The impact statements on school closures issued to school associations by the Tasmanian Minister for Education, Nick McKim, are farcical – they present a one-sided view of the impact of closing schools. They largely amount to a list of benefits of closing schools. They fail to assess the benefits of keeping schools open. They are clearly designed to support the Government’s case.
Access to the statements has been restricted and this will limit public participation in the assessment of impact. They have only been sent to school associations. They have not been sent to every family with children at schools proposed for closure. They have not been sent to others in these communities, such as local businesses, who will be affected by the closures. Nor have they been posted on the Department of Education website.
Another way in which participation in the assessment of impact is being restricted is that receiving schools have not been provided with impact statements, even though they will be directly and possibly detrimentally impacted by the redistribution of students.
The statements themselves are a joke. They are a farcical attempt at assessing impact of closing schools. They are in a template form and fail to assess the different circumstances of different schools.
They do not actually assess the impact of closing a school. A proper impact statement should provide a quantitative and qualitative assessment of a range of benefits and costs incurred by all groups affected by school closures. The statements are a breach of the spirit of the Education Act which requires the Minister to issue an impact statement as part of the consultation process on school closures.
Each statement is merely a list of assumed benefits from closing schools. Rather than being an impact assessment, they are virtually a statement in favour of closing schools. They are very one-sided and are biased towards the Government’s case.
The bias in the statements is most obvious in the treatment of educational and economic impact. There is no corresponding list of costs to school communities of closing schools. The educational and economic benefits of keeping schools open are not considered.
There are clear, well-established educational benefits of small schools which should be considered.
Many research studies conducted during the past 20 years have found that small school size, particularly at the primary school level, has a positive effect upon student achievement, extra-curricular participation, student satisfaction, student behaviour and attendance. These benefits of keeping small schools open should be itemised in the impact statement.
A cursory look at the My School website reveals that many of the schools proposed for closure are quite low socio-economic status (SES) schools. There is considerable evidence to show that children from low SES families achieve better outcomes in small schools.
The statements also disregard the impact of school closures on parent participation in schools. Even in urban areas, closing schools often results in a fall off in parent participation in schools, both in terms of participation in parent organisations, school boards/councils and in volunteering in school activities. This is even more the case in rural areas where the distances to travel are much greater. Closing schools in small rural towns will mean that many families are denied the opportunity to fully participate in school activities and events because of lack of access to transport, travel time and costs.
There are significant financial/economic costs of closing schools which are not mentioned in the statements. The most significant are the increased financial burden on families of having to transport their children to a more distant school whether by bus or car. By closing schools, the Government is effectively transferring more costs to families, whether through the cost of car travel or the payment of bus fares. A proper impact statement should estimate the costs of increased travel for families as well as the additional time involved, which also has a cost.
The statements do not provide any estimate of the savings the Government asserts that will come from closing schools. These should be published and assessed. Experience of school closures elsewhere in Australia shows that Education Departments generally over-estimate these savings. They do not take account of the additional costs of transferring students to another school (for example, refurbishment costs in receiving schools, special education facilities, additional classrooms or demountables, car parking space, etc.). Nor do they ever take into account increased costs to other government agencies such as the additional cost of school bus transport subsidies incurred because more students travel by bus.
The Minister for Education has admitted that refurbishment and extra classrooms will be needed in some receiving schools. These costs should be included in the impact statements and offset against expected savings.
Other significant economic impacts are also ignored by the Minister’s statements. For example, more children travelling by car or bus to school increases the potential of more road accidents and their associated personal and public costs. There are also environmental costs associated with more motor vehicles on the road.
Then there are the losses to local businesses and more local unemployment as towns die because there is no school. These are all part of assessing the impact of closing schools. Yet, they are ignored by the Minister.
There are huge social costs to small towns of losing their school because it is the key focus of their community. There are several aspects to this loss of social capital caused by school closures.
Many parents want their children to grow up with other children in the local neighbourhood. They value the sense of community that is developed through friendships and parent interaction. This sense of community is undermined by the loss of the local school.
Neighbourhood primary schools also play a critical role in developing and sustaining social support networks between families in local communities. Very often friendship groups for children and for parents are formed in the local school and are developed into broader social networks that form essential social capital in these communities.
The neighbourhood school is often the only public facility in a local neighbourhood or town. It provides public space for recreational and leisure activities in the community. It can also serve as a meeting place for the local community. This resource is lost by the sale of school buildings and grounds.
All these factors should be considered in an impact statement.
The Tasmanian Government’s impact statements on school closures are prejudicial. They should be immediately withdrawn and proper, comprehensive statements drawn up. They should be made available to all groups in the communities likely to be affected by school closures. The consultation period should be extended to allow this.