Barr loses track of his students in Towards 2020 upheaval

Mr Andrew Barr MLA, the Minister for Education and Training, has refused to provide a report on the geographic distribution of ACT students amongst government schools, leading to the conclusion that his Department does not routinely maintain its own records of student information.

Without such basic information about his students, how does the Minister propose to assess the gains he claims were to be made by Towards 2020, including closing a large number of schools?

He also seemed to indicate that his Department does not keep its students’ records, such as their home addresses, up-to-date. The records were up-dated only last year, and now already seem to be out-of-date.

At issue is Mr Barr’s refusal to answer written questions on notice from Dr Deb Foskey MLA, Member for Molonglo, asking for information about where ACT students live in relation to the priority enrolment areas (PEAs) of the schools they attend.

In support of his refusal, Mr Barr said he was not prepared to allocate the resources necessary, as he considered it would have been an unreasonable diversion of the Department’s resources. The information was considered accurate only 18 months ago and it would seem only an update should be needed now.

Dr Foskey asked the same questions in early 2006, and answers to all questions were provided 29 days later. This year his answers took the equivalent 29 day period, but this time, the Minister has refused to answer the questions about ACT students. As this exercise was only done last18 months ago, most students are still in the system, and most would not have moved address. Therefore, to answer the questions for 2007 would merely have been an up-dating exercise.

Low competency or obfuscation?

The Minister stated that the task performed in 2006 took over a month to complete. If the Department has advised the Minister that it would take more than a month for a current update, and not less time than it took in 2006, the Minister and the people of the ACT should be very concerned about the level of competency in the Department.

Or perhaps there is unwillingness on the part of the Minister to be accountable for the outcomes of the Towards 2020 school closures?

Without basic geographic distribution information about his students, how does the Minister propose to assess the gains he claims were to be made by Towards 2020, including closing schools?

If this information was produced in 2006 only at the prompting of Dr Foskey, on what basis then did the Government make, or otherwise intend to make, decisions about such a large policy change in ACT Education?

Of course, the basis for closing any particular school has never been clearly articulated, and this made it very difficult for school communities to feel that they could put the case required during the legislated 6 month consultation period.

However, Mr Barr was readily able to answer the question regarding the number of NSW students at ACT schools. Was this then the basis for Towards 2020 proposing to close schools such as Hall Primary and Dickson College, which had the highest number of NSW students in primary and college levels respectively in 2006?

Keeping students records up to date

The amount of effort to clean-up student address records seems overstated. Firstly, the exercise was done relatively recently. The database query reports from 2006 could be used again. These routines, if not readily available, could be found in back-up disks.

Secondly, all college PEAs encompass full suburbs, so there is not need to drill down to street addresses in this case. In the case of high schools, only 4 suburbs (Phillip, Ngunnawal, Greenway and Deakin) seem to be split by a PEA boundary.

In the case of primary schools, approximately a quarter of schools have full suburb PEAs.

As a result, for over half of schools and students overall, the required information can be obtained without drilling down below suburb name level. Presumably not too many suburb names would be mis-spelt, so there would be few such rogue data base entries to clean up.

Background to Dr Foskey’s questions

On 25 September 2007, Dr Foskey asked question on notice (QON) 1684. Mr Barr responded on 24 October 2007, and they are both on the Legislative Assembly website.

Dr Foskey asked the same questions on 30 March 2006 (QON 1035). Mr Barr’s response was dated 28 April 2006; once again both on the website.

The nine questions requested answers to various cross-related factors:- PEAs, colleges, high schools, primary schools, in-area and out-of-area enrolments, source and destination of out-of area enrolments, retention rates, NSW students, and non-government school students.

In 2006, answers were given to all questions, except for home address distribution of non-government primary and high school students, as the Department only has suburb information available for these students. In 2007, only the question regarding NSW students was answered.

Rudolf Hath

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