The Case for an Independent Public Inquiry on School Closures

The Government’s Towards 2020 Plan is in tatters and the process of consultation has become a shambles. The Government is ignoring its legal obligations to consider the full educational, financial and social impact of its Plan. Obfuscation and deceit has become the modus operandi of a Government under pressure. It is time for an independent public inquiry to clean up the mess.

Under Towards 2020, the option of a small school in the government system will no longer be available. Parents who want the benefits of a small school will have go to a private school. The Government’s hodge-podge of school structures has been designed to meet the exigencies of its school closure agenda rather than on educational merit.

The Government is contradicting its own Social Plan by imposing increased financial burdens on those who can least afford them. The burden of reduced access to local schools will fall most heavily on those who can least afford additional financial costs of travelling to a more distant school. The majority of schools proposed for closure have relatively high proportions of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The Government has provided incorrect and misleading information to school communities, it has refused to provide other critical information, it has overstated the savings from school closures, it refuses to supply the criteria for decisions on school closure and it is failing to systematically collect information on the full financial and social impact of school closures. In many instances, it is ignoring its legal obligations.

Many of the Government’s figures on school capacity and costs have been shown to be incorrect; it has massively and deceptively over-stated the costs of small schools; it has selectively and falsely cited the research on small schools. Clearly, the Government cannot be trusted to provide accurate information to the Canberra community.

Only recently, the Minister for Education has been forced to admit that school closures will incur several additional costs which have not been offset against the savings estimates. These additional costs include:

  • Duplication of special education facilities in other schools;
  • Purchase of new demountable classrooms and/or the transfer and installation of existing demountables;
  • Refurbishment works in schools that will receive additional students; and
  • Ongoing maintenance and security costs for vacant buildings.

The Government has also failed to acknowledge that increased student bus travel following school closures will increase the costs to government and reduce the savings from closing schools. The Government has failed to provide any information on the impact of its proposed school closures on student bus travel or on ACTION costs and revenues.

The Minister for the Territory and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves, has admitted to the Estimates Committee that no planning measures have been put in place for increased student bus travel or for additional traffic calming and safety measures to protect young children walking or cycling longer distances to school.

It is a requirement of the Education Act that the Minister must have regard to the financial, educational and social impact of closing schools on students, their families and on school communities. School communities have not been given any guidance by the Department of Education on what matters will be considered. The Department has not undertaken any surveys to collect information on the financial, educational and social impact of school closures. The Minister has refused a request from the Estimates Committee to state what factors will be taken into account in this assessment.

The Government has a narrow financial focus. It is ignoring the costs of the Towards 2020 Plan that will be incurred by other government agencies, by families and by communities that will lose local facilities and services as a result of school closures.

It is clear that the Government intends to ignore its obligations under the Act. It showed this last year in its consultation around the super-school in W.Belconnen. The Department’s consultation report on the super-school fails to provide a systematic assessment of the financial, educational and social costs of the proposed closure of several pre-schools and primary schools in order to establish the super-school.

Clearly the Government cannot be trusted to meet its legal obligations.

An independent public inquiry needs to be established to do the job that the Government is failing to do. The inquiry should be set up to do a full cost-benefit analysis of the Towards 2020 Plan. This means investigating and reporting on the financial, educational and social costs and benefits of the Plan for students, their families and the broader community.

Trevor Cobbold

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