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Radical changes ahead for 40% of state schools

Author: DENIS MULLER
Date: 15/10/1993
Words: 1017
          Publication: The Age
Section: The Schools Shake-up
Page: 1
Four out of 10 schools _ 123 secondary and 722 primary _ are affected by the State Government's quality provision taskforce process, and their fate is described in this special liftout.

As reported on page one today, nearly a quarter of the schools will be merged or closed. In addition, some small country schools have been annexed to larger schools in nearby towns in what is called a hub-and- annexe arrangement. There has also been a lot of restructuring: some schools are being split between two campuses; a few are running classes from prep to year 12 on the one campus.

The taskforce exercise began in early July, with the announcement by the Directorate of School Education that 249 taskforces had been formed. Some of them were set up against the will of local school communities by the local regional office of the directorate.

They were all chaired by a nominee of the local regional manager, and the chair was able to nominate two further members. Others were drawn from among principals and up to two members of each school council, typically a teacher representative and a parent.

They were given certain key documents to work from. The first was the Government's quality provision policy, which set down criteria the schools were expected to meet if they were to survive. These criteria related to current enrolment levels, demographic projections and curriculum breadth.

The second key document consisted of information about the school's enrolments, curricula and facilities supplied by the directorate.

There was a lot of controversy early in the process that claimed the information was incomplete or out of date. There was also a delay in getting to the taskforces information about new staffing formulae to be implemented next year.

However, the single biggest difficulty for the Government was how to sell the idea to a sceptical public that the term ``quality provision" really meant what it said: the provision of quality education in the form of better facilities and curriculum choice.

In the end it proved futile to try to separate the taskforce process from the directorate's budget cutting, particularly when it was obvious that closure of schools inevitably would lead to budget savings.

Many, perhaps even most, of the taskforces appeared to operate as intended. Clearly, however, some went off the rails and groups such as the Victorian Council of School Organisations harnessed many outraged communities to a campaign of protest.

This came to a climax in late August when the two main teacher unions, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Federated Teachers Union of Victoria, called a statewide teachers' strike, and an estimated 17,500 responded. The strike was a protest against the budget cuts and the taskforce process _ by then virtually indistinguishable.

A Saulwick Age Poll taken three days later showed 57 per cent of voters in Victoria believed the strike was justified, a remarkably high level of support for any form of industrial action, let alone a teachers' strike. It was one sign of how concerned the community had become.

A network of protest groups sprang up across the state under such names as Rural Voice and Save Our Schools, putting pressure on local politicians and creating a focus for the media.

The Education Age kept track of the Tambo River cluster of six schools scattered around picturesque hill country near Lakes Entrance.

They were mistrustful of one another at first, suspecting that each was doing its own private deal to survive. However, a public meeting early on cleared the air, and the people embarked on a campaign to resist closures and mergers.

By early September, when the taskforce was due to hand in its recommendations to the directorate, four of the schools had decided to defy the directorate and recommend the status quo, a fifth had agreed to merge with one other school, but only under strict conditions, and the sixth was having trouble making up its mind.

Tambo River is one of the handful of clusters where Mr Hayward has decided that a decision now is impossible. He has asked the schools to go away, think some more about their futures, and come up with a plan next year. (Joanne Painter's latest report from Tambo River appears in the news section of today's paper.) The Government has made some concessions. The most important was a more flexible policy on remote rural schools, particularly designed to ensure that children in mountainous areas where travel is slow and sometimes hazardous, are less likely to lose their local school, even when enrolments fall below the generally permitted minimum.

Since 10 September, when the taskforce recommendations had to be in, Mr Hayward has received between 20 and 30 deputations from school communities. Some have been told to continue as they are, and keep talking.

There have been 11 cases where schools have entered into voluntary mergers or re-structures, and in several cases these deals have been accompanied by commitments from the directorate to upgrade facilities.

The biggest so far is $2.8million for Monterey Secondary College near Frankston.

Principals and staff whose positions are affected by the changes, have been guaranteed equivalent jobs with the directorate. However, more detailed redeployment will not be decided until near the end of the year.

Students at schools which are closing will need to enrol elsewhere for next year, and affected families are entitled to assistance with relocation expenses (uniforms, books, levies) _ $350 for a VCE student, $250 for years eight to 10, $200 for year one to year six.

 
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