The Tasmanian Government’s Case to Close Schools is Threadbare

The Tasmanian Government is treating the public with contempt over its proposal to close 20 schools. It has provided no evidence to support its case. It has failed to detail the expected savings and it has provided no evidence that closing schools will improve the quality of education.

The school communities affected have been refused critical information to assess the Government’s case and to put their own. The arrogance of the Greens Education Minister, Nick McKim, is unbelievable. When requested to provide the information, he said “look on the Internet”.

It is the Minister’s responsibility to provide this information so the Government’s claims can be properly scrutinised and assessed. This is fundamental for proper public consultation and effective public participation in government decision-making. It is a principle the Greens Party has always supported. Yet, this Greens Minister seems intent on denying school communities this right.

Without this information, the Government’s case can only be seen as threadbare. The claimed financial savings from closing schools are dubious and the weight of research evidence is that students in small schools do as well as, if not better, than students in large schools on a range of student outcomes.

The Government should provide the evidence in support of its case to close schools and the consultation on school closures should be extended so that school communities can examine this evidence and prepare their case to remain open.

The claimed financial savings are dubious
The Government’s main justification for the closures is to make financial savings. The Premier of Tasmania, Lara Giddings, said that the Government “cannot fund half empty schools” [ The Mercury, 16 June 2011). The Department of Education website states:

The State Government has to make urgent savings in all areas….It is very expensive to continue to run a large number of very small and/or under-utilised schools so closing schools and amalgamating some others will result in significant cost savings for the Department.

The Government claims that it will save a total of $24 million over four years from closing the 20 schools. This amounts to an average of $300,000 per school per year.

However, so far it has refused to provide any detailed breakdown of these savings estimates. Without detailed data it is not possible to assess the Government’s claims. The Government should disclose the details of the expected savings in salaries, school operating costs, buildings and grounds maintenance, etc. It should also disclose the expected costs of transferring students to other schools.

Experience with school closures elsewhere shows that savings estimates from school closures are often much over-stated. Governments often ignore additional costs arising from amalgamating schools and additional costs to other government departments. This happened with the school closures in the ACT in 2006.

Amalgamating schools incurs several additional one-off costs which should be offset against the savings estimates. These additional costs include duplication of special education facilities in other schools and refurbishment works. In some cases, demountables may need to be purchased to accommodate additional students. The Education Minister has already admitted that refurbishment and extra classrooms will be needed in some receiving schools.

A major additional ongoing cost will be the transport of children over some distances to other schools. Increased student bus travel following school closures will increase the costs to government and reduce financial savings from closing schools. In some cases, road infrastructure may have to be upgraded as well. Studies show that the increased costs of transporting students to other schools in rural areas often outweighs direct savings obtained from closing schools.

There are also the additional environmental costs of increased car and bus travel caused by closing schools. It is paradoxical that a Greens Minister is imposing additional environmental costs on communities so as to obtain dubious financial savings to government.

The expected financial savings to government should also be assessed against the increased financial and social costs to families and the affected communities.

Families will be faced with significantly increased transport costs and safety risks in getting their children to and from schools. Much of the burden will fall on low income families. The Government is effectively transferring some of its costs in providing public education on to families who can least afford it.

Small regional towns will lose the focus of their local community. As one Collinsvale resident told The Mercury [18 June] “without the school we would not have a community, it would fall apart…. Collinsvale’s history and community would be gone”. A Ringarooma parent said: “Small country towns are all struggling, and a blow like this would just finish us. We’d become a ghost town” [ ABC News, 20 June 2011]. Greens MLA, Kim Booth, said: “Lose the school and you lose the community” [ The Mercury, 18 June 2011]

If the Education Minister is serious about consulting with local communities, he must immediately release the detailed savings estimates and a full social impact statement for public analysis. His consultation with school communities can only be seen as a sham if this data is not provided.

Education in small schools is just as good as in large schools
The Premier has also claimed that savings are not the primary reason behind the decision [ The Examiner, 18 June 2011]. She claims there will be benefits for children going to larger schools. The Education Minister claims that bigger schools lead to better educational outcomes and that there is a wealth of evidence showing that smaller schools struggle to teach a broad curriculum.

However, neither the Premier nor the Education Minister has produced any sound research evidence which shows that larger schools achieve better results than small schools. The reason is that there is no such evidence.

There is no robust research evidence that shows that small schools have lower student achievement than other schools. Student outcomes in small schools are at least equal to, if not better than, outcomes in larger schools.

Many studies conducted during the past 20 years have found that small schools, particularly at the primary school level, have a positive effect upon student achievement, extra-curricular participation, student satisfaction, student behaviour and attendance. The most recent evidence comes from a review of some 57 studies conducted around the world since 1990. The review was published in the Review of Educational Research, the journal of the American Educational Research Association, in 2009.

The Government has also failed to take account of a new stream of research literature that shows that small schools mitigate the effects of low socio-economic status (SES) on education outcomes and that students from low SES backgrounds do better in smaller schools.

There is no evidence to show that curriculum is less comprehensive in small primary schools than in larger schools or that it is inadequate in smaller high schools. However, larger high schools are better able to offer more advanced courses and a greater range of elective courses than small high schools.

Thus, the Tasmanian Government’s arguments to close schools are unproven. It has failed to provide the evidence to justify its claims. It has failed detailed evidence of financial savings to government from closing schools and that closing small schools will increase student outcomes.

The Government’s claims are high questionable. It has only provided estimates of the gross savings to the Education Department from closing schools. It appears to have failed to factor in additional costs to receiving schools and for school transport. It has also failed to take account of the additional financial and social costs to families and communities.

The weight of research evidence suggests that student achievement is unlikely to improve as a result of closing small schools. It shows that small schools do as well as, if not better, on a range of student outcomes, especially in relation to students from low income families.

There seems little wonder then why the Premier and the Education Minister want to limit the community consultation to four weeks and ram through school closures. Its case for school closures is threadbare.

Trevor Cobbold

Further reading
Save Our Schools, Towards 2020: An Unsubstantiated, Flawed and Inequitable School Plan, A Submission to the ACT Department of Education and Training, November 2006.

Trevor Cobbold, A Look Back at School Closure Issues in the ACT, Save Our Schools, September 2009.

Craig Howley; Jerry Johnson & Jennifer Petrie. Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means. National Education Policy Center, Boulder, Colorado, February 2011.

Lorna Jimerson, The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools. The Rural School and Community Trust, September 2006.

Kenneth Leithwood and Doris Jantzi. A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects: A Policy Perspective. Review of Educational Research, 79 (1): 464-490.

For further information on issues in school closures see:
Save Our Schools, School Closures

Rural and Community Trust,Consolidation Fightback Toolkit

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