The decision of the Stanhope Government to close 12 primary schools and partially close four others has major implications for the future of public education in the ACT.
While the reprieve for 4 schools is welcome, the announcement is the most devastating attack on a public education system since the Kennett Government in Victoria in the 1990s.
Undermining neighbourhood schools
Key features of the ACT public education system will be undermined. The neighbourhood school system will be dismembered by the full or part closure of nearly a quarter of all government primary schools. Access to a local school will be denied to many families and they will incur additional costs in attending more distant schools.
Exacerbate drift to private schools
Also, families will no longer have the option of a small school in the government system. They will have to transfer to the private system if they want their child to attend a small school, as many parents do. Rather than make the public system more attractive as the Government hopes, its plan will exacerbate drift to private schools in the ACT.
Lack of equity
The other major implication for public education is that the announcement demonstrates that the Stanhope Government has abandoned all pretence of giving policy priority to reducing inequity in education. The Government has run up the white flag on improving equity.
This surrender has several aspects.
First, 9 of the 16 schools to be fully or partially closed have a relatively large proportion of students from low-income and Indigenous families as well as students with disabilities. These students are to be dispersed to larger schools despite all the available research which shows that such students achieve better results in smaller schools. It is likely that their schooling will suffer as a consequence.
Second, families who can least afford it will face additional costs and disruption from school closures. They will lose access to their local school and will incur additional financial costs for transport, school uniforms and before- and after-school care as well as increased safety problems for their children in travelling to a new school.
Third, the school closure plan has been given priority over the main problems facing the ACT government school system. These are the large gap between low-achieving and high-achieving students and the high drop-out rate after Year 10.
The Government has conspicuously ignored these key problems for five years, despite its flowery rhetoric about social inclusion and its much vaunted Social Plan. The Social Plan, at least as it relates to education, has now been consigned to the dustbin. Inequity in education is likely to be exacerbated by the school closure decision.
New P-10 super-schools of up to or more than 1000 students are not the answer to the problems of the government school system. There is no research evidence to show that large P-10 schools and new buildings significantly improve school outcomes. It is also difficult to see why schools which are no longer viable as K-6 schools have become viable as P-2 schools.
The Government has failed to substantiate its case for school closures on educational, financial, demographic or social grounds. It has ignored much relevant education and other research presented to it during the consultation.
It has also over-estimated the recurrent savings from school closures. It has failed to take account of additional costs to government from closing schools such as school refurbishment, loss of rental income, increased student bus travel, the need for additional traffic safety measures and ongoing building maintenance and security costs.
Maintaining credit rating, not education
This failure to substantiate the case for school closures points to another agenda. It is all about maintaining the Government’s credit rating on financial markets rather than improving education.
Selling school sites is critical to this agenda because the ongoing net savings to government will be much lower when account is taken of the additional costs faced by the Government as a result of its decision.
The Chief Minister has over-ruled his Education Minister and stated that there will be a sell-off of school sites. This has broader implications for the Canberra community that extend beyond education issues.
It means the privatisation of public space and the loss of green space and public facilities. Property values in these suburbs are also likely to decline.
Lack of transparency
Lack of government accountability and transparency are also features of the decision.
The decision represents a major failure of public policy processes and good government. The plan is based on the still secret Costello report. The Government has failed to provide a cost-benefit analysis of the plan despite it being a government requirement for major policy decisions.
The Stanhope Government stands condemned for this devastating attack on public education. The dismemberment of neighbourhood schools will diminish public education, exacerbate inequity in education and fracture local communities. The Canberra community will remember this at the next ACT election.