The Towards 2020 plan to close 39 pre-schools and schools and to partially close 5 other schools is a serious threat to the equity goals of public education, effective provision of community services and the well-being of local communities.
The neighbourhood school is central to the purpose of public education, which is to enable all children to attend school without discrimination and without regard to family financial circumstances. Achievement of this goal is aided by ready physical access to schools in each neighbourhood within a reasonable and safe walking distance for all young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The network of neighbourhood schools makes regular attendance at school less dependent on family capacity to provide or pay for transport and on safety considerations. If this network is broken up, attendance at school becomes more subject to financial and safety considerations. It is the children of families who can least afford to bear the increased costs whose attendance is most likely to suffer.
Lower attendance at schools is generally reflected in lower learning outcomes. Reduced access to a local school may exacerbate the large gap in education outcomes that already exists between the highest and lowest achieving students in the ACT.
The higher financial costs incurred by attending more distant schools also cuts into family resources that are available to support children’s learning by the purchase of books, toys, and holidays, etc.
The neighbourhood school also supports parent participation in schooling, a significant factor in student learning, especially in the early years of schooling. Ready access to a local school ensures that parent participation is not dependent on parent financial capacity to pay for private or public transport.
It means that parents can easily help out in the classroom, help out in the canteen and attend school concerts and sporting events. It also makes for easy and regular direct communication between parents and teachers and for better mutual understanding.
The neighbourhood pre-school provides similar benefits. Pre-school education is an important stage in early childhood learning which should be readily available for all families and not be dependent on capacity to pay for transport. Parent participation is also critical to the operation of pre-schools.
The local pre-school provides an important linkage to other forms of early childhood learning. For example, playgroups provide opportunities for child socialization and informal learning through play for children under school age. Many of these groups are located in neighbourhood pre-schools so that they are within walking distance for families.
Schools are not just places to teach children, but can be used as learning centres for the local community. By keeping schools open during non-traditional school hours, the school can provide access to facilities and educational resources to support life-long learning opportunities for community members. They can be used by other government agencies and community organisations to provide a variety of learning activities and services to the local community.
Neighbourhood pre-schools and primary schools also play a critical role in developing and sustaining social support networks between families in local communities. Very often friendship groups for children and for parents are formed in the local pre-school and primary school and are developed into broader social networks that form essential social capital in these communities.
These social networks provide tangible assistance, care and support that may reduce psychic and physical stress. They often avert the need for costly government intervention services.
The public school is often the only public facility in a local neighbourhood. As such, it serves as a public resource for families and community members which contributes to community well-being in a variety of ways.
Schools can serve as a ‘hub’ for the delivery of a range of government services in the local community. They provide a base for information about and delivery of a range of health, welfare and social services by community and government agencies to students and their families. These services include family services, health clinics, youth service programs and childcare. Increasingly in many countries, government school sites are used to support integrated service provision for student and family welfare.
The neighbourhood school also provides public space for recreational and leisure activities in the community. It can also serve as a meeting place for the local community.
The significance of neighbourhood schools for local communities is exemplified in the role played by local primary schools as community support and activity centres when bushfires ravaged several Canberra suburbs in 2003. Several primary schools became key centres for distraught residents, especially Duffy PS. If these schools had not existed, there would not have been any public facility available in these suburbs for the community to gather in to support each other, organize activities and rebuild their local community.
All these benefits and possibilities presented by neighbourhood pre-schools and primary schools should not be surrendered lightly and without question. Those who will bear the highest burden from their loss are those who can least afford it. The wholesale closure of neighbourhood schools will diminish public education, exacerbate inequity in education, fracture communities, undermine the delivery of community services and impair the formation of social capital.