The consultation on school closures by the Tasmanian Greens Minister for Education, Nick McKim, is a sham. It is restricted to only four weeks, which is not nearly enough time for school communities to prepare their case. The impact statements prepared by the Minister amount to a list of benefits of closing schools and fail to spell out the full effect on families and communities.
The ACT Education Act provides for an independent consultation process on proposals to close or amalgamate schools. The consultation must take place over a period of at least six months.
An independent committee must be established to prepare an impact analysis which is to be used in the consultation process and to conduct the consultation. The committee consists of three people who will be selected after consultation with a standing committee of the ACT Legislative Assembly. The committee must report to the Minister on the consultation.
This provision takes control of the consultation process away from the Minister and the Department of Education. It does not guarantee full independence in the process, but it is an improvement on past processes in the ACT where the Department of Education conducted the consultation at the bidding of the Minister of the day. The Minister now has less control over the process and school communities have more opportunity for their voice to be heard and taken into account.
The legislation provides for a detailed impact assessment of school closure and amalgamation proposals. The Minister is obliged to obtain a report which assesses the educational, economic, social and environmental impact of closing or amalgamating a school. This report is to be made available for the community consultation.
The legislation details a number of educational, economic, social and environmental factors which must be assessed in considering proposals to close or amalgamate schools which are much broader than those considered in the Towards 2020 plan.
The educational impacts include the range and depth of education programs, teaching resources and workloads, the social and learning environment for children; parent participation in school, the findings of research studies on school size and access to public education.
The economic impacts include savings and costs of closing a school for the Territory. This ensures that the wider costs such as increased bus transport costs and traffic and safety arrangements are also considered in future and not just the savings to the Education Department. Other economic factors to be considered include the financial impact on parents and local businesses.
The social impacts to be considered include demographic projections, the implications for low income, Indigenous and non-English speaking families, the safety of children walking or cycling to school, access to recreational and leisure facilities and community support networks.
The impact on environmental factors such as traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and green space adjacent to schools must also be taken into account.
The impact assessment report must also identify alternatives to closure or amalgamation for consideration in the consultation. This is a key change from past practice.
The ACT legislation also sets out a series of consultation requirements the Minister must comply with before making a decision to close or amalgamate a school. These provisions ensure that a future government cannot decide to close a school and then consult only on how it will be done as had occurred in the past.
In making a decision to close or amalgamate a school the Minister must now take specific account of the principles applying to education in general and to government schooling in the ACT Education Act. These include principles such as improving equity in education, ensuring reasonable access to public education and providing for partnerships in education.
The changes made to the ACT legislation last year reflect proposals made by Save Our Schools Canberra in its submission to the Legislative Assembly’s Education Committee inquiry on school closures in 2009 as well as other amendments it proposed. Save Our Schools worked closely with the ACT Greens in preparing the amendments.
It’s not too late for Minister McKim to have a proper consultation. He should take the ACT legislation as a model. He should extend the consultation period and publish a comprehensive impact statement for each school on the educational, economic and social impacts of closing them. He should appoint an independent committee to conduct the consultation and provide a report.