Six Canberra public schools, almost all in Tuggeranong, are less than half-full, and now meet the criteria that were used to close dozens of schools last decade.
The current ACT Government says it has no plans to close any schools and is instead focused on building new schools to meet booming demand, especially in the city’s north.
However, former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope — who decided to close 23 underused preschools and schools in 2006 — says it is time to reassess the city’s stretched education system, including which schools to keep open.
Mr Stanhope spoke to the ABC in response to the release of the long-secret functional review of the ACT public service, which the ABC obtained under archives law.
The 466-page document, written by former top bureaucrat Michael Costello and economist Greg Smith, was the basis of Mr Stanhope’s brutal 2006 budget, which restructured the government and slashed spending — including on schools.
Mr Stanhope stood by his decision to close schools which the review deemed “inefficient” and “unremarkable”, saying it was necessary to ensure better educational outcomes.
But can the same logic used then be applied to today’s school system?
Enrolments are booming, except in the far south
(Map excludes preschools and specialist schools.)
The latest school data emphasises the demographic gap between Canberra’s north and south.
Enrolments in ACT public schools increased rapidly over the past decade, rising by 31 per cent and outpacing population growth. Gungahlin schools grew even faster.
But student numbers have been stagnant in Tuggeranong, remaining effectively unchanged.
Three Tuggeranong schools — Richardson and Gilmore primaries, and Wanniassa School — now operate at just over one-third of their capacity, and many parents choose to send their children elsewhere.
Mr Stanhope said his government paid a “steep” political price for closing schools like these 14 years ago, and acknowledged the anger and upset he caused.
“I can understand that. We all have an attachment to our schools — we all think they’re good,” he said.
“I stand by the commission of that report, particularly at a time when the budget was at enormous stress.
“The analysis … was that we were simply not getting any bang for our buck [from] the resources we were putting into schools.”
Mr Stanhope said it would be “very reasonable” to revisit the functional review’s advice today.
“If there are schools operating at less than 50 per cent capacity, then on the basis of the evidence that was presented in the functional review, those children are all being disadvantaged … and so is the broader territory,” he said.
The latest school data shows six schools in Canberra operate at under 50 per cent capacity — and five of them are in Tuggeranong.
If the functional review’s recommendations were applied, these schools would be under threat.
So what did the secret review actually say?
The functional review was highly critical of the ACT’s education system of the time, especially its surplus capacity.
It said Canberra teachers had the country’s highest salaries but spent the least amount of time with students.
“In summary, the ACT public school system overall can be described as suffering declining support and not delivering adequate value for money. Higher expenditures overall seem more likely to be supporting areas of inefficiency than higher educational outcomes.”
The review also said learning outcomes, which seemed good “prima facie”, were “unremarkable once account is taken of socio-economic factors, and do not provide evidence that the high levels of expenditure in the ACT are, overall, generating higher education outcomes” — a criticism the ACT Auditor-General has also made in recent years.
The report recommended closing 38 schools (including 22 preschools), though the Stanhope government eventually whittled that down to 23 (of which 11 were preschools).
Minister says no planned closures, dismisses ‘outdated’ advice
Education Minister Yvette Berry said the functional review belonged to a different era and was irrelevant to today’s schools.
She said education was funded differently when Mr Stanhope was in politics.
“All government schools are now funded according a needs-based formula that meets the costs of providing high-quality school education,” she said.
The ACT Government had no plans to close any schools, she said — rather, it was ramping up the construction of new facilities, especially in Gunghalin and Molonglo.
The minister also suggested that Tuggeranong — whose residents tend to be older than other Canberrans — was turning a demographic corner, as more young families moved into the area.
She said keeping schools open helped the Education Directorate respond flexibly to population ebbs and flows over time.
For the same reason, the directorate used mobile, demountable classrooms when expanding schools.
Why do Tuggeranong parents take children elsewhere?
Nonetheless, public schools in the city’s south do seem to have a problem — their enrolments have not kept pace with the area’s sluggish population growth.
The ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations has worked with Tuggeranong parents to try to understand why some send their children elsewhere.
Policy officer Veronica Elliot said one reason was transport, which was sometimes easier if their child’s school was en route to work.
But perceptions of the area’s schools also played a part.
Ms Elliott said it would help if the Government worked more closely with local communities “to remedy false reputations or specific challenges”.
“It’s really important that parents have confidence in their local schools,” she said.
“From our work with Tuggeranong school P&Cs, we can see that parents who send their kids to local schools really do have confidence, value and support for those schools.”