BER Value for Money Questions Remain

Brad Orgill’s spirited defence of the work being undertaken by the Building the Education Revolution (BER) Implementation Taskforce, of which he is chairman, in the Weekend Australian, 6-7 Nov 2010, sadly papered over more issues than it addressed.

That’s a pity because in my dealings with Brad Orgill on the problems encountered by our school with respect to the BER I found him to be very receptive to our concerns and less defensive about the role of his Taskforce.

In his article, “Schools Happy to Get Value for Money”, Orgill cites three examples of schools that appear to have achieved a satisfactory value for money outcome primarily as a consequence of his Taskforce’s intervention. That should sound alarm bells more than be the basis of self-congratulatory praise. Isn’t that fact an indictment of how state education authorities have handled the BER?

In citing that only 3 per cent of schools raised complaints with the Taskforce does Orgill seriously believe that this is an accurate reflection of the level of dissatisfaction amongst schools? By his admission only 36 per cent of projects nationally have been completed to date.

In Victoria, the second most populous state, by June 30, 2010, according to the Victorian Auditor-General, only 62 per cent of projects had even commenced, let alone been completed. How can schools be realistically expected to know whether they are getting value for money before their projects are completed? Disturbingly, Orgill concedes that “complaint validity is high”.

The challenge of ascertaining value for money was always going to be difficult for the Orgill Taskforce. Hastily cobbled together by the Prime Minister in the wake of her embarrassingly flawed Auditor-General’s Inquiry, Brad Orgill and his team have been placed in an invidious position. Given that the Taskforce must produce it first full report within weeks, long before most projects are completed, its conclusions with respect to value for money issue can be little more than speculative.

On the issue of criteria by which value for money issues are being evaluated by the Taskforce, Orgill defends the definition used as follows – “We have a adopted a definition we think lines up with how most people may assess it. For a school project we look at the quality of the product, the cost and whether it was delivered on time”.

I beg to differ! How many government schools across Australia had to be convinced one way or the other to accept a building not of their choice or primary need? How does Brad Orgill factor this into his value for money equation?

One of the more contentious issues that came of the BER program was that of school empowerment in the decision-making process. Non-government schools by and large enjoyed a far greater degree of self-determination with respect to their BER project.

A substantial body of anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that non-government schools have achieved better value for money outcomes than government schools, despite Brad Orgill’s current coyness on the matter. If that proves to be the case, then our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will suffer the ignominy of having short changed a generation of public school kids of the quality of facilities she has bestowed on the private schools.

On this issue of school empowerment, Brad Orgill concedes that in Tasmania and South Australia where public schools had greater involvement in the decision-making process for their BER projects, the outcomes appear to have been very good. What then about the eastern states? NSW appears to have been a BER basket case for many public schools and in my state, Victoria, the Brumby government has ducked for cover time and time again under the guise of “commercial in confidence” issues, refusing to make public tender details for BER projects.

Transparency has been a non-existent phenomenon for Victorian government schools. How then can Brad Orgill claim with any confidence, as he did at a recent Senate committee hearing in Canberra that outside of NSW the program looks to have been very well implemented? Then there is Queensland!

At considerable cost to our school we had the template designs and management costs scrutinised by an independent quantity surveyor and a local project management firm. The inescapable conclusion from their work, which was made available to the Orgill Taskforce, was that any Victorian government school that was receiving a template facility could not possibly be receiving anywhere near the potential value for money that the private schools enjoyed.

Indeed, Brad Orgill commented to me at the time of his visit to our school that our research confirmed his view that the level of management of BER projects by state authorities was more befitting that of $50 million projects rather than $1 million to $3 million projects. It is to be hoped that he remembers such observations when preparing his full report.

The Orgill Taskforce deserves credit for extracting assurances from relevant education authorities that school principals will not be punished in any way for talking with them. Indeed it is instructive to note that some have still chosen to speak only on condition of anonymity. Brad Orgill nonetheless does damage his credibility on this issue when he chose to deny any knowledge about bullying claims at the recent Senate Inquiry. Perhaps he has forgotten his visit to our school earlier this year and our recent conversations on the matter.

As Brad Orgill prepares to release his Taskforce’s full report on the BER perhaps it would be wise for him to reflect on what sort of value for money he is providing to all Australians, not just to Julia Gillard. After all $14 million should buy considerable value for money for taxpayers!

Henry Grossek
Principal, Berwick Lodge Primary School
Melbourne, Victoria

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