After a long campaign by Save Our Schools to improve the process for considering school closures, several amendments to the ACT Education Act were passed this week by the ACT Legislative Assembly.
The amendments should ensure a better consultation process around school closure proposals and ensure a much fuller analysis of the impact of proposed school closures. They should ensure a better hearing for school communities than occurred in 2005 for Ginninderra District HS and in 2006 under the Towards 2020 plan.
The changes provide for a more independent process for public consultation on proposals to close or amalgamate schools. An independent committee must be established whose functions are to prepare an impact analysis which is to be used in the consultation process and to conduct the consultation. The committee will consist of three people who will be selected after consultation with a standing committee of the Legislative Assembly.
This new arrangement does not guarantee full independence in the process, but it is an improvement on past processes where the Department of Education conducts the consultation at the bidding of the Minister of the day. The new provision reduces the control over the consultation process by the Minister.
The amendments provide for a detailed impact assessment of school closure and amalgamation proposals. This is a major improvement. The Minister is obliged to obtain a report which assesses the educational, economic, social and environmental impact of closing or amalgamating a school. This report is to be made available for the community consultation on any proposal.
The amendments detail a number of educational, economic, social and environmental factors which must be assessed in considering proposals to close or amalgamate schools. These are much broader than the factors that were considered by the Government in Towards 2020.
The educational impacts include the range and depth of education programs, teaching resources and workloads, the social and learning environment for children; parent participation in school, the findings of research studies on school size and access to public education.
The economic impacts include recurrent and capital savings and costs of closing or amalgamating a school for the Territory. This will ensure that the wider costs such as increased bus transport costs and traffic and safety arrangements are also are considered in future and not just the savings to the Education Department. Other economic factors to be considered include the financial impact on parents and local businesses.
The social impacts to be considered include demographic projections, the implications for low income, Indigenous and non-English speaking families, the safety of children walking or cycling to school, access to recreational and leisure facilities, community support networks and local employment.
The impact on environmental factors such as traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and green space adjacent to schools must also be taken into account.
In assessing the impact of proposals, the impact assessment report must also identify alternatives to closure or amalgamation for consideration in the consultation. This is a key change from past practice in which alternatives to school closure were little considered.
The amendments also set out a series of steps the Minister must comply with before making a decision to close or amalgamate a school. In addition, to obtaining an impact assessment report for community consultation, the Minister must give public notice of a proposal to close a school; directly inform the relevant school community of the proposal; consult the community for at least six months; and give public and written notice of the final decision not less than 12 months after informing the community of the proposal.
These amendments should ensure that a future government cannot decide to close a school and then consult only on how it will be done. This is what happened in the case of Ginninderra District HS in 2005 and Urambi PS which is due to close at the end of this year. It will also mean a more extended process than occurred in the past.
In making a decision to close or amalgamate a school the Minister must now take specific account of the principles applying to education in general and to government schooling under the Education Act. These include principles such as improving equity in education, ensuring reasonable access to public education and providing for partnerships in education. Issues about equity in education and access to government schools were largely ignored in the Government’s decision to close schools in 2005 and 2006.
These changes reflect proposals made by SOS in its submission to the Education Committee inquiry on school closures in 2009 as well as other amendments it proposed in consultations over the past nine months.
However, some key proposals advocated by SOS were not adopted. These include the publication of a draft report on the consultation for further public comment, a more structured consultation process and provision for appeal to an independent arbitrator against the Minister’s decision. The lack of an appeal process to challenge a decision before a school is closed and which does not involve expensive legal processes remains a significant flaw in the legislation.
The amendments were put by the ACT Greens and supported by the Government. The Liberal Party opposed the amendments.