Governments regularly resort to spin to deceive the public and avoid accountability. The NSW Minister for Education, Sarah Mitchell, adopted this underhand practice in her response to criticism by Save Our Schools that she failed to implement Department of Education protocols for consulting on school closures and amalgamations in the case of the Murwillumbah super-school.
She claims there was widespread consultation. As evidence, she says the Department of Education and School Infrastructure NSW ran workshops in the schools and surveyed the communities about the plan. Her claim is completely disingenuous.
This is a furphy. Department documents show that the only consultation was on the design of the new building. There was NO consultation on whether the schools should be amalgamated prior to the Minister’s announcement last October. It came as a complete shock to the community. Since then, the only consultation has been on the design of the building.
NSW Education Department protocols provide for a step-by-step consultation with representative bodies, local school communities and local Members of Parliament on proposed school closures and amalgamations. The Minister refuses to say why these protocols were not followed.
The Minister ignored the historical record in her disingenuous claims. The document record shows that all the Department has ever done is to consult on the design of the building, not on whether the schools should be amalgamated.
The Minister’s own media release announcing the amalgamation of the four schools last October said that the school communities would be consulted only on the design of the building. It stated that the next steps would include planning and design and that “the community would be engaged in the process. There was no mention of consultation on whether the schools should be amalgamated. The title of the media release showed that the decision was non-negotiable: “Brand new education campus coming soon to Murwillumbah”.
Department of Education documents also show it was a fait accompli and that the only consultation would be about the design of the building. The Minister’s announcement of the decision was accompanied by a planning statement by School Infrastructure NSW titled New Education Campus for Murwillumbah. It stated:
The business case for the project has been approved and funding has been allocated. We are currently in the master planning phase…
Schools, stakeholders and the community will have the opportunity to provide feedback so that this input can be considered during the design of the campus…
Further into the future, an online survey will be conducted so the community can provide input into the design process.
The document included a timeline of the planning process. It began before mid-2020. Master planning for the site occurred in mid-2020 and the concept design would be completed in late 2020. There was no consultation prior to the start of the planning process on whether the schools should be amalgamated.
A project update was released in November 2020. It stated that the Department was in the master planning stage. It said:
While we are currently unable to hold face-to-face community information sessions, you’re invited to attend a virtual information session to find out more about the project scope and benefits, timeline, and design approach.
An information pack was also released in November. It provided an updated timeline that was about the planning, design and construction process. It stated that the Department has worked through an early planning process, including a review and analysis of population projections, enrolment and teaching space projections, local education service needs and current schooling options.
Once again, there was no mention of consultation about whether the schools should be amalgamated. The only communication was about the timeline and the design. It stated:
All stakeholders and the community will have the opportunity to complete an online survey so that your feedback can be used to help inform the design of the campus [our emphasis]. We will continue to work with stakeholders as the project progresses so that we can deliver high quality education infrastructure that meets local needs.
The document also revealed that the Department had explored a range of possible options for the schools and decided that investing in one primary school and one high school at the Murwillumbah High School site offered the best opportunity for meeting Murwillumbah’s current and projected education needs. This was done without any of the consultation required by the protocols. According to the Department’s own protocols, the factors reviewed by the Department should have been discussed with representative bodies and the local community. This did not happen.
A further update was released in December 2020. It announced that an online survey would be open between 14 December 2020 until 15 February 2021. It said the purpose of the survey is to find out what’s important to the community and gather feedback on some key design questions. Another project update in March 2021 stated that the master planning phase was completed and that final design of buildings will be determined in future design phases, in consultation with stakeholders.
It is clear that the Minister and the Department did not comply with the protocols for closing or amalgamating schools. As the November 2020 information pack stated, it was the Department that reviewed the schools and decided on amalgamation. This should have been done in conjunction with key principal and teacher organisations as required by Step 3 of the protocols.
Step 3 of the protocols (the previous two steps involve internal Department procedures) states that the Executive Director should develops a school specific fact sheet, discuss the current status of the schools with the local Member of Parliament, the NSW Primary Principals Association Executive, the NSW Secondary Principals Council Executive and the NSW Teachers Federation and seek approval from the Deputy Secretary to consult locally. Save Our Schools is informed that there was no consultation with the principals’ bodies or the Teachers Federation.
This consultation should have been followed by setting up a School Consultative Group as outlined in the protocols. Steps 4-6 of the protocols require the 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 should include 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 before closing or amalgamating schools.
None of these requirements were implemented and no amount of obfuscation and dissembling by the Minister can deny this fact. The amalgamation is being bulldozed through by the Government and the Murwillumbah school communities are denied a voice on whether it should go ahead.