Case Studies in Consultation Failure on School Closures by the NSW Department of Education

The report by the NSW Legislative Council Select Committee on the closure of public schools in NSW is a damning exposure of the failure of the NSW Department of Education to seriously consult about proposed closures. The report includes the following three case studies.

The experience at Wollombi Public School

Parents of Wollombi describe the process culminating in the closure of their school in late 2014 as their annus horribilus. They still do not believe that the decision to close it can be justified on educational grounds. One parent described it as follows: ‘It is a wonderful heritage-listed historical school. It was the most wonderful environment for children to have their education in. The quality of the education was always good … Everyone that came into that school blossomed.’

The parents taking part in this inquiry believe that closure was the Department’s predetermined position from 2013, evidenced by information including the Department’s fact sheet about the closure and that the vacant Principal’s position was advertised in late 2013 on a temporary basis even though it was substantively available.

The Department’s steps to close the school seemed to the parents to come out of nowhere. According to one parent, ‘Not in eight years that we have been associated with the school, have they ever come to discuss what was happening at the school, why the enrolments were so low, or what we could do to increase them.’

The first indication that the school might close came in November 2013, when six weeks before the end of the school year, the acting Area Director attended the school and shocked the parents by informing them that the worst case scenario was that the school would be closed at the end of that year. While the Department considered that parents had been informed earlier in the year that the school was recommended for closure, the parents are adamant that this did not occur. The Executive Director and Area Director had attended the school in April 2013, indicating concern about the educational outcomes of the school’s students and the social aspects of their learning. However, when a parent asked the Executive Director directly whether the school was intended for closure, he responded only that, ‘At the moment there is no political will.’

Objecting to the possible closure, the distressed parents travelled to Newcastle to meet with the Executive Director, who informed them that while it had been decided that there was room for only one school in the valley (the other being Laguna), there had been no decision as to which school that would be. According to the parents, the Executive Director seemed disappointed in them challenging the closure, which triggered the consultation process that followed.

The consultation process and review commenced in March 2014. This seemed to the parents to lack integrity, transparency, honesty and fairness, and became ‘a grueling and distressing rollercoaster ride for staff, students and families’ of the school. The consultative committee established by the Department was comprised of the Area Director, the Relieving Principal, the Principal from Laguna School, one Laguna P&C member, and one Wollombi P&C member.

The Wollombi P&C representative believes the consultation process was tokenistic and set up purely to comply with departmental policy. Issues were not genuinely explored; most suggestions were disregarded; the views of few community members were sought; a community meeting promised by the Executive Director did not occur. The process also seemed to pitch one community against another in a battle for survival. Furthermore, no formal records of the consultation process were kept as the Area Director suggested that there was no need to take minutes.

The parents also believe that the consultation process was fed inaccurate or misleading information. Despite repeated requests for demographic data, the Department never actually provided any, just summary information in a fact sheet. This did not reflect the community’s population as the parents observe it; nor does it accord with the number of new enrolments at Laguna since Wollombi closed. The parents also attempted without success to gain from the Department financial data to inform discussion of the financial implications of the choice of one school over another and ways to reduce costs. A final report was never provided to the consultative group.

According to the parents, in the meantime, cooperation between the Department and the Wollombi school community disintegrated. In a meeting with the Area Director, parents were referred to as ‘annoying’, ‘judgmental’, ‘intense’ and ‘silly’. One parent wrote, ‘As a family, we were treated appallingly by representatives of the [Department]. I was personally made to feel that I had deliberately set out to harm my child’s educational and social progress by sending him/her to his/her local school – which happened to be a small school.’

The parents also believe that the Relieving Principal was brought in to facilitate the school’s closure. The job was not offered on merit but simply via expression of interest, and the appointee had no experience in a principal role. When on three occasions the parents raised concerns about the Relieving Principal’s actions with the Area Director, they say the response was very dismissive. Unsatisfied, the parents formalised their complaints with the Department, and again they were dismissed. They asked for an internal review and were given essentially the same response, such that they felt ‘whitewashed and ignored’. Eventually they also complained to the NSW Ombudsman, but gained no satisfaction.

Feeling that they must do all they could to avert the closure, the parents set about increasing the number of enrolments, which duly rose to 11 at the beginning of 2014, and possibly more to come. The parents came up with a plan to further increase enrolments, but without the support of the school could not implement it. Moreover, the parents believe the Relieving Principal actively discouraged new enrolments by deflecting enquiries and delaying the display of a banner calling for enrolments.

The consultation and review process did not produce another outcome and the school closed at the end of the school year.

The parents believe that the Department acted hastily to close the school as enrolments at Laguna Public School, which absorbed the entire Wollombi catchment, are now increasing rapidly, with an estimated 35 Wollombi children attending there. Indeed, in September 2015, a parent told us that they are aware that a Wollombi family seeking to enter Laguna was recently advised that the school is now at capacity, and has no ability to expand to enrol more students, owing to the physical constraints of that school site. One parent observed, ‘So now we find ourselves in a situation where one perfectly good school was closed (not put into recess, but closed outright) and the school that remains in the valley – on a much smaller area of land – has reached capacity. This is exactly what I, and many others, predicted would happen.’

Another Wollombi parent stated in their submission, ‘This inquiry ought to be about changing the process, adding transparency, accountability and seeking genuine community engagement. It is about formulating a robust decision-making process that is inclusive, adds humility and dignity to create a fair, just and democratic consultation together with genuine community engagement for all schools, big or small. It is an opportunity to contribute towards shaping the future model of consultation for all public schools under threat of closure.’

Parents of Wollombi Public School told the committee that when they raised concerns about the Relieving Principal with the Director for that area on three separate occasions, the response was very dismissive. Unsatisfied, the parents formalised their complaints and made them to the Department, and again they were dismissed. The parents asked for an internal review and were given essentially the same response. They felt whitewashed and ignored.

There were two complaints: one was about the closure process and procedures; the second was about the Relieving Principal. The first was handled by the Executive Director, Public Schools NSW, who subsequently visited the school. In the parents’ view this seemed to be for the purpose of clearing his name and addressing what he saw as their misrepresentation of him.

The complaints about the Relieving Principal were handled by an Area Director, and of the 35 elements to the complaints, not one was upheld.

Having made no gains with the Department, and feeling that their concerns were being trivialised through the Department’s hierarchy, the parents took their complaint to the NSW Ombudsman. Again, they felt the problems were whitewashed. While the Executive Director had advised them that this was their next option, they felt that there was an air of ‘it’s not going to go anywhere.’ In the parents’ view the response they received from the Ombudsman only addressed a few of their points and seems not to have received the attention it deserved.

The experience at Martins Creek Public School

Parents at Martins Creek made a number of claims about the consultation process preceding the formal decision to close that school:

  • ‘The consultation process triggered by the parents’ disagreement with closing the school was not genuinely consultative and worked towards an assumption that the school would close. No evidence was sought or presented that would support any decision about the school.
  • Public statements that, ‘A community consultation process is considering the most effective educational provision for the six students currently enrolled at Martins Creek Public school. No recommendations will be made until the community consultation is concluded’ seemed disingenuous.
  • The membership of the consultative committee was weighted towards the Department.
  • The consultative committee’s report, written when the committee was not functioning, was written by the Executive Director for whom it was to serve as a briefing.
  • The implications of closure for a particular student with complex needs (discussed in detail in the following chapter) attending the school was not discussed by the consultative committee, despite assurances from the Director that the committee would take his needs fully into account before a determination was made. The only aspect of the student considered by the committee was how long his transition to another school should take. Only in September 2014, almost a year after the commencement of the consultation process, was a meeting held with his parent Ms Coutts, and the student’s treating psychologist, to discuss their views.
  • The consultative committee did not meet with the local council to gain demographic information, despite a request from parents.
  • At one particular meeting parents felt ‘hammered’ by departmental representatives’ statements about the school not providing the necessary education and social development for the children. The Department gave no credence to the parents’ satisfaction with the social development of their children.

According to one parent, ‘Such acts of bad faith and tokenism have been upsetting and frustrating and enraging, to say the least.’

The parents of Martins Creek Public School have also engaged in a lengthy dispute process with the Department. Ms Coutts made a written complaint to her local member, copied to the Minister for Education. However, this was treated as routine correspondence, not a complaint. Her subsequent complaint to the NSW Ombudsman, which focused on the Executive Director, was declined for investigation by that body and passed to the Executive Director to deal with, but was never responded to.

Ms Goulder then made her own complaint. She and Ms Coutts expressed concern to the committee that the person appointed by the Executive Director to investigate the matter, Ms W, shared the same surname as a person named in the complaint. In addition, when Ms W handed down her determination, it made no mention of Ms Coutts’ earlier complaint about the Executive Director.

Ms Goulder then lodged a further complaint about that process with the NSW Ombudsman, while Ms Coutts sought a review of her original complaint.

After waiting around six months, the Ombudsman’s response did not address the conduct of the Executive Director, nor that of Ms W, and found no wrongdoing. Ms Goulder alleges that the Ombudsman’s office did not treat her concerns about a conflict of interest between Ms W and Mr W with sufficient seriousness and that documents obtained via the call for papers establishing that the two individuals were sister and brother-in-law went astray in the Ombudsman’s office. The investigation of Ms Coutt’s complaint about the Executive Director also found no wrongdoing.

Ms Goulder made a number of criticisms of the complaints handling system in relation to school closures, asserting that, ‘Complaints made about [Department of Education] officers are not dealt with impartially, sometimes being dealt with by the subjects of the complaint. No complaints made against [its] officers relating to consultation processes have been upheld either by the [Department] or by the Ombudsman. No effective oversight of behaviour in the [Department], or complaints processes, exists. Complaints processes at best are tokenistic and complaints are “defended” rather than investigated. No impartial avenues exist for grievances against the [Department], and no bodies with any form of oversight have enforceable powers. Legal avenues for the pursuit of grievances are very limited and practically and financially inaccessible to parents.’

The experience at Crowdy Bay Public School

 The committee heard from two members of the Crowdy Bay community about the process leading up to closure of their school in December 2014, who became involved in fighting the closure as concerned citizens and members of Harrington Community Action Inc. Ms Joan Hall was very critical about the closure, calling it ‘underhanded and deceitful’.

Ms Hall told the committee that the closure of the school seemed to hang over the heads of staff, students and parents for over two years. Enrolments dropped after the Principal retired, followed by the turnover of temporary staff. At least two children in the catchment area were told to enrol elsewhere as the school would be closing in two years, while a child whose grandparents lived in the area and who was being bullied at the nearby Harrington school, was declined to attend. She argued that the Enrolment of Students in Government Schools Policy was interpreted in a way that suited the Department’s plan to close the school, not the needs of the community. In her view the school had served a very important role in educating local children, especially from those from disadvantaged backgrounds who greatly benefited from the small class size there.

Ms Hall was also very critical of the consultation process and called for it to be examined and improved. She told the committee that representations to the Department and Members of Parliament ‘gave Action Group members the run around’ and a meeting between the Area Director and Action Group members was in her view ‘a waste of time’. She reported that parents at the school also felt that they had not been listened to. Ms Hall said, ‘I think the community should be listened to and their concerns taken on board. We should think of the needs of the area and what is best for the area and not just look at the dollars. We should forget the dollars—I mean I know that is a big part of it, and you have to have money to do things, but sometimes you have to look at what is best for the area and best for children, because they’re the future. They have to listen to the people and they have to be more transparent; and not give people the run-around.’

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