ACT Government Policy Backflip on School Planning

The 2011–2012 ACT School Budget has confirmed what we all have known for a long time—the 2006 mass school closures was a failed policy based on false assumptions and dodgy data.

Only five years after closing 23 schools, downgrading four others, and amalgamating many more, the ACT Government now intends to spend $15.3 million to expand existing schools to accommodate growing enrolments. Some $5.6 million is allocated to expand Macgregor Primary School, $4.4 million to expand Majura Primary School, and $5.3 million to expand Red Hill Primary School (last year’s budget) — all areas where schools have been closed in the past.

These expansions are a change of policy by the ACT Government. They indicate that the Government has returned to a policy of meeting local demand for neighbourhood schools. They also indicate that the Government is now prepared to expand schools in regions with excess capacity—previously it only wanted to close schools in such cases.

Those who lost access to a local school over the past five years can only feel cheated.

The issue is wider than an abstract planning question. The impacts of closing schools are real, and they continue to come at a high cost to families and communities with no local, neighbourhood school. Even though the decision was made in 2006, the repercussions are still current for those communities who were affected.

Why is expanding a school a policy backflip?

A brief history lesson is needed to explain the significance of the policy change.

The 2006 school closures abandoned any idea of providing local, neighbourhood schools, despite their importance as a key community asset in most suburbs. The new approach was to force communities into a regional model that neglected local needs. In the Education Minister’s own words, for the three closed schools in North West Belconnen:

The provision for the Belconnen North West Region focuses on a regional, rather than a neighbourhood provision of education, more closely reflecting the choices that parents in the region have been making over recent years. With a number of underutilised primary schools in close proximity in the central part of the Region, there is significant surplus capacity in this area. [Barr 2007, Statement of Reasons for closing Flynn Primary School).

Similar statements were made for every school the Minister closed.

In other words—the schools were closed because of declining enrolments in the region overall. In the case of Flynn, enrolments had actually increased, but it was closed on the basis of the regional argument.

However, schools are now being expanded because of increasing enrolments in the neighbourhood. In relation to Macgregor Primary School, for example, the expansion is needed because of the development of West Macgregor, and as a result, “demand for education places at Macgregor Primary School has increased and this funding will ensure the school infrastructure is able to cater for the increased enrolments.” [p. 178 of the Budget]

But there is more than that at stake. The proposed expansion of these schools also raises some other questions the ACT Government should be required to answer about its planning for schools, especially in North West Belconnen.

Enrolments and capacity in the North West Belconnen region

First, there needs to be an open review of school capacity in the North Belconnen region, especially in the light of the implementation of the class size reduction policy over recent years.

From the most recent capacity data that are publicly available, it appears that the North West Belconnen region schools are collectively at about 75% capacity for the K–6 years—which equates to many hundreds of ‘empty desks’. However, the ‘most recent’ public data are five years old and almost certainly overestimate capacity due to changes in government policy about the way classrooms are used. Current enrolment projections are not available at all, so the possibility that future growth might fill up every existing school to overflowing cannot be ruled out.

If that is the case, then this alone raises questions about whether government planning on enrolment growth and school capacity is deficient. And it is not as though the driver comes as any surprise. The West Macgregor development has been in planning documents for many years (as has that at North Watson). Government policy and planning should have taken the population growth in new areas into account when planning for regional educational needs.

A worthy question for the Estimates Committee hearings in coming weeks would be to ask the Education Minister to table current school capacity estimates and the most recent enrolment projections.

Only then can the expenditure of $5.6 million to expand an existing school be fully understood, when the Minister has said that spending $2 million to re-open a school only a few kilometres away would “take funding from every other ACT public school”.

The expansion of the three schools is a valuable initiative because of the intrinsic value of neighbourhood schools. Indeed, the expansion of Macgregor Primary School to meet local enrolment growth is welcomed. It also strengthens the case of the long-suffering Flynn community to have its school re-opened to meet local demand which has been continually demonstrated over the past five years.

If three schools can be expanded to meet local demand, why doesn’t the same principle apply to the Flynn community? Is it because the Government has become so entrenched in its refusal to admit its mistake in closing the school?

There is no doubt that Flynn is still a logical and cost-effective choice for adding capacity into the North West Belconnen region—costing a mere $2 million to re-open.

Without question, this budget initiative shows that the education policy planning was deficient in 2006. At best it shows the government got it wrong on closing schools and has now seen the error of its ways. At worst, it reveals a gross hypocrisy on the part of the Minister for Education. Either way, it is a yet another vindication of communities who claimed the data used to close schools were ‘dodgy’ and that schools were closed under false pretences.

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