Parliamentary Convenor of the ACT Greens, Meredith Hunter, tabled a bill in the Legislative Assembly to amend the school closure provisions of the Education Act. Below is her tabling statement.
This bill amends the Education Act 2004 to ensure that any decisions to amalgamate, close or consider closing a government school are made in a rigorous, thoughtful and transparent manner. The Greens are committed to reviewing the impact on children, families and communities of the Towards 2020 school closures. We are also determined to ensure that such a false and ill considered process can never happen again.
This bill amends those sections of the current Education Act that govern the amalgamation and closure of government schools. In drafting it, we have tried to respond constructively to the anger and frustration continually expressed to us by parents, students, teachers and other members of the school communities whose schools were threatened with closure through the shocking and ill-considered ‘Towards 2020’ school closing plan.
Through MLA Deb Foskey’s office and later through this year’s election campaign the Greens were made well aware of the inconsistencies in the ACT government’s process, the lack of detailed information that the government could provide to justify its approach and its eventual decisions, and the thin rationale it could provide, the ongoing costs to families of these decisions and their unhappiness.
As the process unfolded through 2006, the ground continually shifted from benchmarking to cost saving to educational outcomes. None of these rationales ever stood up across the board. Rather, they appeared to be a fairly random collection of reasons, some of which were more or less defensible on some occasions, perhaps.
This is, of course, one reason why the ongoing secrecy of the document that drove or was perhaps the excuse for this plan has been so aggravating and why, in a few months when there is some independent arbitration in place to make a judgment on what is in the public interest to disclose, the Greens will support action to have the bulk of this notorious functional review released.
Another element that appeared quite unfair was the perfidy of what appears to have been a sham consultation process: where the core group in a school community was surprised to discover that its seemingly successful and vibrant school was at risk of being shut down, was offered the opportunity to demonstrate its ongoing viability on some level or another, and then either executed or reprieved at the end of the year.
Of course, some of those schools were really bargaining chips or pawns in a greater game. Dickson College springs to mind. It would have been stupid on all fronts, educational and political, most obviously, to close Dickson College down, but the threat to Dickson provided a distraction, and the relief of having that school saved probably softened the blow of the loss of some of the others.
And the work that so many of those core school community groups put in to demonstrating both the important role they played in the communities and the way they could expand on that role into the future was heart wrenching. Because it seemed so much of that very strong creative community building visionary work was pointless.
The issue of whether those schools should and could be reopened is not the point of this bill. One of the outcomes of traumatic experiences such as that (and the closure of schools after this battle on seemingly random grounds for some was undoubtedly traumatic) is that [the] people involved want to fix up the process for others.
People want the lesson to be learnt from their unhappy and unjust experiences. They want subsequent school communities to feel as if they have been treated with more respect if and when the issue of school closures comes around again. For some of them, that is the best outcome now that we can deliver.
We are also of the view that the way to develop a good process in an area as complex as this is to run a process that allows for all relevant stakeholders, particularly those are most aware of the consequences of a poor process, to get involved. Our plan then is to refer this bill to the education committee in the next sitting period once a committee itself is up and running.
Then those community groups, the ACT Education Department itself and experts in education community development can all contribute to a fairly open process.
Of course, we are also determined to put something concrete on the table as a starting point, because it is much easier to fine tune or even reshape a concrete proposal than it is to just go fishing for change.
While in the first instance we are happy to consider some simple, broad brush amendments as a starting point, it became clear that a lot of pertinent thinking had already been done. So, in finalising this bill, the Greens sought some guidance from some school and community groups.
Specifically, this bill does a number of things: it begins by requiring government to raise the issue of closure and amalgamation with the school community before any decision is made and to work with the relevant school community on other strategies to address any problems or perceived problems with the school’s enrolments or performance. This is a key proactive step which the ACT government was either too scared to do in the lead up to 2006 or was too driven by its own secret goals to be prepared to embark on.
This bill also specifies an independent cost-benefit analysis to look at the education, environmental and economic impacts of any mooted closure. Schools perform a number of roles in our community, and while the educational outcomes of our students is a paramount focus for the school system, that is a complex socially and culturally embedded thing. While the government at different times suggested it looked at the broader impacts of its school closure decisions, the Greens are not convinced that the economic, cultural and social impact of the schools closures in, say, Tharwa and Hall, for example, were considered against the savings that the closure of these schools was claimed to deliver.
This bill also introduces a number of timelines. The Education Act as it exists provides for a bare six months notification. A number of the many problems of 2006 relate to that timing.
It is also worth remembering that when the 2004 Act was introduced, the issue of those timelines was raised with the then Labor government by the P & C, which was advised that the six months was only indicative and any closures, if they were to happen, would have much longer time frame than that. This was far from the reality. And the rush at both the front and the end of the consultation process was all about using the six-month minimum time frame in order to control the process.
This bill also requires the government to demonstrate to the school community how its views have been taken into account in making the relevant decision. That, of course, is an element in all good, respectful consultation processes. It is perhaps the most offensive aspect to those communities who have worked so hard to feed in or engage with and respond intelligently to government decision making when their input appears to be ignored.
In this case, school community groups were left bewildered and bitter that the important and researched evidence they represented about demographic change, community support, alternative administration models and so on were seemingly dismissed out of hand.
It is not always possible to take on board everything that those people might offer. But it is vitally important to consider that contradiction seriously and to demonstrate that consideration in your response.
The Greens are serious about using the Assembly and its processes to engage constructively with them. This bill has been drafted with some guidance from our colleagues in the community, and it is now, in effect, open for more feedback and engagement.
Finally, I think I need to make it clear that this is forward-looking amendment that is important for the whole Canberra community. Badly handled and inappropriate decisions to shut or amalgamate schools have flow-on impacts for the whole community.
Community fabric is something that has been somewhat disregarded during the past 20 years of individualised, unsustainable economic growth.
The next few years in response to the twin pressure of climate change adjustment and economic slow down, I believe, will find ourselves once again looking for local connections and more highly valuing social and community engagement and activity and the value of local schools, particularly government schools, to supporting the social infrastructure that we need – and that will become more and more apparent.
And so the statutory processes will put government into a collaborative and creative investigation of alternatives to closing or amalgamating schools. And this is an important goal of the bill. I do not think we yet know of the long-term impact of the 2006 closures, that the new Kingsford Smith P-10 school already has a bit of concerning impact.
In the first instance, enrolments above Year 7 have not come in. That is probably because most kids want to stay in their current high school with their existing circle of friends, subject choices and associated arrangements. Year 7 enrolments at that school, of course, are fine, and there is undoubtedly a flow-on impact to nearby schools.
I would be interested to know what the enrolment for competing Year 7s are in nearby schools, both government and non-government, and what strategies have been put in place to ensure their survival. I am also interested to know how the forward planning is going for those primary schools in the shadow of Kingsford Smith.
Looking again at the impact of the 2020 plan, we can see that the impacts are still flowing through. Four new early childhood schools are to open next year. The impact on those schools’ communities has already been substantial, but what does the department plan to do if enrolments are too low? Similarly, what is the long-term plan for those school sites which no longer have schools but have kept their preschools? These are all questions that need to be guided by good legislation.
This bill would make a substantial improvement to the existing act, but it can and should be substantially improved. We intend to do that work over the next few months, and look forward to the support of other parties.