Schools and preschools in South Australia are currently facing the greatest potential threat of closure and amalgamation ever seen in that State’s history.
In April, the Minister for Education issued a press release stating that more than 150 schools and preschools are “voluntarily investigating options to restructure”. The Minister went on to say “I stress that this is a locally driven initiative and is completely voluntary”.
The Minister’s use of language is interesting. “Restructure” is, of course, code for close or amalgamate under the auspices of Education Works Stage II. “Locally driven initiative” is open to considerable question. It is simply inconceivable that so many school and preschool communities would suddenly be seeking, entirely of their own volition and initiative, involvement in discussions about closure and amalgamation.
The Minister’s stance on Education Works is remarkably akin to her position on staffing under the new funding arrangements for schools being proposed by the State Government in the current Enterprise Bargaining impasse.
The Minister proclaims that decisions will be made at the local level regarding the number and type of staff to be engaged at each school, and that this will somehow automatically benefit students and communities. In the case of Education Works, she asserts that schools and preschools will only close with the assent of the community.
In both instances, the Minister is emphasising the importance of choice at the local level. What she fails to disclose is that these choices are largely spurious. Schools that are facing budget cuts under the new funding arrangements will not be able to make good choices about staffing. Instead they will be forced to reduce staffing levels, and when concerns are raised by parents or AEU members, the Minister will be able to wash her hands of it and attribute the problem to local decision-making.
With Education Works, the Federal Government Building the Education Revolution (BER) funding is being used by the Government and DECS as the catalyst to put pressure on school and preschool communities to make hasty decisions about “restructuring”.
Communities are being encouraged to consider participation in Education Works by being told they can have bigger and better facilities if they amalgamate. Many communities where schools have been waiting for basic maintenance and upgrading for years under this Government will be very tempted if additional funding is suddenly on offer. If this results in closures or amalgamations, any criticisms can easily be deflected by the State Government as the outcome of communities making these decisions themselves. Again they will simply be able to wash their hands of any problems, all in the name of “empowering the community”.
The reality is very different from the glossy public face of Education Works.
There is little evidence of meaningful consultation with the key stakeholders. DECS employees are obliged to tow the party line and are fearful of recriminations if they raise concerns, just as they were in the heyday of Partnerships 21, introduced by the Liberals and subsequently rebadged as Local Management by Labor.
Many parents would be totally unaware that amalgamation inevitably leads to reduced staffing levels and a loss of leadership and expertise for specific age groups of students. Where two or more schools amalgamate, two or three Principals are replaced by one. SSO time is lost and there may well be additional reductions. A host of other questions need to be asked as well, in relation to playing space, transport issues and greater distances for parents and students to travel.
The State Government has never produced a rationale for why R-12 schools and larger schools are inherently better for students, community and educators. The key argument is always based on better facilities, which should have been provided in the first instance. The Federal Government BER funding has been a windfall to them, and they fail to point out that schools will get this funding irrespective of their participation in Education Works. Nor do they explore with schools the possibility of pooling BER funding without agreeing to closures or amalgamations.
Clearly, larger and fewer schools and preschools would lead to enormous long-term savings for the State Government, with reductions in staffing levels, less sites to maintain and the profits from the sale of properties being diverted directly to Treasury rather than invested in public education.
This is a Government initiative that requires full and frank information to parents, communities and educators, not decisions made in haste and repented at leisure.
SA Branch of the Australian Education Union