Dissembling in the Assembly

The Minister for Education, Mr. Andrew Barr, was caught out under forensic questioning about information on the shift to private schools in the Estimates Committee hearings on Education on 28 June.

The Minister was requested to provide information on why families transfer from the government school system to the private sector. He inadvertently revealed that the Government had not done any planning on the impact of school closures on the shift to private schools because the information on why families move has to be collated from individual schools.

Former Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Brendan Smyth, pointed out that if that information still had to be collated from schools, it was apparent that the Government had not adequately planned for the closures because it didn’t have information that was relevant to the decision.

The Minister then tried to cover his tracks under persistent questioning until the Chief Executive of the Department of Education, Dr. Michele Bruniges, put him out of his misery by admitting that the Department didn’t have the information that the Minister said was in the Department.

It is apparent that the Government has failed to estimate the flow of students to the private sector as a result of the large number of proposed school closures. Many families who are forced to choose a school outside their neighbourhood could well choose a private school instead of a government school.

Trevor Cobbold

The following is an edited transcript of the Estimates Committee’s request for information about the shift of students to private schools:

DR FOSKEY: I would like to ask you, minister, to table the information about all the reasons you have suggested why people are transferring from the ACT government school system to the private system.

I ask you to table that and also to answer what the implications for the ACT government school system are if, as many have suggested, the 2020 plan actually accelerates the move of students from the government to the non-government sector. Could that be one of the aims of the 2020 plan?

Mr Barr: I will endeavour to get all of the research. It is done at an individual school level when students, particularly at transition points in the system, exit public education. We seek to engage with parents and students around why they have taken particular decisions. I will seek to have that information collated in a useful form for the committee.

MR SMYTH: Going back to Dr Foskey’s point about what we know about the drift from the government to the non-government sector, you have just said you will have to go back to the individual schools and collate the data. Are you telling this committee that you cannot put your hands on a document now that details the reasons for the drift from the government to the non-government sector?

Mr Barr: I can tell you that there are a variety of pieces of information available. Some of the information is collated at the school level. We would need to pull all of that together to give the full range of issues, but we are obviously aware of a number of key issues that people express. I am sure you may well have been approached by individuals who have expressed their particular views about why that is. People have a variety of issues.

MR SMYTH: But you say it again. You now have to collate the data that the schools have been collecting. Does that mean you are making decisions based on a lack of data?
If you have not collated it before, then the job has not been done properly. Why has it not been collated before this point?

Mr Barr: The data is available within the department and it will be made available.

MR SMYTH: No. You said to this committee—you have said it twice now—that you are going to have to ask the department to collate the data from individual schools.

Mr Barr: In order to provide the specific issues that Dr Foskey raised, I indicated that we would need to do some work to provide the information in the form that she would like.

MR SMYTH: Sorry, no. In case I am not clear, what data do you have that your department has put together? I am disturbed that the minister has said twice that it has not been collated. If we are making decisions where the data has been left in schools, then the data is flawed, or the decisions are flawed, because they are based on a false premise.

Mr Barr: That is a ridiculous assumption. You are talking rubbish.

MR SMYTH: What could you give this committee today, now? What data do you have that you have collated prior to this meeting?

MR SMYTH: You have said twice that data has not been collated—“I will have to get the department to collate from individual schools.”

Mr Barr: I have indicated that, in response to the specific issues Dr Foskey raised, inorder to present the information in the way she was seeking it, we would have to put that information together in a form that would be acceptable to Dr Foskey in relation to her question.

MR SMYTH: And you said you would have to go to individual schools to get the data.

Mr Barr: Yes. I said that some of the data is kept—

MR SMYTH: You do not have the data at departmental level?

Mr Barr: The data is fed through to the department, obviously.

MR SMYTH: You do not have the data at departmental level now?

Mr Barr: Of course we have the data at departmental level.

MR SMYTH: Then why are you going to the schools?

Mr Barr: To get the specific information that Dr Foskey requires, which will be different in some instances from the way the data might be held now, we will need to go back and ensure that all of the data that is available that would address the question Dr Foskey raises is presented in a way that will answer that question. Equally, if I presented a piece of information that did not answer the question Dr Foskey asked, you would then rightly accuse me of not fully answering Dr Foskey’s question.

MR SMYTH: No. Dr Foskey’s question was quite broad. What you said was, “We would have to go to the schools.” So you are making decisions based on a lack of data.

Mr Barr: No. You are wrong.

MR SMYTH: All right. Provide us and the committee with the data immediately.

Mr Barr: We will be providing that data.

MR SMYTH: Then why do you have to go back to the schools?

MRS DUNNE: I am asking what instrument is delivered to people who are exiting a school. Is there a uniform approach? Are there interviews in some schools? Is it a survey in other schools? Does everyone get asked why they are leaving?

Dr Bruniges: No, not everyone gets questioned as to the reason they are leaving.

MRS DUNNE: … is there something which is designed for ascertaining the reasons why people are leaving a particular school or the system, and is it uniformly administered?

Dr Bruniges: No. We do not have a uniform instrument that captures the data about why people are exiting the public education system in the ACT.

MRS DUNNE: Therefore, minister, how can you provide the information that you said you will provide to Dr Foskey?

Mr Barr: Exactly, Mrs Dunne. That is why we would need to go back and analyse aspects of the data in order to provide the specific information that Dr Foskey has asked.

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