Minister’s ‘Cloak and Dagger’ Tactics on Murwillumbah Super-School

The NSW Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, has ignored her Department’s protocols in forcing the amalgamation of four Murwillumbah schools into a single super-school. The protocols provide for detailed consultation with school communities and specific criteria to be met before schools are closed or amalgamated. Instead, the amalgamation was announced without any prior consultation with communities.

The Minister has treated the Murwillumbah community with breathtaking arrogance and contempt in bulldozing the amalgamation through and refusing to fully consult with state principal, teacher and parent representative bodies and with local school communities. The only consultation will be on the design of the building, not on whether the schools should be amalgamated.

The repercussions for any professional in the Department, principal or teacher who failed to follow Departmental policies, procedures or protocols would be drastic. They would be subjected to disciplinary action, demoted or sacked. Yet, the Minister has ignored the closure/amalgamation protocols with impunity. She should be subjected to the same disciplinary action as any other professional in education would be for ignoring Department policies and procedures.

The four schools to be amalgamated are Murwillumbah Public School, Murwillumbah East Public School, Murwillumbah High School and Wollumbin High School. The new school will have about 1,500 students.

The NSW Education Department’s protocols for the closure or merger of public schools are clear. They require full consultation with school communities on whether schools should be closed or merged:

…local Directors lead a local consultation process that engages parents, staff and local community members and allows school communities to consider options for the school’s future educational provision. This is a locally driven process.

The protocols require a detailed consultation process as outlined below. This has not happened. There has not been any real consultation and the views of all the affected school communities have been ignored. Earlier this month, the Minister informed an invitation-only closed-door meeting of members of the school communities that the plan will go ahead.

The Minister has continually refused to meet with parents, students and the wider community since the plan was first announced in October 2020. President of the Murwillumbah East P&C, Kylie Rose, told the Byron Echo that she and her P&C have been calling on the Minister to meet with the community for more than six months.

There is a very strong feeling out there that parents, teachers, students and community members should have been consulted before a decision of this magnitude was forced upon us.

She strongly criticised the invitation-only meeting:

It was very cloak and dagger, but par for course as far as the way she has treated our community so far. I really think the minister needs to answer to our community and thus far, she has not had the courage to do so. It is shameful.

Wollumbin High School P&C President Soenke Biermann said that it is hugely frustrating and disillusioning for parents to have their valid concerns and alternative suggestions and proposals ignored by the Minister.

We have been asking for genuine input, dialogue and a seat at the decision-making table since the moment this project was dropped on us like a bombshell without any community consultation whatsoever in November last year….So much for consultation!

Mr Biermann said the Minister did not engage with the P&C’s proposals for alternative options or provide satisfactory answers to concerns about school closures, loss of staff and reduced public education choices.

To then be treated in such a dismissive and paternalistic, government-knows-best fashion is simply infuriating. Imagine not even talking to the community before making such a radical decision and now saying we are being consulted because we might get to pick the colour of the carpet in the new building – this was an actual example the minister used today. This is not good enough – we need a genuine say with all options on the table!

In forcing the closures and amalgamation, the Department’s protocols were ignored which means that representative bodies and school communities were ignored. For example, in deciding whether to have a local consultation about the future of any school the relevant Executive Director is required to discuss the current status of the school(s) with the local Member of Parliament, the NSW Primary Principals’ Executive, the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council Executive, the NSW Teachers Federation and Federation of P&C Associations. Save Our Schools is informed that the Primary Principals’ Association, the Secondary Principals’ Council and the Teachers’ Federation were not consulted on the future of the Murwillumbah schools.

The protocols also require the establishment of School Consultative Group to consult with school staff, parents and the wider community (including the school’s P&C Association). The composition of the Group includes a Director of the Department, principals of the relevant schools, P&C representatives and Teachers’ Federation organisers.

The Consultative Group is required to consider strategies to boost enrolments. If strategies are identified, time should be given for development and implementation and evaluating effectiveness. A Director of the Department is required to provide appropriate support, information and resources to the Consultative Group. The Group must consider:

  • demographic data, enrolment trends and reasons for these trends;
  • the school’s history and traditions and its broader role within the local community (NB: this is very significant in rural areas);
  • options for the school’s future including other delivery models and capacity in nearby schools;
  • the opportunities for students in nearby larger schools that may not be available in the school, including curriculum offerings, performing arts and sporting options;
  • the availability of alternate transport routes, including travel time and the condition of local roads;
  • options for the future of the school’s assets, equipment and memorabilia.

The protocols were developed by the then NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, in consultation with the NSW Primary Principals’ Association and the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council. It followed a NSW Parliamentary committee report in 2015 that castigated the Department’s approach to closing schools as “heavy handed”, ignoring the views of parents and local communities and failing to provide evidence about the relationship between education outcomes and school size.

It seems that nothing has changed. A local Consultative Group was not established and calls for consultation by P&C Associations have been ignored. The Tweed Valley Council expressed its concern about the amalgamation and called on the NSW Government to defer the amalgamation until it adequately consulted the Murwillumbah community but this too was ignored.

The Minister and her Department have simply ignored the protocols. None of the consultation requirements have been implemented.

The Minister refuses to explain why the super-school is necessary. The only reason she has given publicly is that Murwillumbah will have a shiny new school. This is after decades of maintenance neglect in the four schools. A better solution would be to upgrade the existing buildings instead of uprooting whole school communities.

The Minister has failed to provide any evidence that the new super-school will improve school outcomes. There is good reason for this because there is little evidence to support such a claim.

The weight of evidence clearly favours smaller schools, especially for students from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. There is extensive research evidence that such students are the major beneficiaries of smaller schools. An academic review of nearly 60 studies  of school size and student achievement found that primary schools with large proportions of such students should be limited to about 300 students or fewer. The two Murwillumbah primary schools are within this limit with enrolments of around 250 students.

The study also found that secondary schools serving a largely diverse and/or low income students should be limited to about 600 students or fewer. Murwillumbah High has 470 students and Wollumbin High has 387 students.

SchoolStudents (No.)ICSEA Score
(Median = 1000)
Low Socio-Educational (%)Indigenous (%)LBOTE (%)
Murwillumbah PS24995848126
Murwillumbah East PS247954501111
Murwillumbah HS47096944118
Wollumbin HS3879764076
Source: My School website

All the schools have a heavy concentration of students from low income families. The proportion of low socio-educational students in the primary schools of 48 and 50% is double the national average while the proportions in the high schools of 40 and 44% are also very high. The proportion of Indigenous enrolments in the primary schools and Murwillumbah HS are also double the national average of 5.8%. Each school also has a significant proportion of students with a Language Background Other Than English (LBOTE).

As Mr. Biermann told the Byron Echo, “Bigger is not better”.  Ms. Rose said:

I remain unconvinced that closing four public schools and cramming all the students together in one mega school could be good for our children, our community or for public education more broadly.

Studies also show that breadth of curriculum is not a reason for large schools. An OECD review of the literature on school size and other studies have found that small schools that focus on a few core and high quality courses can also achieve high student outcomes.

Other reviews of research evidence show that school consolidations generally lead to adverse disruption effects and changes in school quality. The Shepparton super-school fiasco in Victoria is living proof of this. Teacher and student morale plummeted after the merger of Griffith and Wade High Schools into Murrumbidgee Regional High School in 2019.

The merger of two high schools in Armidale has proved to be a “complete failure” according to teachers who walked off the job earlier this year over ongoing issues arising from the amalgamation. The Deputy-President of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, Henry Rajendra, said:

The evidence from Armidale is clear. Such school amalgamations are not improving learning opportunities for students and have damaged the well-being and morale of staff.

It is also likely that some parents who lose their vibrant local public school will jump ship and move to a private school rather than enrol in a super-school. This has happened in other school closures/amalgamations. A notable recent example is the Shepparton super-school in Victoria.

The Minister for Education stands condemned for her arrogance and contempt of the Murwillumbah community. She has failed to fully consult with school communities and has repeatedly avoided meeting them to discuss the amalgamation. She has failed to provide any evidence why the schools should be amalgamated. There is no evidence to suggest that it will improve student outcomes. She has made a mockery of authentic public consultation.

The amalgamation should be put on hold while an open discussion of the merits of the proposal based on evidence is conducted according to the Education Department’s protocols.

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