Save Our Schools today accused the Minister for Education of deliberately talking down the impact of his school closure plan on low income families.
SOS spokesperson, Trevor Cobbold, called on the Minister to assure low income families that their needs will be taken into consideration in deciding whether any schools would close from the end of this year.
“About 1500 or more students from low income families could be displaced over the next three years if the Towards 2020 plan goes ahead.
“There are 1200-1300 students currently enrolled in 8 schools with high disadvantage factors that are listed for possible full or part closure. While the other 15 schools listed for full or part closure have average or low disadvantage factors, they also have families on low incomes whose children will be displaced if their school closes.
“No matter how the Minister ‘spins’ it, closing a school will have a serious impact on these families by adding to their financial burdens and other stresses.
“To date, this impact has been ignored in the Government’s planning for Towards 2020. It has been ignored on the Towards 2020 website which fails to include low income families as a factor that will be taken into account in deciding whether or not some schools will close.
“SOS calls on the Minister to issue a public statement guaranteeing that the needs of these families will be considered before deciding whether any school is to be closed or part closed.”
Mr. Cobbold said that the Minister was trying to downplay an issue that is of great concern to many schools and the broader public.
“It is all very well for the Minister to say that transition funding is available to help families who will be forced to attend a more distant school. But this is the point – it is only transition funding. It is not available long term. Families in hardship with children just about to start pre-school face substantially increased transport and other costs for another eight years because their local pre-school and primary school will close.
“It is all very well for the Minister to claim that 3 of the schools with high disadvantage factors will remain open as P-3/4 schools, but the fact remains that parents of children in Years 4/5-6 will lose their local schooling options for those year levels. For parents of children at these Year levels, the school is being closed and they will incur significant additional costs by being forced to attend another, more distant, school.
“It is all very well for the Minister to split hairs about whether Holt and Higgins primary schools are in or out of the Towards 2020 plan. The fact is that these schools will be closed. As a result, families in these regions will lose their option of attending a stand-alone primary school and many will have longer distances to travel to the new P-10 super-school.
Mr. Cobbold said that the Stanhope Government should be looking at additional ways of supporting low income families if the school closure plan goes ahead.
“If the Stanhope Government was serious about looking after the needs of low-income families affected by the school closure plan, they would provide free bus passes to each student currently attending each school listed for closure until they finish that stage of schooling – whether it is one year or eight years. Similarly free bus passes should be guaranteed for future students from families currently resident in a neighbourhood that will lose its school under Towards 2020.”
Mr. Cobbold also criticised the Minister for refusing to release full information pertaining to the school closure issue.
“The Minister’s tactic now is to criticise SOS for producing unreliable and unproven figures as a way of avoiding the key issues raised by SOS.
“The question the Minister must answer is why the onus should be on community organisations such as SOS to produce the data on the impact of school closures. Why isn’t the Government publishing all the relevant information? Why is it, after nearly 4 months of the consultation period, that the Government has not produced all the necessary information for an effective consultation?”
Mr. Cobbold said that, for the record, the disadvantage factors for various schools published by SOS were calculated by the Department of Education and can be obtained from the document “Ranking of ACT Government Schools Under ABS SEIFA Indexes” prepared by the Budget and Finance Division of the Department in November 2003. Mr. Cobbold said that he is prepared to make the document available to the Minister if he cannot obtain it from his Department.