Much damage has been caused to public schools, particularly comprehensive high schools, by decades of government policies based on competition and choice and increased funding for private schools.
The negative effects of the residualisation of public schooling are being felt in country towns and city suburbs across the state. Countering it must be a key focus in any strategy that flows from the implementation of the Gonski funding reforms.
Federation recently learned that Department of Education and Communities regional officers were planning to announce a restructure of the two public high schools in one town. These schools had been experiencing declining enrolments over an extended period, as private schools in the area benefited from the Howard government’s biased and discredited schools funding model.
As reported to school staff, the plan was for one school to become a years 7–9 site and the other to be years 10–12 in a new one school or college entity. This proposal purportedly emerged from a consultation process undertaken over the previous year or so. Federation members contradicted this, however, by explaining that this proposal was ‘lobbed in from the top’ by Department officers, rather than generated as a genuine ‘grassroots’ proposal from community consultation.
Federation opposes restructuring of secondary schooling that involves creating junior campuses, as they have been persistently problematic for students and teachers. The years of conflict and disputation associated with Dubbo College exemplify this, as do continuing complaints from Federation members teaching in junior campuses.
The union sought the intervention of the Department’s state leadership to avert an ill-conceived announcement that would have generated conflict and division in the community, rather than cooperation and a shared commitment to educational change. To their credit, senior officers of the Department put things on hold pending further investigation.
Federation is supportive of change and innovation as part of a revitalisation strategy for public schooling. It was emphasised that such change, however, must result from genuine consultation with staff, parents and the wider community, and be informed by educational experience, evidence and research.
While Federation believes residualisation requires a system-wide strategy, rather than a piecemeal approach, it was conceded that something immediate had to be done in this particular location. Federation therefore proposed that the parties visit Denison College in Bathurst, where two high schools had collaborated to create a new entity that has been successful in boosting parental confidence in public education and increasing enrolments. Again to their credit, Department senior officers agreed to do so.
Denison College staff, parent and student representatives deserve commendation for allocating a full school day to sharing the positive experiences of how they combined Bathurst High School and Kelso High School into one college entity, whilst retaining years 7–12 co-educational, comprehensive organisation on each site and preserving each school’s identity and history. College representatives were excellent ambassadors for public education and generously offered assistance to other communities to achieve similar success.
At a subsequent meeting with Department senior officers, it was reassuring to hear that the positive lessons of Denison College are under active consideration for recommendation to the two school communities that were to have a junior-senior campus model foisted upon them. Federation will monitor developments and continue to support members in these school communities to strengthen and revitalise public secondary education in the town.