Towards 2020: A Public Consultation Failure

This is a summary of the SOS submission to the inquiry into school closures being conducted by the Standing Committee on Education, Training and Youth Affairs of the ACT Legislative Assembly. The full submission can be downloaded below.

Consultation failures

The Towards 2020 consultation on school closures and amalgamations was a public consultation failure. It was riven by failures. The ACT Government failed to:

  • properly and adequately assess the educational, financial and social impact of the proposed school closures on students, their families and the general school community in each case;
  • provide a full consultation period of six months; and
  • fully adhere to the consultation process and principles of the Education Act 2004.

1.    A failure of education impact assessment

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 schools that were closed;
  • Present any evidence that closed schools were delivering an unsatisfactory education;
  • Have proper regard to the learning needs of disadvantaged students in making his decision; 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. The Notices of Decision for Village Creek Primary and Kambah High School did not even mention their educational outcomes as a factor considered in the decision. Similarly, student outcomes were not considered in the decisions to partially close four other schools and turn them into P-2 schools. No Notice of Decision provided any evidence of poor education outcomes.

None of the schools were closed because they were found to be failing schools.

The educational factors the Minister said were taken into account in his decision omitted the learning needs of low-income and Indigenous students despite extensive research evidence that these students achieve much better results in small schools. Several of the fully and partially closed schools had a relatively high proportion of low-income and/or Indigenous students.

No audit of the curriculum of the closed schools was ever carried out and there is no evidence in the public documents of an inadequate curriculum in the closed schools.

The Minister selectively and falsely cited research on small schools. He crudely misrepresented a summary of research by Professor Brian Caldwell. Each of the Notices of Decision referred to Professor Caldwell’s paper to justify the decision to close small schools.

Professor Caldwell in fact found that small schools do better than big schools on a whole range of criteria. Caldwell’s paper provides a compelling critique of the Minister’s claims.

2.    A failure of financial impact assessment       

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. This was given almost exclusive priority over the statutory requirements.

The Government made no attempt to systematically collect and analyse information on the financial impact of school closures on families during the consultation. The Notices of Decision universally failed to provide a detailed analysis of the financial impact on families in each community.

The Government 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. The net saving to government was over-estimated.

3.    A failure of social impact assessment

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 ignored the impact on communities and other factors such as traffic safety issues, environmental impacts, and impact on property values and business.

4.    Failure to do a cost-benefit impact study

While there is no formal statutory requirement for the ACT Government to provide a cost-benefit study of the impact of closing schools, the requirement to assess the educational, financial and social impact of school closures is a signal to the relevance of cost-benefit techniques. No such study was ever carried out despite repeated requests from school communities and key stakeholders.

The ACT Council of P&C Associations went so far as to engage an expert consultant to develop the conceptual framework for a cost-benefit study to give some guidance to school communities. The report was denigrated by the Minister and he refused to consider its suggestions.

5.    Failure to provide a full consultation period

The Education Act 2004 requires that before a decision is taken to close or amalgamate a government school, the Minister must ensure that the affected school communities are consulted for a period of at least six months. However, the effective period of consultation was less than 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 consultation period; and
  • The final decision was announced one week after the end of the consultation period.

6.    Failure to fully adhere to the consultation principles of the Act

The Towards 2020 consultation process failed to:

  • Focus on educational opportunities;
  • Be fully open and transparent;
  • Involve effective community engagement;
  • Provide information provided in a timely and accessible way; and
  • Seek the views of school boards affected by the proposal.

The requirement to focus on educational opportunities was subsumed by the Government’s overriding objective to reduce financial costs to Government. The Government’s primary objective to make financial savings was reflected in the consultation process where education quality issues were not given due regard, and were often subject to misrepresentation. Much greater weight was given to financial costs

The consultation process was not open and transparent. Some key documents were kept secret and the Government made use of exemptions and conclusive certificates to withhold formative policy documents. In addition, it failed to:

  • Give reasons for decisions to list and close schools;
  • Explain the process for listing and closing schools;
  • Release key information;
  • Reply adequately to correspondence;
  • Accurately represent educational research; and
  • Respond to or incorporate new data.

Community engagement in the consultation process was less than effective for several reasons:

  • Key parts of the Community Engagement Manual were not followed;
  • There were indications that decisions to close schools were made before the end of the consultation period; and
  • Alternatives to school closure were not seriously considered.

In addition, there were several instances of the Government deciding to proceed with options that were never subject to formal consultation with the affected communities. These were the P-10 school on the Kambah High School site, the P-2 school at Isabella Plains Primary School, and the amalgamation of some pre-schools with primary schools. The decision on the P-10 school effectively decided the future of Urambi Primary School, 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 financial information and the factors that were taken into account in deciding which schools were to close. In addition, requests for reasons as to why schools were proposed for closure were never provided.

Much information provided by the Government for the consultation was inaccurate and misleading. Financial, enrolment, capacity and demographic data was often shown to be inaccurate during the consultation.

It appeared to many who participated in Towards 2020 that the Government’s idea of consultation was to invite submissions because it was required by law to do so and then it could ignore what people said if they did not support the Government’s original intentions. Many concluded that the consultation process was fraudulent and that the Government never had any intention of listening to school communities and stakeholder organisations. The failure to adhere to the consultation principles required by the Education Act gave much credence to these perceptions.

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. The requirements of the Education Act were not followed to any reasonable degree.

It is clear that the Education Act is inadequate as regards the requirement to assess the educational, financial and social impact of school closures. It fails to set out a sufficiently clear set of guidelines for fully assessing impact. This lack of detail allowed the Minister to give lip-service to this statutory requirement with the result that the educational, financial and social impact of closing schools on students, their families and the general school community was largely ignored by the Government.

It is also apparent that 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.

The consultation principles set out in the Act are satisfactory. The problem in Towards 2020 was that the Minister did not pay due regard and respect to these principles. It is not clear that these principles can be significantly improved upon. It is more a case of reforming the process so that these principles are better followed in the future. For example, an appeals process would create the threat of review over the whole process.

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, in particular, those principles relating to:

  • The learning needs of students from low income families and Indigenous families;
  • The partnership between home, school and the community; and 
  • Ensuring reasonable access to schools for all children, especially in regard to financial and safety issues.

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 experience with Towards 2020 demonstrates that the Department of Education is not 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.

Above all, the ACT Government had no mandate to close schools and that it deceived the public as to its intentions on school closures. The lack of integrity shown by the ACT Government over school closures over a long period demonstrates the need for an independent process that genuinely engages with the community.

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 to school closures. It also proposes that the Act be amended to provide a better, more comprehensive and inclusive community consultation process on school closures and that the period of consultation be extended. It further proposes that a right of appeal against the decision to close a school be established.

The main proposals are as follows:

  1. The appointment of an independent ‘ad hoc’ Schools Planning Commission to conduct a public consultation process on proposals to close schools and to consider alternatives to school closures.

2. A three-stage public consultation process:

  • An initial consultation between the Minister and key stakeholders on the terms of reference for the Schools Planning Commission;
  • Public consultation over a full school year on the proposal to close a school and consideration of alternatives conducted by the Schools Planning Commission; and
  • Public consultation over 3 months on a draft report prepared by the Schools Planning Commission before a final report is presented to the Government.

3. A period of 6 months after the Government’s decision to plan transition and allow for appeal against the Government’s decision.

4. Strengthened requirements to take into account the educational, financial, social and environmental impact of school closure before a decision is taken. These requirements include:

  • The preparation and publication of a cost-benefit study on the proposal;
  • A Schedule to the Act listing a range of educational, financial, social and environmental factor that the cost-benefit study, the Schools Planning Commission and the Minister must have regard to.

5. Strengthened consultation requirements to take into account the governing principles of public education set out in the Act.

6. A Notice of Decision to be issued to a school before it is physically closed and which includes the specific reasons why the school is to be closed.

The process of closing schools under Towards 2020 was so seriously flawed that the decisions regarding individual schools lack legitimacy. Save Our Schools considers 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.

SOS-Inquiry-Submission-Final

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