The Stanhope Government has broken two specific election commitments in the ACT Budget. Despite promises of no school closures, it proposes to close nearly 25% of preschools and schools. Despite an election commitment of $12 million to increase numbers of teachers in high schools, the Budget means the loss of around 160 teachers.
The school closures and teacher cuts make a nonsense of three recent policy directions of the Stanhope Government.
Firstly, the Stanhope Government has been talking up the need to promote government schools, yet it has triggered off the most negative “promotion” campaign imaginable. Not only that – the reductions in teacher numbers will have most impact in the high school sector, which is the one most in need of promotion.
Far from promoting government schools, one of the striking features of the Budget is that all the cuts will be for government schools, with no cuts in funding for private schools. Their funding will continue to increase in line with inflation. Small schools in the private sector will continue to be supported, while they are being abolished in the government sector. Thus, many parents who want the benefits of a small school experience for their child, especially students with special needs, will need to move to the private sector, for only private schools will offer that choice in future.
Secondly, school closures inevitably reduce access to government schools. Over 3000 children will have to travel to a more distant school, getting to school over longer distances and crossing the major roads that surround most Canberra suburbs. One of the key principles of the ACT Education Act – a specific commitment to ensuring reasonable access to government schools for all students – has effectively been abandoned.
Thirdly, the threat to equity is particularly acute. Government schools enroll the overwhelming majority of students from less advantaged groups – Indigenous students, students from low income families and students with disabilities. Private schools enroll proportionately far fewer students from these backgrounds. Yet, it is government schools that are facing all the cuts.
Students from these backgrounds, and their families, will suffer disproportionately from the direct impacts of school closures, with reduced access to a local school and higher transport costs. They will also suffer from the reductions in teacher numbers, with fewer teachers available to provide the additional learning assistance and student welfare support that are critical to achieving equitable educational outcomes.
Not long ago, the Stanhope Government launched its Social Plan, with loud proclamations of its commitment to equity and inclusion. The school closures and teacher cuts make an absolute mockery of these commitments.
The Government is, of course, arguing that there is a budgetary imperative. But, at most, it will gain savings of only 3-4% of the education budget from closing 20-25% of schools. It has failed to detail these savings, providing only a one line Budget estimate. These estimates need to be justified, because the savings estimates of past school closures have proven to be greatly exaggerated.
Most of the costs of education are for staff, directly related to the number of students, and thus savings from school closures are minimal – at best part of a principal’s salary, a few other site-based salaries and maintenance. But, in closing schools, the Government will incur substantial additional costs, including bus transport subsidies, bus purchases and maintenance, road works and crossings to ensure student safety, loss of rent from tenants in closed schools, refurbishment of buildings and grounds in schools with increased enrolments. It is also likely to face increased costs for student welfare support and behaviour management.
Selling school grounds is the one way the Government can make significant savings from school closures. The Minister says he is not aware of any such proposals, but the previous Minister said she was not aware of any further proposals for school closures beyond Ginninderra High School. It is difficult to take the Minister seriously in the light of the Government’s record of broken election promises and policy reversals in this area.
The Stanhope Government could also save a lot of money if large numbers of students moved into the private sector, because this shifts costs onto the Commonwealth and parents. The Territory provides 90 per cent of government school funding but only about 15 per cent of private school funding. The potential savings amount to $9 000 – $10 000 per student so that, if a third of all displaced students ended up in private schools, the Government would save around $10 million a year.
It is hard to believe that this would be government policy, but the Government needs to assure the community it is not part of a Treasury agenda. It should therefore release the detailed Budget estimates, and the still secret Costello report as a matter of urgency.
The debate clearly still has a long way to go, but the Stanhope Government should not assume that it is bound to rule in a town that traditionally votes Labor. The Liberal Opposition has already rejected the package of school closures, and may therefore benefit from the inevitable electoral backlash. And if the proposals are still current at the time of the next election, in 2008, then there may also be increased support for minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats, as well as independent community candidates. Perhaps it would be timely for the Stanhope Government to indulge in a traditional Labor past-time, and do the numbers.
Dr. Ian Morgan
Dr. Morgan is a member of the Interim Save Our Schools Committee. He is a past President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations and the ACT P&C Council. His views do not necessarily represent those of ACSSO or P&C Council.
Published in the Canberra Times, 19 June 2006.