8 July 2021

Education Directorate can do better to meet school needs

| Ian Bushnell
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Yvette Berry with students

Education Minister Yvette Berry with students at Campbell High School. Parents want action. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Officials from three Parents and Citizens groups painted a sorry picture this week of how the Education Directorate runs public schools in the ACT.

The Inquiry into the management of ACT school infrastructure heard evidence of tardy responses, poor communication and a lack of long-term planning.

It has to be acknowledged that the job is a big one, covering school sites across the city and more than 50,000 students.

In some areas, such as North Canberra and Gungahlin where booming populations mean surging enrolments, classrooms are overflowing and there are growing pains.

There are also legacy issues in older areas such as lead dust and asbestos that need to be cleaned up and contained.

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A key message from the P&C members is that these volunteer-run organisations have to take the running on issues such as overcrowding and the management of hazardous substances, rather than the Directorate being proactive and taking a long-term approach to planning.

The result is that a school like Latham Primary can’t use its oval due to the underground asbestos-covered pipes of a defunct watering system or its community hub where asbestos flooring needs to be replaced and lead dust cleaned up.

It’s not so much that these things happen but that it takes so long for the Directorate to take any action. The more than million dollar bill for fixing these issues is way beyond the capacity of the P&C, but without its agitation, who knows when they might be addressed.

At Harrison School and Majura Primary, P&C officials are frustrated at the Directorate’s apparent lack of foresight when it comes to accounting for the boom in enrolments and providing the infrastructure, even if they are only demountables, to cope with demand.

The Directorate’s response is “incremental and piecemeal”, and schools are left to compete for resources.

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With schools in the north bursting at the seams, there have already been calls for a new school to be built to mop up the excess. Kenny is next on the list, but it won’t alleviate the pressures already being felt in the Inner North.

Harrison School needs more space for students and activities such as the canteen, which is so constrained that the P&C is losing thousands of dollars a year in trade.

It is also grappling with “diabolical” traffic management issues.

At Majura, the P&C is unsure how it will cope with its exponential growth.

The inquiry heard that most P&C concerns are channelled through school principals, and responses from the Directorate were usually broad and non-committal.

If the evidence this week is anything to go by, parent groups are frustrated and disenchanted with the current state of play and want to see more direct communication and the Directorate taking a more dynamic role in addressing pressing school needs.

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A key question seems to be how parents get the Directorate to listen and act without burning out in the process. That needs the Directorate to up its game.

Is too much autonomy contributing to a situation where schools are being left to deal with maintenance and other issues on their own and within inadequate budgets?

It’s not as if the government isn’t investing in the school system and opening up new sites, and there is no limitless pot of money, but the evidence this week shows things could be done a lot better.

It is hoped that Education Minister Yvette Berry, an instinctively dogged defender of the ACT’s public schools, can listen carefully to what parents and principals are saying and provide the leadership they are looking for.

It seems the ACT’s vaunted education system is facing pressures on several fronts and that inaction is not an option.

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P&C groups used to be about fund raising and organising parents to help out at tuck shops, working bees and school fetes. Now parents are less involved in their schools and P&C groups are changed to become advocates for more from the Education Directorate. In my experience there are now fewer parent volunteers and fewer calls from schools upon parents to help out.

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