ACT Legislative Assembly Estimates Committee, 20 June – our correspondent Verity Warn reports

This was my first venture into an Estimates Committee session, and I have to say, it was a particularly entertaining introduction.

Trevor and I both decided it would be fun to head on in and watch the committee ask questions of Minister Barr. I personally was hoping to see a bit of squirming. My trusty and sensible chaperone did consider chaining me down before proceedings began, but after I promised to behave myself he decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was bitterly disappointed to learn that I was not going to be allowed to “Boo!” and “Hiss!” Apparently proceedings were meant to be more formal than that. So, taking a deep breath, I sat neatly in my chair, pulled out my pen and notepad, and presented the room with a perfectly behaved me.

Minister Barr had much to say. Well, numerous words, anyway. I learned today that there are people in this world who can fill an extended period of time with words, even with whole sentences and constructed paragraphs, and not say anything of substance, while also managing to avoid answering the question as asked. Minister Barr has refined this down to what can only be called an art.

Teachers in High Schools and an intro to “BarrMath”

Mr Barr was asked why the ACT government has reneged on its promise to add two new teachers to every high school in the ACT and why he had in fact removed two teachers from each high school instead. His response was to argue that this was not what was promised, and that the promise was for two additional staff per high school. According to him, everyone has misinterpreted the promise – and he’s very cross about it, too.

He also refuted claims that 60 teachers have been lost from high schools and colleges across the ACT, stating that this figure was in fact 43 teachers. Mr Barr then detailed his own claim that the high schools did not in fact lose two teachers each (although he did concede that they have each lost more than one!)

Ultimately, his response to the question, when pressed to actually answer instead of skirting the issue and splitting hairs, was to say (twice!) “We will deliver that in this term of government.” However, apparently this does not mean that those schools will get four teachers in this term of government (two to replace the two removed, plus two more to honour the promise). He clarified that each high school will receive an average of two more staff and reiterated that these will not necessarily be teachers.

Interesting – is he planning to give back the two that he took away and call that fulfilling the election promise? Perhaps this is more from the new branch of mathematics officially dubbed (by me) as BarrMath. I suspect that we, the people, aren’t supposed to notice.

Promoting Public Schools – such a pretty girl

Mr Barr was asked what he is doing to promote public schools in order to arrest the drift from public to private education. His department has apparently

  • matched federal funding into the public system.
  • made the “key” move of restructuring the entire ACT school system
  • written new policies to address issues of discipline and bullying in public schools. In addition his department is working on these same issues in the private system and attempting to have those schools implement the same principles. He said he doesn’t want to link public funding to this desired outcome.

His campaign involves:

  • Public Education Week events
  • Advertising
  • Seminars
  • Consistency in branding across public schools in the ACT

There seemed to be some gaping holes in this plan, such as the lack of promoting community involvement, pastoral care or quality education, or anything at all about equity in education. This last of which, forgive me if I’m being silly, is what the availability of public education is all about, isn’t it? And to lean primarily on the restructuring of the ACT education system, which in essence has been all about providing what Mr Barr loves to cal_state of the art facilities,_ is somewhat like putting makeup on a girl and claiming that her painted beauty alone is enough. Maybe she enjoys being pretty, but she still wants her other good points acknowledged and her other needs addressed.

Bullying in Schools

Minister Barr had much to say on this subject, and this was one area where he excelled. He had an obvious personal passion for the topic. In fact when he answered on this subject, it was the only time I didn’t have to strain to hear him and it was the only time he made any real sense. He had a realistic view of what was practical in terms of mandatory reporting, potential for human error and likely success rates, and showed a real desire to improve things. He had strong points to make about the need for both public and private schools to uphold similar principles and standards as far as management of incidents of bullying, and it appears that his department is making good inroads toward this end.

The point that stood out amongst the rest: if a child over age ten commits an act of violence, the school (after using its discretion as to the true magnitude of the situation) will be required to call in the police. This sounds rather frightening and may appear draconian or callous, but it needs to be acknowledged that police handle child offenders quite differently to adults. Also, given that teachers have minimal tools to handle the issue of violence in schools, this decision may reduce the frequency of staff throwing up their hands helplessly in the face of such incidents. Often it has been up to parents to figure out how to remotely resolve situations that occur in school settings. Perhaps this will change too.

Closed Site Usage

The issue of what is to become of closed school sites was raised, and Mr Barr deferred to his usual argument that this is no longer in his hands, as the properties are now controlled by Territory and Municipal Services. Poor Mr Barr, he must be getting tired of the public caring about the use of their assets that he stole and then gave away. He did, however, mention that use by non-government schools would be well down the list of priorities for site usage, and that a key example of what would be a typical priority is aged care facilities. Oops, maybe he was supposed to keep that comment for his Planning portfolio.

The plot thickens, but becomes less muddy. It was clear to those of us who were fighting to keep our schools open last year, that the most likely alternative use for our sites was aged care, due to the fact that the criteria for site selection is almost identical to that of selection for school sites. The big question now is whether those facilities would be publicly owned with green areas retained or would constitute further sale of public assets to developers.

Rich vs Poor – the gap in educational outcomes.

It is well known that in the ACT, there is a disproportionate gap in educational outcomes between those students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the more affluent students, with the disadvantaged group having a far higher proportion of students not achieving literacy benchmarks. Minister Barr was asked what he was doing to address this gap, and to demonstrate how the “bricks and mortar” approach was going to improve educational outcomes.

It was immediately obvious that this was a sore point for Mr Barr. First, he chose to pretend to misinterpret the message. He proceeded to disparage those who have criticised his “bricks and mortar” approach, making the faux assumption that anyone who has made comments of this nature must be against any infrastructural improvements in their entirety. Not only was this an inane assumption to make, if he in fact does truly believe it, but it is patently untrue. I quote here Clive Haggar, Secretary, AEU: “Yes, the new replacement schools are necessary. Yes, the refurbishment of remaining schools is needed. Yes the new facilities at existing schools are needed and welcomed but these bricks and mortar approaches do not address fundamental needs…” (Journal of the ACT Education Union – ACT Branch, June 2007.) Maybe Minister Barr just needs to attend a listening skills course. Or he could simply try telling the truth.

When pressed, he said there were “a number of key commitments” but that he wouldn’t waste time listing them to the committee. Oh, nice tactic Mr Barr! When repeatedly pushed for further information, he was getting a bit flustered, reiterating the above statement of not wanting to waste time. Eventually he ceded and outlined “a few key items,” as follows:

  • investing in facilities;
  • extension of the bursary scheme to include years 7 to 10 (Mr Barr was adamant that the $500 dollars per year going into more homes was going to have a significant impact on improving educational outcomes); and
  • a focus on curriculum renewal.

He also mentioned that he believed an increased focus on physical education programs and facilities in high schools would mean an ensuing increase in academic results. That’s why he’s adding gymnasiums to high schools. Dr Bruniges then spoke about the importance of Individual Learning Plans in particular, but also of quality teachers, funding models, professional development and the capacity to track and monitor students over time.

While all of this was at the very least thought-provoking stuff, one glaring oversight was the fact that at no time was it discussed how students who are at risk of not achieving benchmarks would be detected so that intervention, planning and monitoring could occur.

A second very significant oversight is that all the international research shows that putting students from low socio-economic backgrounds into larger population schools perpetuates the lower academic outcomes, decreases overall literacy rates, increases the achievement gap and creates a greater social divide. In the case of the ACT this is particularly relevant because the closure of smaller community schools and more specifically the construction of new “super-schools” (with a much larger population of pre-school to year 10), are happening in areas where there is a higher number of people living in poverty.

Ultimately, after at least 45 minutes of discussion, the question of what the ACT Government plans to do to specifically target a reduction in the gap in educational outcomes between students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds remained unanswered.

Propaganda Budget Blowout

Hey, remember all the pretty 2006 advertising designed to obscure and obfuscate the fact that the ACT Government pulled a whammy on us? All those expensive TV and radio ads, the glossy brochures talking about how the consultation process had gone so well, and how wonderful the government was, and how great everything was going to be, and how pretty, and how generous they are, and let’s all hug and…?

Well, Mr Barr told us that the budget for all of that was about $100,000, but that the real expenditure had been increased to some $155,000 in total for 2006/2007 year. He made mention that we should expect some more spending of this nature in the coming year as well.

So, not only have we the people had to take on costs of government by forfeiting our local schools and having to travel further, buy new uniforms, establish new community networks etc, but we now find out that even more of our tax dollars, which could have been used to educate our children, have been and will continue to be spent on a propaganda campaign designed to trick us into accepting that the increased costs we have taken on are all for a good cause. Harrumph.

Funny Moments

At various stages there were some entertaining little tidbits I’d like to share with you. First, there was Vicki Dunne, who very naughtily, but on quite valid premises, managed to sneak in about six or seven supplementary questions instead of the allotted one question. This infuriated Mick Gentlemen, Chairman, who was anything but a gentleman when he boorishly yelled at Ms Dunne for her very cheeky behaviour, sounding much like the draconian school principal we all remember from the 70s.

Then there was the moment when Mary Porter had to ask how to pronounce “Rivett,” initially saying it twice in such a way that it rhymed with the frog-like, “Ribbet, Ribbet.”

For me it was a truly interesting, albeit not altogether surprising first venture into the world of the Estimates Committee and observation of political banter. Minister Barr spent much of his time complaining that he was being interrupted, when often the intervening comment was along the lines of “Given what you’re saying, I think perhaps I asked a different question to the one written in front of me. Should I read it out again?” There were a few times when Mr Barr was doing such a terrible job of answering the question that I had to stop myself from putting my hand up and calling out, “Oh! Oh! I know the answer to this one!”

In the end

Given the poignancy of the word “Estimate,” I would estimate that Minister Barr said in the vicinity of several tens of thousands of words over the three hour period – but the information included herein is pretty much all he said that was anything specific or real. In my estimation, Mr Barr is clearly a very competent man when it comes to being a politician.

Afterwards, Trevor and I stood outside the doors talking. Mr Barr exited the room alone, and stepped between us in order to walk up the corridor – he automatically looked at each of us to see whom he was passing. Maybe he was planning to be friendly, but when he realised who we were, his face darkened. I received eye contact, but no acknowledging nod or words, and certainly not a smile in return for the one I offered. He seemed to forget his “charm the voters” persona in that moment. With his head down, he bustled off and that was the end of that. – Verity Warn

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