urban open space network; and
  • Complete site re-development.

The consultation about the Mt. Neighbour and Rivett sites will occur in Stage 1 and not Stage 2 because the Government’s condition audit has found that the condition of these buildings is too poor to be retained for community use. As a result, it is likely that these sites will be sold.

The Minister also stated that the Government plans to retain the equivalent of four school buildings across Belconnen, Woden/Weston and Tuggeranong to provide lease space for existing community groups and those seeking to lease new space.

Problems with consultation process

The consultation process is welcomed by Save Our Schools. It should provide opportunities for communities to have their say in how the buildings and grounds will be used in future. Communities should take advantage of this opportunity and make their views known.

However, it remains to be seen how genuine and effective the process will be. The ACT Government has a lamentable record in community consultation. Too often, consultation processes are just a formal process that the Government has to go through in order to arrive at pre-determined decisions. Too often, community consultation by the Stanhope Government has been a charade. Many in the community no longer trust the Government’s consultation processes and do not believe that they reflect community concerns and aspirations.

There are several issues of concern about the process announced by the Minister. These are:

  • The process is not fully transparent;
  • The Minister stated that all possible options will be considered, but ruled out the option of re-opening closed schools at some future date;
  • The Minister failed to clarify whether a cost-benefit analysis of options will be carried out for each site as required under the Government’s surplus property guidelines.
  • Lack of full transparency*

The consultation process will not be fully transparent because the consultant’s report will not be available for public scrutiny and comment before Cabinet makes a decision on the sites. The Minister for Territories stated in his press conference that the consultant’s report would be given to the Government and would be a Cabinet in-confidence document.

The Minister stated that he expected that the report would be made public after Cabinet makes its decisions. However, this is not acceptable. It denies the community an opportunity to examine the recommendations of the consultant, correct any errors of fact, challenge any biases or unwarranted assumptions or to generally comment on the quality of the report.

The community will not know how adequately its views were taken into account until after the Government has made its decision.

Re-opening schools ruled out

Minister Hargreaves gave assurances at the press conference that all options would be considered for future use of the closed sites. This would include the four options for discussion put forward by the Government and any options raised by the community. He then immediately contradicted this assurance by stating that the Government would not re-open any site as a school.

There are real signs of urban renewal in many older suburbs in Canberra. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last year show that new births and fertility rates are increasing in suburbs where schools have closed. For example, the fertility rates for Flynn and Chifley (Melrose PS) are 2.29 and 2.22 respectively, compared to the average for the ACT of 1.63. The number of births in Chifley increased from 25 in 2000 to 38 in 2005, an increase of over 50 per cent while births in Flynn increased from 48 to 62, an increase of nearly 30 per cent. Births also increased by over 30 per cent in Rivett and Weston.

If this trend continues, some of the closed sites may be required again to avoid overcrowding in existing schools. It is deplorable that the Minister has pre-empted the community consultation by ruling out this option.

The Minister also made explicit the Government’s rejection of the concept of the neighbourhood school as a key feature of public education in the ACT. He stated that it is Government policy that not every neighbourhood will have a local school.

Cost-benefit analysis of options for sites

It appears that the Government may not meet its own regulatory requirements governing the how surplus property use is to be evaluated. The Government’s surplus property guidelines state that a cost-benefit analysis must be prepared for each property identified as potentially surplus.

Save Our Schools questioned the Minister at his press conference as to whether these cost-benefit studies would be undertaken as part of the consultation process or whether it would be done as a separate process. The Minister refused to state that these analyses would be done.

Sale of Mt. Neighbour and Rivett schools

The Minister stated that Mt. Neighbour and Rivett schools have been found to be structurally unsound and in such poor condition that they will not be retained for community use. This means that they are likely to be sold.

There are reasons to question this decision.

First, both schools were deemed suitable to house young children for many years, but now, six months after they were closed they are suddenly found to have serious structural and other defects. The Department of Education regularly carries out building inspections and assesses building safety and has never publicly suggested that the buildings were unsuitable or dangerous to house young children.

Second, the Notice of Decision that Mt. Neighbour should close does not include the poor state of the building as a reason to close the school. The Minister for Education’s Notice runs to 17 pages and not once does it refer to the buildings as being defective, run-down or dangerous. The Notice of Decision for Rivett has not been made available to Save Our Schools, so it is not possible to determine whether the state of the building was a factor in the decision to close the school.

The Government should publish the condition audits carried out on the closed schools by the Department of Territory and Municipal Services and the most recent building inspection reports carried on those schools by the Properties Section of the Department of Education.

Trevor Cobbold
21 May 2007