The Hon. Rob Lucas MLC

The Hon

Rob Lucas MLC



Education (Closure and Amalgamation of Government Schools) Amendment Bill

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (20:13): I rise to speak to the second reading. The bill that has been introduced to amend the Education Act seeks to ensure that a government school cannot be closed or amalgamated except by a resolution passed in both houses. As the act currently stands, the minister can close or amalgamate government schools even after consideration and contrary to report and recommendations of an appointed committee under the required review process.

The genesis to the current round of discussions on amalgamations is that in the 2010 budget, under the budget measures incorporated there, the government announced its intention to save $8.2 million over two years from 2011-12 by amalgamating 67 co-located schools. A further budget measure of associated efficiencies flowing from this, totalling $5.8 million over four years, was also announced in the same budget.

The shadow minister has advised our party that the previous amalgamations under Labor's Education Works super school program were voluntary and subject to a majority vote. He gave the instance of a plan to merge 44 schools into nine super schools in the Upper Spencer Gulf region, which was ultimately rejected by local communities and abandoned by the state government.

The Liberal parliamentary party room has voted to support the second reading of this bill and we indicate our support therefore at the second reading stage. The shadow minister is currently working on a proposed amendment which, at least in principle at this stage, to my understanding is to introduce a sunset clause on the provisions so that it applies to the current round of amalgamations. He has not yet concluded that drafting with parliamentary counsel and we will place it on file prior to the discussions in two weeks' time.

I guess the genesis for this particular debate significantly comes from what the government would see as cleverness and others would see as duplicity in relation to their super schools program. The government, which would see it as cleverness, came up with this notion of super schools to disguise the fact that they were seeking to close a number of schools across South Australia. That was clearly a budget-driven imperative; however, the government was not prepared to acknowledge it as such.

I think, through that process, it has raised expectations through school communities about what its super schools were about. I must say that, having used the term 'super schools' in the original press statement, the government sought to deflect ownership of the term later on by saying it was never a term that it had initiated. That, as I said, is nonsense. It was originally announced by the government as super schools in the original press statements.

I know, through the Budget and Finance Committee, we asked the then chief executive officer of the education department exactly what the difference is between a super school and just an ordinary new school under the old arrangements. It took some questions, but his ultimately frank answer was that there was no difference—there was no different staffing ratio, there were no different facilities.

Indeed, as the years go by you get the latest technology, so the most recent new school, prior to the super schools, certainly had much better IT infrastructure, cabling and computers than new schools of 10 years ago, and they had more technology and better infrastructure than the schools of 20 years ago. That is just an inevitable product of technology and education, but he was ultimately frank enough to concede that there was indeed nothing super about the schools at all. 'Super' was indeed a marketing ploy. The government sought to move away from it. It unduly raised expectations.

Let me hasten to say that any new school, whether or not it is called a super school, in an educationally impoverished area will attract new students and attention. That, indeed, happened before we had super schools. We just, in essence, rebuilt the new school in an area and closed old schools. They attracted new students because they are new facilities, new buildings, a fresh start and, therefore, attracted students and families. They were full, so long as the quality of their programs demonstrated the worth of that particular school.

I am not surprised, and I am sure it will be the case and continue for a while, that some of the super schools will attract significant numbers of families and students, in some cases because they have no other option now, but in other cases because certainly the quality of the infrastructure and technology is markedly improved on some of the previous facilities that they might have had in the communities. Ultimately, whether they will be better schools, only time will tell, because all the educational research indicates that the quality of education leadership and the quality of the teaching are the more important factors in terms of the quality of the educational outputs that come from particular schools and school communities.

I note from the notes that the shadow minister has provided to Liberal Party members a statement from the former minister for education in Hansard of 23 February of this year, when he said:

The truth is that the high school amalgamations do not actually provide much by way of savings—

in relation to the amalgamation process.

What I have said to those that we will not be forcing them to amalgamate—

This was justifying why he had backed off from some high school amalgamations. That statement is just patently untrue. All the evidence from within the education department is that the most significant savings from closures and amalgamations come through the bringing together of high schools. Just a simple thought process of whether a co-location of a junior primary and a primary, in terms of its savings, or the combination of two primary schools in terms of its savings, or the combination of two high school communities in terms of the cost of facilities, educational provision, staff to student ratios, etc., is significantly higher in terms of savings in the high school amalgamation process. That political spin used by the former minister and the now Premier—as with many other things, sadly, that come out of that gentleman's mouth—is patently untrue.

My challenge to the government members, if they wish to dispute that, is that during the subsequent debate on this, during the committee stage, let them place on the record from the education department the estimates of savings of a high school closure and amalgamation and an equivalent primary school closure and amalgamation or a co-location of a junior primary and a primary.

Essentially, the savings in the co-location of a junior primary and a primary come back to principally the reduction in leadership positions. There is a huge debate in doing that. For many years we have argued in South Australia that one of our strengths has been our early childhood—that is, under the age of eight; that definition of early childhood rather than under the age of five—which included junior primary education and the fact that we have specialist teachers trained in junior primary or early childhood education from our universities, which has set our education system here apart. It is an interesting part of the debate, which we touched on briefly in the early childhood government bill earlier this week, which was looking essentially at childcare centres.

The savings in a junior primary/primary co-location concern the reduction of leadership positions, so instead of having two principals you only need one, obviously. However, in relation to a high school amalgamation, if you have two high schools and you close one down and dump all the students into the one high school—which I understand was part of the proposal in the Whyalla community—there are significant budget savings to be achieved, if you are going to go down that path, contrary to that statement made by the former minister for education.

I am hoping that, by the time we continue this debate, some questions that have been placed on notice with the department for education, through the Budget and Finance Committee, will be provided. I was a former minister for education when much was made by the Labor opposition, the unions and others about, I think, 40 or so school closures during the 1990s, and that included amalgamations as well as school closures.

We have put the education department on notice to indicate the number of closures under this government since 2002. When that answer eventually comes back, members on the government side will see that it is a significantly higher number than the number about which they complained during the 1990s in the immediate aftermath of the State Bank financial debacle here in South Australia. I am hoping that we will have those answers so that they can be placed on the record during the committee stage of this debate.

In concluding my contribution, I repeat again that the decision has been taken by the Liberal parliamentary party room and has been argued publicly by the shadow minister—and I speak on his behalf—that the party's position is that we will support the second reading and will be looking to move an amendment during the committee stage of the debate.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. R.P. Wortley.

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