A NSW Parliamentary Committee report has slammed the approach by the NSW Department of Education to closing schools as “heavy handed”. It says the Department failed to properly consult with communities affected by proposed school closures, was not impartial in dealing with communities and ignored research evidence on the value of small schools educationally and to small regional communities. It makes ten recommendations to improve consultation about school closures.
The report of the Legislative Council Select Committee inquiry into the closure of public schools in NSW makes numerous critical references to the Department’s “heavy handed” approach to consultation about school closures. It is clear from the report that the Department never seriously consulted with school communities before closing 15 operating small schools in the last year. The Chairman of the Committee stated that the Department:
…should not set them up to fail by saying it is consulting with parents when it does not intend to take on board their views…. the Department’s organisational culture surrounding the closure of schools must be respectful and understanding towards parents. [p.ix]
The report is damning of the Department’s approach to consultation:
The committee is concerned by the heavy handed way in which the Protocols themselves, and the broader process of school closures, have been implemented in some cases. There is a strong pattern in the evidence before us – from Wollombi, Martins Creek, Crowdy Bay, Grong Grong, Gosford and beyond – that this is a very significant issue. It appears that the Executive Director and Directors have not fully appreciated the enormous personal investment that parents make in the education and life of their child, nor the immense value that families and community members place on their school as a pillar of their community. Nor do some officers appear to appreciate the shock and grief that parents in particular understandably feel when their school is threatened, then taken away. [p.x]
The evidence from Wollombi parents, Martins Creek parents, Crowdy Bay community members and many others around the state was that the Department did not genuinely consult with them, but rather established a consultative committee and simply pushed through with its agenda of closing the school. [p. 30]
…the Department’s representatives appear, in the case of the schools examined in this inquiry, to have taken a heavy handed approach to their interactions with families. This has only served to compound the parents’ negative experience, propelling them down a path of conflict to the point where they feel ‘devastated’ and ‘humiliated’, as did the Wollombi parents. Moreover, this heavy handed approach is highly counterproductive to the Department’s interests, causing parents to interpret all of the Department’s actions as malignant, and precipitating lengthy, resource-intensive disputes with parents, as has occurred in both Wollombi and Martins Creek. [pp.31-32]
The report presents evidence from many submissions demonstrating the lack of proper consultation. For example, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association of NSW told the inquiry that “consultation processes surrounding school closures are commonly inadequate”, with what is termed consultation actually being a process of informing the school community of a decision already made.
The report cites evidence compiled by one parent from a closed small school who documented the failure of the Department to consult properly with families in other closed schools:
Ms Goulder spoke with parents from numerous schools and documented their experience in her submission. She claimed that of 27 relevant schools of which she has knowledge, 18 identified problems with the Department. Of these, 15 reported, ‘complex, serious and often distressing problems. Five of the remaining schools reported negative long-term effects from school closure. In sum, 23 of the 27 schools reported strongly negative interactions with the Department.’
Ms Goulder asserted that a universal experience amongst those she had spoken to was that the Department’s consultation was very limited, and that rather than being an open ended process, “any school that enters … does not survive – they all close”. [p.18]
Another submission from a parent whose children had attended Grong Grong Public School stated:
The community consultation process on the closure of Grong Grong Public School was entirely symbolic, and simply the Department going through the motions of ‘being seen’ to do the ‘right thing.’ It is clear to us now that Grong Grong Public School had been earmarked for closure long before we had even enrolled at the school … The Department of Education undertook no demographic analysis of the area, and took no consideration of the steady growth in young families taking up property and building homes in and around Grong Grong. When we put forward that the population decline was in fact incorrect data the response was ‘We know this is very emotional for you.’
The report found major problems with the implementation of the Department’s Protocols for considering school closures:
It thus appears that the Protocols have not yet delivered the genuine consultation that the Department has assured the committee they are intended to. [p.30]
The report asks a critical question about the purpose of the Protocols:
Are they actually intended to facilitate consultation with parents and other stakeholders that genuinely influences the decision about a school’s future? Or are they really intended to facilitate stakeholders’ acceptance of and adjustment to a decision that has already been made? [pp.30-31]
The report makes several recommendations to ensure proper consultation on school closures. It recommends that the Protocols be amended to require the Department and the school principal should jointly consider strategies for boosting enrolments before any steps are taken to consider closing a school. It said that the process for closing schools should not proceed until those strategies have been developed and implemented. It further recommended that during the consultation phase, the School Consultative Group should be required to consider strategies to boost enrolments and, should such strategies be identified, not proceed with the process of closure until such strategies had been developed and implemented.
Recommendation 4 of the report calls on the Education Department to carefully consider the purpose of its Protocols about closing schools, specifically, whether they are intended to facilitate consultation with parents and other stakeholders that genuinely influences the decision about a school’s future, or alternatively, to facilitate stakeholders’ transition towards acceptance after a decision has been made. It says that if the intention of the Department is that the consultation be genuine, it should adapt the Protocols to enable this from an earlier stage.
Recommendation 5 states that the NSW Department of Education should develop and publish on its website an action plan on the organisational culture surrounding school closures with particular reference to the need to be respectful and understanding towards parents. Recommendation 6 states that the Department should be required to provide appropriate support, information, and resources to facilitate the consultation process.
The report is also highly critical of the Department’s handling of complaints about the consultation process. It documents a major conflict of interest in the handling of one complaint.
….we are concerned that the risk of perceived conflict of interest was apparently not identified in relation to the decision to appoint Ms W to investigate a particular matter, even during the review stage. By contrast, the committee considers that a reasonable person might well perceive a potential conflict of interest here. Moreover, the handling of this particular matter sits in the context of a perceived pattern of less than impartial handling of various complaints about the closure of the Wollombi and Martins Creek Public Schools. [p.52]
The report recommended that an independent audit of the Department’s handling of the Wollombi and Martins Creek parents’ complaints should be conducted. It said that given the history of mistrust that exists between the Department and the parents, this independent audit should not be commissioned by the Department of Education, but rather by another agency such as the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
Educational and social significance of small schools
The committee noted the educational and social significance of small schools, especially for regional communities. It found that there is evidence that small schools can contribute to positive outcomes for students and for local communities.
The committee finds that there is evidence that small schools, particularly at the primary level and particularly for rural and regional communities, can contribute to positive outcomes for students and local communities. [p.x]
The committee considers that small schools have an important role in the education system, and beyond that, they play a vital role in small communities. [p.13]
The committee recognised the importance of the evidence cited by Save Our Schools (SOS) that small schools school size at the primary level can have a positive effect on student outcomes and achievements, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The report recommended that the Department of Education make publicly available the evidence base it uses to support its assertions about educational outcomes and small schools.
The report also said that the financial benefits of closing small schools are debatable. It cites the Secretary of the Department of Education, Dr. Michele Bruniges, as stating that economic efficiencies are not a factor in decisions to close schools and noting research by SOS showing that the financial gain from closing small schools is minimal. She also said:
We have never used financial information to take decisions over school closures in my tenure. I can speak to that. It is very important that the education needs are front and centre.’ [p.36]
The committee also pointed to the failure of the Department to consider the contribution of schools to small regional communities. It said:
….a more holistic view of the role that a school plays in a small town should also be taken into consideration. In the committee’s view, the Department must also be very mindful of the impact that the decision to close a school will have on a community. A town without a school will inevitably have difficulties attracting families and its local economy will suffer. Thus the Department bears a weighty responsibility not only towards children and parents, but also towards the broader community surrounding a school. [p.40]
It recommended that, in the light of the significance of a school in a small community, the Department should formally review its processes for considering demographic trends at the local level and likely events and planning decisions that will influence enrolment numbers. It also recommended that the Protocols for closing schools should be amended to include consultation with local government and local community members.
The Select Committee report is a damning exposure of the failure of the NSW Department of Education to seriously consult with communities on the closure of small schools. The Department has treated parents in small regional schools with contempt and disdain. It was prepared to ram through a pre-determined agenda to close small regional schools. It has ignored the research on small primary schools that shows small schools have much to offer educationally, particularly to disadvantaged students, and that they are very important to the long-term economic and social outlook for small rural towns.
One disappointing aspect of the report is that the Select Committee did not agree to a proposal by one of its members, Dr. John Kaye, that it recommend that the Minister for Education should commission an independent review of the evidence of the impacts of small school size on primary student outcomes, rural and regional communities and overall economic costs and benefits for the state.
Nevertheless, the report is a positive step forward in recognising the educational and social benefits of small schools and in developing a genuine consultation process around proposed school closures. Hopefully, the report will give cause for a re-think by the Department and the Minister for Education. We await the Minister’s response with interest.