Govt. Has Failed to Substantiate the Case for School Closures

The Save Our Schools submission on Towards 2020 rejects the Government’s plan to close schools. It shows that the Government has failed to substantiate its case on educational, financial or demographic grounds.

Towards 2020 constitutes a major threat to the future of public education in the ACT. It will remove easy geographical access to public education for a large number of families. Low income and Indigenous families will bear much of the burden of school closures. It threatens greater inequity in education rather than improved equity as the Government claims.

The submission says there is an alternative to school closures. Excess space in schools should be seen as an opportunity to develop a community school model that will improve education and other services for those most in need.

The educational case

The Government has failed to demonstrate that educational outcomes will be improved by closing schools. It has failed to show that small schools deliver lower student results than larger schools. There is no robust research evidence that shows that small schools have lower student achievement than other schools and there is no research evidence that there is a minimum school size in relation to education outcomes. Student outcomes in small are at least equal to, if not better than, outcomes in larger schools.

The Government has failed to take account of a new stream of research literature that shows that small schools mitigate the effects of low socio-economic status (SES) on education outcomes and that students from low SES backgrounds do better in smaller schools. This research suggests that small schools should be retained in low SES communities.

There is no evidence to show that curriculum is less comprehensive in small primary schools than in larger schools or that it is inadequate in the smaller high schools and colleges. Indeed, the claims of the Government seem to have been contradicted by the findings of the ACT Curriculum Renewal Task Force.

The Government has also failed to demonstrate that changing school structures will improve education outcomes. The available research shows that changing school structures has little effect on education outcomes.

There is also evidence that school closures and amalgamations are more likely to result in lower student achievement in a majority of cases, unless long lead times are allowed and careful planning and support for change management is implemented.

The savings case

Government has exaggerated the financial case for school closures. It has over-estimated the costs of small schools and over-estimated the savings to the Government as a whole from closing schools.

In making its case that small schools cost more per student than larger schools, the ACT Government has overstated the difference between the average costs of larger primary schools and small schools by over $7,500 per student. It claims that small school costs are some $11,000 per student higher than in the larger schools while the actual difference is $3,468 per student.

The ACT Government’s estimates of ongoing savings from school closures are based on estimates of the gross savings to the Department of Education of closing schools, and even these have been over-estimated. They fail to take account of additional costs to the Department of Education and other government agencies that are incurred by closing schools.

The savings to the Department of Education are likely to be over-estimated because:

  • The enrolment component of school-based management funds appears to be too low;
  • Several significant one-off costs have been including for the duplication of special education facilities in other schools; purchase of new demountable classrooms and/or the transfer and installation of existing demountables; and refurbishment works in schools that will receive additional students.
  • Some ongoing costs have not been taken into account; and
  • It fails to include the loss of actual and forgone rental revenue.

In addition, other government agencies will incur additional costs as a result of school closures. These include:

  • provision of additional bus services;
  • traffic safety measures; and
  • building maintenance and security costs.

As a result of these costs, the net savings to the Government from school closures are likely to be much less than the Government claims. Significant savings to the Government will be dependent on selling off school grounds and shifting large numbers of students into the private sector where the Commonwealth provides most of the funding.

However, any overall savings to the Government from closing and selling off schools should be weighed against other costs individuals and the broader community. These include:

  • Increased financial costs to families for transport to and from school;
  • Increased traffic safety risks in travelling to and from school;
  • Increased environmental costs;
  • Reduced property values;
  • Loss of community facilities and services; and
  • The break-up of support and friendship networks for students and families based around schools.

The Government also claims that the ACT is over-spending on government schools. However, most of the difference between the ACT and the national average is accounted for by higher superannuation, slightly higher teacher salaries, higher depreciation and a higher proportion of students in the high cost senior secondary years.

The demographic case

The Government’s projections of declining enrolments in schools proposed for closure appear to be inaccurate according to new ABS birth figures for the ACT.

New births are increasing in most of the suburbs in which schools are proposed to close.

Nine of the 13 urban primary schools in Canberra proposed for closure are in suburbs where birth numbers have increased over the last 5 years. The birth numbers in many suburbs where schools are proposed for closure are now similar to those in many other suburbs whose schools are seen as viable in the longer term.

Fertility rates have increased since 2000 in suburbs where 11 schools are proposed for closure. All 13 urban schools slated for closure are in suburbs where the fertility rate in 2005 is above the average for the ACT.

Arresting the shift to private schools

The Government claims that the introduction of a range of new school configurations will improve choice in the government school system and help arrest the shift of enrolments to private schools are mistaken. Research shows that demand for different school structures is not a factor in the choice of private schools.

Despite Government claims, the physical infrastructure of schools is not an important consideration in the choice of private or public schools.

Towards 2020 is more likely to drive more people into the private sector because it denies many parents what they want most – a good quality local school, where their children can mix with others in the neighbourhood and travel safely to and from school.

It also denies parents the choice of sending their child to a small school in the government sector.

Government policy on small schools is contradictory because it proposes to abolish or severely reduce the option to attend a small school in the government sector, while it continues to fund small schools in the private sector.

Towards 2020 is inequitable

The least well-off families will bear the brunt of the burden of school closures. Nearly half of all primary schools in Canberra with disadvantage factors of over 40% are proposed for full or part closure. Of the 20 primary schools listed for full or part closure, 10 have a relatively high proportion of their students from disadvantaged family backgrounds.

Indigenous students and their families will bear a disproportionate burden of the costs and disruption from the Government’s school closure plan. Only 10 schools in Canberra have more than 5% of their total enrolments comprised of Indigenous students and 7 of these schools are on the list for full or partial closure.

Students with disabilities (SWD) and their families will also bear a disproportionate burden of school closures. Over half of the primary schools proposed for full closure (8 of 15) and four of the five schools proposed for partial closure (4) have 5% or more of their enrolments comprised of SWD. The two high schools and the college with the largest proportion of enrolments comprised of SWD are proposed for closure.

Towards 2020 is a threat to public education

Towards 2020 fails to recognise the role of the neighbourhood school in public education. The neighbourhood school is central to the purpose of public education, which is to enable all children to attend school without discrimination and without regard to family financial circumstances. Achievement of this goal is aided by ready physical access to schools in each neighbourhood within a reasonable and safe walking distance for all young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The network of neighbourhood schools makes regular attendance at school less dependent on family capacity to provide or pay for transport and on safety considerations. If this network is broken up, attendance at school becomes more subject to financial and safety considerations. It is the children of families who can least afford to bear the increased costs whose attendance is most likely to suffer.

Implementation of Towards 2020 would virtually eliminate the neighbourhood school as a feature of the public education system. It would eliminate a feature that distinguishes public education from private education.

School closures will also undermine parent and community participation in schools. The harder or more costly it is for families to get to a school, the more likely it is that participation will decline. This means that parent participation will tend to become the preserve of families of more privileged backgrounds.

There is an alternative

Excess space in schools should be seen as an opportunity for other educational, community and private uses. In particular, the community school model offers an alternative approach to reducing access to neighbourhood schools by strengthening school/community links to improve both education outcomes and other services.

The community school model has much to offer for student development and learning, learning in the community and the development of the local community and its support networks for families and children. More extensive school/community links would serve to complement core government programs in the areas of education, community services and social welfare and better adapt them to meet the different needs of local communities.

Community schools should form the basis for the future organisation of schools in the ACT. The ACT Government should establish a comprehensive policy framework to support the development of community schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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