The following statement was made by SOS Convenor, Trevor Cobbold, on 29 April to the Education Committee of the Legislative Assembly public hearing on the Towards 2020 school closure process.
Save Our Schools welcomes the opportunity to present our submission to the inquiry. This inquiry is of critical importance. It is important that the Legislative Assembly and the public learn from the failures of the Towards 2020 process. Changes are needed to the Education Act to ensure that these failures do not happen again in the future.
Perhaps the greatest failure of Towards 2020 is that it has undermined community confidence in governmental consultation processes. In a democracy there must be real and genuine opportunities to influence decision-making. The extent and effectiveness of community involvement in major public policy decisions such as those involving the closure of many neighbourhood schools is a test of democracy. Towards 2020 failed this test.
Towards 2020 was a sham process. It did not genuinely engage with the community. It was ill-conceived, ill-planned and ill-managed. It was not conducted within the spirit of the law. At critical points, it contravened the letter of the law, such as its failure to assess impact on students and their families and to provide a full 6 months consultation period.
All this reflected the Government’s intention to go ahead with a number of school closures, whatever the communities concerned said. The voices of many went unheeded.
Community participation in public policy decision-making is critical to a vibrant and healthy democracy. Changes to the Education Act are needed to restore at least a semblance of community faith in public policy consultation processes in the ACT in the future. They are needed to renew effective community participation in decision making. They are needed to renew democracy in the ACT. This is what is at stake in this inquiry.
It is also important that school communities whose school has been taken away from them by a process that lacked legitimacy, integrity and natural justice should be given the opportunity to re-establish their school.
The SOS submission outlines the failures of the Towards 2020 consultation process, makes a case for changes to the Education Act and makes recommendations for change.
1. Consultation failures
Our submission shows that the Towards 2020 process was riven by failure.
It failed to assess education impact
The Minister for Education failed to do a full assessment of the educational impact on students, families and the school community. Key education factors were ignored in the decision and the research on small schools was wrongly presented as indicating they provide a lesser education. In particular, the Minister failed to:
- Take account of the successful outcomes being achieved in the closed schools;
- Present any evidence that closed schools were delivering an unsatisfactory education;
- Have proper regard to the learning needs of disadvantaged students; and
- Assess the adequacy of the curriculum in each of the closed schools.
Although the Government argued that small schools limit the educational opportunities of students, almost every school that was closed had generally average and often higher-than-average student outcomes in some aspects. No audit of the curriculum of the closed schools was ever carried out and there is no evidence of an inadequate curriculum in the closed schools. None of the schools were closed because they were found to be failing schools.
All this suggests that the Government’s real reasons for closing schools had very little to do with education quality.
It failed to assess financial impact
None of the financial factors the Minister said he considered in assessing financial impact related to the financial impact on families and the school community as required under the Act. They all related to the financial operation of the school and the cost to government. There is no evidence that the Government systematically collected and analysed information on the financial impact of school closures on families during the consultation.
This suggests that the Government’s primary concern in closing schools was to generate financial savings. Yet, in pursuing this priority, the Government even failed to do a whole of government analysis of the financial impact of closing schools and excluded additional costs incurred by the Education Department and other agencies from its savings estimates. As a result, the net saving to government was over-estimated.
It failed to assess social impact
The factors taken into account by the Minister in assessing social impact largely related to demographic and enrolment trends in schools. None referred to the impact on students and their families as required by the Act. The Minister also ignored the impact on communities and other matters such as traffic safety issues, environmental impacts, and impact on property values and business.
It failed to provide a full consultation period
The effective period of consultation was less than the statutory six months because:
- It took months for the Government to provide necessary information to school communities and even then some information requested was never provided;
- The closing date for submissions was a month before the end of the 6-month period;
- The final decision was announced only one week after the end of the consultation period, which meant that decisions were being prepared during the consultation.
It failed to fully adhere to the consultation principles of the Act
Our submission shows that the consultation principles for the consideration of proposals to close schools outlined in the Act were not fully adhered to.
The consultation process was not open and transparent and was marred by an adversarial approach by the Government. Some key documents were withheld and information requested by the community was not readily supplied.
Community engagement in the consultation process was less than effective for several reasons outlined in the submission. Some options were not even consulted on; for example the P-10 school on the Kambah HS site and the P-2 school at Isabella Plains PS School. The decision on the P-10 school effectively decided the future of Urambi PS, yet it was never included in the consultation because it was not identified for possible closure in Towards 2020. Its future was decided without any consultation with its community.
The lack of timeliness and accuracy of information provided by the Minister and his Department were ongoing and contentious issues for much of the consultation period. This did much to undermine community confidence in the process. There were long delays in the release of necessary information. Much financial, enrolment, capacity and demographic data was shown to be inaccurate and misleading.
2. The Need for Change
The litany of failures incurred under Towards 2020 demonstrates a strong case for change in the way proposals for school closure are considered and consulted on in the future.
Key requirements of the Education Act were not followed to any reasonable degree. It is also apparent now that the Act fails to set out a sufficiently clear set of guidelines for fully assessing the impact of proposed school closures.
In addition, six months is too short a time for an effective consultation, especially in circumstances where many schools are proposed for closure. Not only is it too short a time for communities to be able to respond but it is clear from the Towards 2020 experience that the Department of Education did not have sufficient time to organise an effective consultation and provide all the relevant data and information at the beginning of the consultation.
While the Government failed to adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the law relating to Section 20 of the Education Act, it also failed to have due regard to other sections of the Act which have relevance to school closures. These are the sections on the principles governing the provision of public education.
Many of the failures of Towards 2020 were the result of the lack of independence in the conduct of the consultation and analysis of the feedback and submissions. The Department of Education cannot be a neutral broker in issues of school closure. It has a fundamental conflict of interest that biases it towards following government instructions rather than doing an objective analysis. The Department was seen as working on behalf of the Government and as a proponent of Towards 2020. It was not seen to be independent by the vast majority of school communities.
3. Proposals for Change
Save Our Schools proposes that Section 20 of the Education Act be amended to provide for:
- an independent public inquiry process to assess proposals for school closures and consider alternatives;
- a more comprehensive and inclusive community consultation process on school closures which takes account of the principles of public education stated in the Act;
- a schedule of educational, financial, social and environmental factors to be taken into account in considering proposals to close schools;
- an independent cost-benefit study of the direct and indirect effects of a proposal to close schools to be made available during the consultation process;
- an extended three-phase consultation, which includes consultation on a draft report to government;
- a right of appeal against a decision to close a school.
In addition, SOS proposes that the ACT Government should re-open schools whose communities have been wrongfully closed and adversely affected by closure and where there is community support to do so.