Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

School Closures Under Challenge

Thursday July 9, 2009

School closures continue to be a hot issue around Australia as communities question government programs to close schools and set up super schools.

Parents and teachers have expressed concern at the pressure put on schools to merge by governments. Governments appear to be using Federal economic stimulus funds and Building the Education Revolution to put pressure on smaller schools to close or merge.

Generally, governments are failing to consider the educational and social impacts of closing and merging schools. Selling off closed school sites to gain more revenue seems to be the main priority of governments.

South Australia

The pressure put on school communities in the Spencer Gulf region of South Australia seems to have backfired on the government. School communities in Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Whyalla have rejected the State Government’s plan for extensive school mergers in the region.

The plan was to combine 44 schools into 17 super schools across the Spencer Gulf region.

Parents had raised concerns they were being pressured into making a decision by June 30 in order to meet a federal government deadline to use Building the Education Revolution funds for the works. They were given only three months to consider the proposals.

Australian Education Union State President, Correna Haythorpe, said in May that there was “panic” in the region at the “appallingly short deadline” given to consider the proposals. She said the Government was using the funding as a “driver” to push schools to make rushed decisions.

Many concerns were also raised about the educational impact of the proposals. The findings of Save Our Schools research that small school size is good for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds and communities with relatively high levels of disadvantage was widely reported on radio and in newspapers in the region during the debate on the proposals.

The SA Government has also recently released design plans for six new super schools to be built in Adelaide’s northern suburbs through the amalgamation of smaller ones. The Australian Education Union says the Government is not being transparent about the plans. AEU Vice-President, Anne Crawford, told ABC News this week that debate in Adelaide has been hindered by the Education Department refusing to say which schools could be amalgamated.

“They only tell us after this has happened and that does make it more difficult for us to encourage the kind of debate and discussion that really should take place before these very big decisions occur,” she said.

Opposition education spokesman, David Pisoni, told ABC News that the big schools may create problems.

“I’m concerned about security at big schools, I’m concerned about education outcomes at big schools, I’m worried about parent engagement at big schools,” he said.

“I’m very concerned about the fact that the Minister is bringing the super schools program to South Australia for one reason and one reason alone and that is to save money in the education system.”

Mr Pisoni says bigger schools have only worked in Adelaide’s higher socio-economic areas.

“Schools like Adelaide High, Glenunga High, Brighton High, Unley High but they are in areas that have a lot of parent support and a lot of parent involvement,” he said.

SA Education Minister, Jane Lomax-Smith, said that where existing schools are closed, the land may be sold for housing.

Victoria

In Victoria, the Minister for Education, Bronwyn Pike, has been forced to reveal that more than 150 Victorian public schools have closed or merged since Labor has been in government, with the Education Department reaping millions of dollars from schools that have shut down.

Since 1999, 39 schools have closed throughout the state, and 96 schools have been merged into 54 new schools. At least 18 other schools are also merging but were not included on the list. The Education Department obtained about $9.5 million from land sales of closed schools in 2007-08 alone.

However, the Minister has until now been resisting pressures to release data on school closures. It has only now occurred after a series of reports by The Age highlighting the Government’s secrecy.

The Minister has insisted that decisions to close or merge are “always a decision that the community themselves make”.

“It’s an absolute nonsense to say that there is some sort of overarching plan. It’s a completely different approach to the jackboot, forcible closure approach of the previous Liberal government.”

However, these assurances have been challenged. Many have claimed some schools have been forced to merge because they have been starved of funds or that Education bureaucrats had used the promise of Federal Government building grants to encourage them to merge. The Age, The Herald-Sun and ABC News reported earlier this year that State Government bureaucrats have been accused of bullying some schools to merge as a condition of funding for new buildings and upgrades.

Principals in a number of small schools in the Bendigo, Wimmera, Mallee and Hume regions said that Education Department officials were advising them to consider amalgamating with nearby schools, or face being starved of funds from the Federal Government’s economic stimulus package. The State Opposition and the Australian Education Union said that they had received complaints from schools who felt they were being “bullied into submission” by senior education department managers.

But Liberal Opposition education spokesman, Martin Dixon, has accused the Government of closing schools “by stealth”.

“They starve school communities of funds, enrolments drop off and, as a consequence, schools are no longer viable,” Mr Dixon said.

Last February, The Age revealed an Education Department plan to close schools if they are found to be struggling because of falling enrolments, lack of programs or poor performance. Internal Department documents obtained by The Age outlined a plan under which government schools were to be assessed against a range of measures, such as demographic and enrolment trends, the state of a school’s buildings, curriculum standards, and how well the school can survive for at least 12 to 14 years. Each school was to be ranked against three categories: having “no issues”; in need of “monitoring”; or in “critical” condition.

The Department’s draft network planning provision guidelines also suggested shutting down or restructuring struggling schools as an “alternative provision option” for the education system. Removing the principal, upgrading buildings, or sharing resources with other schools was also canvassed.

Tasmania

It seems a similar process is under way in Tasmania to force schools to close or merge. According to the Tasmanian State School Parents and Friends Council, Federal Government economic stimulus funds have been used to pressure Tasmanian school communities to “rush” into school mergers and closures.

The Australian reported last month that Parents and Friends President, Jenny Branch, also said that Building the Education Revolution (BER) funds were used to exert undue pressure on parents and schools to quickly accept a major rationalisation of schools in Hobart’s north. Known as the Glenorchy Project, it will reduce eight schools to just four, with four schools including two that received BER funds closing, four merging and two new schools being built on greenfields sites.

Ms Branch said many parents felt Premier David Bartlett had used state influence over the program to force quick agreement on the deal. She said communities were warned they would miss out on BER funds if they did not quickly accept reforms in time to meet funding deadlines.

“They didn’t really have a choice – it was a case of ‘if you don’t do this quickly, the schools will close down anyway and you’ll miss out on the money’,” Ms Branch said.

Last February, Mr Bartlett told schools to consider mergers now to “optimise the expenditure of this funding”.

It was claimed that the BER rules were bent to allow funds for three schools scheduled for closure to be diverted to schools yet to be built on greenfields sites. Under the Glenorchy Project, two of the four primary schools to close, rather than be merged like other schools, received BER funds. Roseneath Primary School received $200,000 for “classroom extensions and refurbishment” and Claremont $275,000 for “classroom refurbishment and extension to existing classrooms”.

BER guidelines state that schools “planned for closure … will not receive any funding”, as opposed to merging schools which can be eligible. But the state government said it sought and received “specific approval” to divert BER funds for doomed existing schools into “new or amalgamating schools”.

On March 25, affected principals and school associations signed a memorandum agreeing on the understanding that “BER monies from the old schools can be used as part of the new” (schools).
“We wouldn’t want to miss out on such a vital funding opportunity, so that is why new school facilities have been entered (to BER) under existing school names,” said state Education Department deputy secretary Greg Glass.

Glenorchy Project executive officer Graham Speight agreed the BER deadline meant school communities had made a “rushed” decision on the shake-up.

NSW

In NSW, the priority has been to grab more revenue from selling off school sites. Recently, a controversy has broken out following the sale of a heritage school site. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the former Enmore Public School was this week bought by a Sydney property developer who plans to convert it into townhouses. The 112-year-old heritage-listed building was sold for $2.8 million at auction, amid accusations that the state Education Department had ignored regulations for the sale.

“This sale is yet another example of the NSW Government’s grab-for-cash sell-off of public school lands while ignoring the important role those sites can play in the future of education,” Dr John Kaye, a Greens MLC, said.

Local community groups accused the Government of breaching its own asset disposal guidelines by failing to consider alternative uses for the site within the education system.
Departments are required to prepare detailed property disposal plans each year for land that is not being used. But an email from a Treasury official obtained by a Greens councillor in Marrickville, Cathy Peters, shows the Department has not updated its plan properly since 2004.

The Education Department has consistently claimed that demand for education in the area has been static or falling in recent years. However, its own statistics show that between 2003 and 2008 enrolments at five schools within a five kilometre radius of the site had risen by 60 per cent or more.

According to convener of the community action group Save Our School, Alan Crocker, the number of ``birthing age adults’’, that is 25 to 39 year olds, in the area is now 10 per cent higher than the Sydney average.

Journalist Maralyn Parker, reported in the Daily Telegraph that childcare centres and pre-schools in the region are full. It is such a problem the Federal Government has identified the inner city of Sydney as one of 11 high priority areas of NSW in need of an Early Learning Care Centre and there has been a quest to find a school to house the centre.

However, a NSW Education Department spokesman told Parker that no suitable site had been found so at the beginning of June it ran an advertisement seeking proposals to establish a centre.

“It is outrageous that the Enmore site has been ignored. It has 14 classrooms and other areas that, refurbished and upgraded, could be a brilliantly located child care centre and more,” said Parker.

“Nearby Stanmore Public School is full – enrolling only strictly local children. But it has classrooms currently being used to house the Distance Education Unit. This unit could easily be moved to Enmore to free up space.”

“Other inner city primary schools such as Forest Lodge and Ultimo are also full. And if we need yet another reason to keep this public property for public use, the TAFE college just 250 metres down the road needs room to expand. The Design Centre Enmore is part of this TAFE and demand is high and increasing for its arts based courses. The spillover could be accommodated on the old school site.”

According to Alan Croker, who is an architect, the Enmore site could cater for all three of these suggested educational facilities and would be great to reopen as a primary school or small inner city high school in the future.

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