Ms FORREST (Murchison) - Mr President, I will make a few comments about the Auditor-General's report. I will not go broadly into the whole education debate. It is a worthy debate, but is probably best left for another time in many ways. I note the contribution of the member for Elwick, who covered a lot of information well beyond the Auditor-General's assessment, which was all useful and part of the conversation.
Mrs Taylor - It was a very good opportunity.
Ms FORREST - It was an opportunity. If I had known she was going to make it broader, I might have contributed differently myself, but I am going to focus on the Auditor-General's report.
The information that the member for Elwick presented was very apt and appropriate. I have been asking these questions for a long time, trying to get more data. It has been a constant battle and challenge. I have been assured that the recent legislative change getting rid of the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority will allow for greater transparency and data collection. We still have to get it from the private sector to have any meaningful assessment of the outcomes of our students. It remains to be seen whether that occurs. I have other questions on the Notice Paper that are still waiting for answers. It seems to take an awfully long time sometimes to get answers to these questions. We put them on notice because more detail can be provided than in 24 hours, but sometimes I question the amount of time it takes to answer some of these questions.
To return to the Auditor-General's report, I note that the objective of the audit was to form an opinion about the efficiency and effectiveness of the number and location of public primary schools in Tasmania.
I agree it is important to look at these important aspects of public education if we are to achieve high standards and good outcomes for our students attending public education. I acknowledge that there are times when school closures do need to occur to ensure equity of access to quality education and the efficient and effective expenditure of public funds. However, this must occur in close collaboration with school communities and families attending the schools and also needs to be evidence-based. Sometimes, as the member for Elwick alluded to, these decisions about extension to years 11 and 12 appear to be made without a whole heap of rigour, particularly in terms of evidence. Whilst it may well be an appropriate decision, and I am not saying that it is not, we do not really know. There are some questions that need to be asked. I have asked questions in previous contributions about how this is going to be assessed.
The Auditor-General was not required to recommend a government policy, and neither should he be, but rather to advise on the topic and to provide some data that may assist government in determining policy and informed decision-making in this area.
The report did note a number of schools that could be considered as having a strong or moderate case for closure. Most of us have alluded to our own electorates; the ones in my electorate would be significantly affected if this were to be adopted by the Government. I am sure the member for Montgomery will address this when she speaks. In my electorate a strong case existed for closure, according to the Auditor-General's assessment, of Edith Creek Primary School. Redpa Primary School and Zeehan Primary School also had a moderate case for closure. My own primary school, Riana Primary School, was listed as one.
I thought I would make a few comments on the issues to be considered when reading this report and by government bureaucrats in responding to this report. First and foremost, while the report acknowledges that Tasmania has changing demographics, it pays little attention to the demographics of Tasmania apart from saying that the state has struggled with declining school numbers or school enrolments. The executive summary outlines that between 1996 and 2010 there was a 7 per cent reduction in the number of full-time students enrolled in Tasmanian public schools. There is more recent data available from 2014 that demonstrates that full-time enrolments in Tasmania have actually increased between 2010 and 2014 by 328 students, roughly 0.7 per cent, between these years.
Several of the schools with a strong case for closure are actually in local government areas in which school-age population zero to 14 years is projected to decline over the next five to 10 years. For example, the proportion of school-age children available for Edith Creek Primary and Redpa Primary in the Circular Head local government area is set to decline in all age groups, zero to four, five to nine and 10 to 14 years, between now and 2020.
In any discussion of school closures or the possibility of mergers or amalgamations, future population change must be taken into account. Similar population patterns are expected in Zeehan in the West Coast local government area, as I have mentioned previously. Overall, I appreciate that the report attempts to analyse quite a robust and diverse range of data in making its recommendations and this is commendable.
There are some instances, however, where some of the analysis is counterintuitive throughout the report. For example, in section 1, the macro view, the lack of evidence that small schools, those with enrolments under 300 students, were not disadvantaged in terms of educational performance is documented. Given that the majority of schools examined, 73 per cent, had enrolments under 300 students, the inclusion of comparative NAPLAN scores is questionable in allocating demerit points, particularly when only one on the list for strong closure, Clarendon Vale, has lower than average NAPLAN scores. Only two schools with a moderate case for closure, Riana and Springfield Gardens, have lower than average NAPLAN scores. It is worth noting that in section 1.4, the examination of Tasmania's small primary schools providing an inadequate range of educational experiences, the report notes that international evidence suggests that students in small schools actually have more positive attitudes towards school, exemplified by lower dropout rates, higher attention rates and better retention.
Similarly, the report notes that similar small schools in Tasmania actually perform better, in terms of NAPLAN, than larger schools, as well as the Australian average and on a 'like school' basis. Given that many small schools have been poised to deliver better educational outcomes across some measures, it may be pertinent not to measure the efficiency of Tasmanian schools but, rather, the cultural significance - perhaps more accurately titled insignificance - attached to education throughout the state.
Discussions regarding the future of smaller primary schools needs to effectively engage the whole community, especially families who are disengaged. This is a matter that needs to be taken seriously by the minister and the Government as the future of education in Tasmania is fully considered.
To highlight the need for an inclusive approach, I noted a recent end-of-year school presentation at one of the small schools in my electorate. The principal, who had sent out a survey to all parents, announced at this end-of-year assembly - and she was an extremely disheartened principal - that not one parent had returned the survey. This represents a whole school community who did nothing to provide feedback on the town school.
As a result, what happens to the children in these situations? If their school is closed and their parents are completely disengaged from the educational process anyway, how do we ensure these students receive the support they need? This could be compounded if they travel for an extra couple of hours to school each day.
In regard to school occupancy levels, the issue of low occupancy will remain an issue in Tasmania, given the projected population composition in the future. Currently, 51 per cent of schools are below 70 per cent occupied. As a response to this issue, the report notes the Department of Education continues to encourage mergers and closures of schools where students would not be disadvantaged by long travel times, which is capped at 45 minutes each way. That is noted in recommendation 2.
In section 2.9, page 41, the report notes that the existence of practical alternative schools or clusters should be no further than 30 minutes away. It is worth noting this could potentially mean an additional 30 minutes' travelling time for students who have already been subject to a school merger previously, and lived out of area to a school with a strong case for closure. This could potentially take acceptable travel time for some students to about 75 minutes each way. It depends how you measure it. It is from school to school, not from student location to school.
It is also important to note the limitations of some of the measures against which school demerit points were allocated. For example, in the case of community satisfaction and staff retention, the measures are peripheral proxies although I acknowledge there is probably not a better measure currently available.
It is very difficult to measure community satisfaction with a particular school based on the proportion of eligible attendees in the catchment area who attend the school, if a significant number of those students travel out of area to attend school. Even with rezoning that occurs. The report does note this shortcoming.
I note the current Government's adoption of a 'no forced school closure' policy. In the past and currently it has contributed to the Department of Education's lack of attention to the undertaking of regular reviews of school numbers and mix of schools throughout the state. Given Tasmania has a unique demographic profile, that it is the only state projected to go into population decline in the next 30 years, and is the nation's most regionally dispersed state, the lack of regular reviews of school numbers and locations, in relation to projected population change in particular, is worrying. This should be addressed as soon as possible. This is in line with recommendation 6 in the report.
I was always a little concerned with the use of Google Maps to calculate travel distance between schools. This report could be used to justify school closures. The use of Google Maps does not allow for the reality of travelling on many of our rural roads, especially at times of intensive agricultural activity. There are often very large numbers of slow moving traffic and heavy vehicles on the road. You also have the tourist season. Some tourists travel during school bus times.
Whilst Google Maps gives us an indication of how long it takes to travel between two points, it is by no means science. Google Maps does not take into account road conditions. The other factor which can impact accessibility and travel times is road and weather conditions. For example, Zeehan's isolation makes access to other schools a little problematic. I have experienced firsthand the weather on the West Coast, particularly this winter - being stuck behind slow moving trucks with little capacity to overtake, or being utterly prevented by snow. This is the reality for West Coast residents every winter but this winter was particularly significant.
Stakeholder engagement with bus drivers would assist with this matter. For instance, the trip from Redpa to Smithton, or Smithton to Redpa, whichever way you are going in a car, is approximately 33 minutes. That is barring any hold ups with traffic or dairy herds crossing the road to the milking shed, which does happen. That is twice a day, usually before school starts. Discussions with local bus service providers suggest the trip takes approximately one hour in a bus, so twice as long. If you go along that road, you will see why. They have raised concerns that the road needs urgent repair and upgrade. If you drive on that road, you will see why. However, I have raised this matter with the Government, which has advised it does not need any repair, it is good. If any of you would like to come on a bus trip with me, Wells Waggons will take us along the road in the bus. You can all sit down the back, because I will be sitting up the front so I do not vomit. That is a fact. I have watched a video on the mobile phone, taken from the back of the bus. I felt sick watching it. It was not because it is windy. It is because the bus goes up and down. It is an undulating road, with all the humps and holes in the road, as well as all the paddocks, and as the front wheels go over one bump, the back two wheels are going over another one. You can imagine what it is like. I would be sick. I am happy to go on the bus with the contract provider. I did not need to be convinced once I saw the video.
History has told us it should come as no surprise that towns that were once bustling communities disappear, and as a result, schools close as well. I have had that happen in my electorate, for example, with Waratah. This has happened in other places, particularly with numerous Hydro and mining towns throughout Tasmania. For instance, in its day, Zeehan was one of the busiest and most popular towns.
If we are responsible for making decisions in this regard, we must ensure that well‑researched and informed decisions are made, and adequate support provided to those who are affected, when there is need for transition to a new school or education environment.
I know one family in Waratah, when that school closed, decided to homeschool their children. He was the local police officer. The only one in town. When he left town, everyone knew. They would see him go up the road. Most of them did not mess up, misbehave at the time, but if we want to keep a police officer in the town who is young and enthusiastic and wants to be there, we have to provide a facility for the education of his children. He and his wife decided to homeschool them, which has been very effective for them, but it is not the solution for everyone.
If there is any discussion on school closures or mergers, it is imperative that the government and the Department of Education undertake such discussions within the broader context - an understanding of the current and projected population change and broad needs of the community - as well as ensuring the educational needs and best outcomes for students is the guiding principle. The student at the centre is so important.
Demographic information data can provide the basis for informed, apolitical decision-making around education policy, particularly in making the case for mergers for some of the recommended schools. Unfortunately, at present, there is little of it occurring in this debate, or demographic information included in reports such as these. The inclusion and consideration of accurate and informative demographic data and research, from around the world and locally, regarding the attainment of positive educational outcomes must inform in the ongoing debate.
This report is not to provide a hit list of schools that would be closed. The Government has maintained the approach of 'no forced closures' at this stage. It is vital that discussion and consideration of what constitutes the best educational outcomes and opportunities for students continues in an informed manner.
If we are to maintain the student at the centre of these decisions, we must work to improve the educational outcomes of all Tasmanian students. We have much work to do in this area.
[4.39 p.m.]Go Back