The Education Committee of the ACT Legislative Assembly has announced an inquiry into school closures under the Towards 2020 plan which closed 23 schools in the ACT between 2006 and 2008.
Save Our Schools welcomes the review. It will provide school communities with the opportunity to state their case for re-opening and to review the flawed and inadequate consultation process used by the Minister for Education for the Towards 2020 proposals.
The inquiry will also provide an opportunity to review the process and suggest changes for future consideration of school closures. Hopefully it will lead to changes to the section of the Education Act about consultation on school closures.
There are several issues relating to the Towards 2020 consultation process that should be considered in the inquiry.
- Lack of community input into the design of the consultation
The Government determined the consultation process without any input from the community. It made up its own rules for the process which school communities were forced to accept. The Government’s general guidelines for community consultation were not detailed enough to effectively guide consultation on school closures and, in any case, the Government failed to fully adhere to its own broad guidelines.
2. Length of consultation and timing of closure decisions
Six months is not long enough for an effective consultation, especially when many schools are being proposed for closure or amalgamation. The legislated six month consultation requirement was cut short in practice by the failure to provide all relevant information at the beginning of the consultation and by the requirement for submissions to be submitted by the beginning of November.
The gap between decision on the future of schools and the first tranche of closures was too short and did not allow sufficient time for school communities to prepare and plan events to bring the community together at the end. Transition arrangements were being put in place before the consultation finished.
There was a failure to provide full information requested by school communities. The functional review (Costello report) was never made available and this made it difficult to respond to the Government’s case that schools should close.
There were several instances of inaccurate and misleading information provided by the Department of Education. There were considerable delays in providing relevant information which school communities needed to prepare their case. Key information such as the cost and savings data for each school was not published at the start of the consultation period, but much later and only after repeated requests
All the relevant information should have been provided at the beginning of the consultation.
4. Consideration of education, financial and social impacts
The Government only provided selective research evidence on the costs and benefits of small schools. Its presentation of the case against small schools was biased and misleading. It failed to acknowledge the benefits of small schools. For example, it failed acknowledge new research that shows that students from low socio-economic backgrounds do better in smaller schools.
The Government failed to do a full economic cost benefit study (by definition this should include examination of social impacts) of the proposal to close schools and publish it for scrutiny during the consultation period.
The Government even failed to do a whole-of-government analysis of the effect of school closures. This meant that the savings accruing to the Department of Education were identified without regard to additional costs to the Department for such things as refurbishment of receiving schools and without regard to additional costs incurred by other departments such as for increased bus travel by students.
There is no evidence that the impacts on families and the broader community were ever considered in the decision to close schools, as required under the Education Act.
5. Lack of an independent consultation process
The consultation process was not independent of the Department and the Government. The consultation forums were designed to dis-empower participants. The information sessions were conducted solely by the Minister and Departmental officials. They were designed to give the Department complete control over the process and what information was presented.
There was no independent process for reviewing submissions. Major submissions were just ignored because they were not consistent with the Government’s pre-determined approach. The assessment of submissions was politically determined.
Future school closure consultation and review processes should be done by an independent review body.
6. No alternatives to school closures were considered
The Government followed a pre-determined course to deal with declining enrolments. It always saw school closures as the only response to declining enrolments in an area. School closures were presented as the only option in the consultation and it was just a matter of how many schools and which ones.
The Department of Education gave scant regard to the consideration of alternative options to closing schools presented in submissions. Assessing alternatives should be part of the process of doing a full cost benefit study.
7. New option at end of consultation
A completely new option was presented as part of the Government’s decision after the consultation finished. This was the P-10 school on the Kambah HS site. This option was not consulted on. It was not presented as part of the initial proposal, it was not presented at the regional consultation forum and it was not raised in the public submissions of any school in the region.
- Decision process
The process for deciding which schools would close was not transparent. It was not clear how the decision was made and how the conflicts between various criteria were resolved. It was apparent that the stated criteria were used inconsistently in deciding which schools were proposed for closure and which were ultimately closed.
8. No provision for appeals
No provision was made for an independent appeal process for schools decided for closure.
The terms of reference for the inquiry can be obtained at: http://www.legassembly.act.gov.au/committees/index1.asp?committee=117&inquiry=765
Submissions should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org or to the Standing Committee on Education, Training and Youth Affairs, GPO Box 1020, Canberra ACT 2601m by 31 March.