22 March 2021

Education Directorate concerned about loss of confidence, reputation to handle hazardous materials

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry.

An executive brief provided to ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry revealed reputational concerns within the Education Directorate regarding its ability to handle hazardous materials. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT Education Directorate was concerned about a loss of support from the school community following its handling of decontamination works at Yarralumla Primary School after lead dust was found in 2020. The broader “reputational risks about community confidence in [the Education Directorate] appropriately managing hazardous materials” needed to be considered, an executive brief provided to ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry revealed.

The brief, which has been obtained by Region Media through the Freedom of Information Act, said the Education Directorate’s credibility was affected by a perceived lack of consistency of communication to the school community; delays in addressing community concerns; delays in remediation works; the length of time to return to classrooms; and the impact on out-of-school hours care providers.

Lead dust was found in eight classrooms at Yarralumla Primary School on 17 July, 2020, from remediation works that were being undertaken during the school holidays.

The classrooms were closed on 21 July and parents were notified via email before cleaning was undertaken.

READ ALSO Government releases list of 76 public schools with hazardous materials

Three additional rooms in other areas were closed on 4 August, and portable toilets for the children to use while work continued were delivered the next day.

Lead dust above the hazardous threshold was still found after the initial cleaning of the first eight classrooms, and a different process needed to be undertaken.

Despite two classrooms being opened on 7 August, some spaces remained offline well over a month from when the lead dust was originally found in July.

Following the incident, communication through newsletters, making Education Directorate staff available before and after school, further engagement with the school board and parents, and active media management were all put in place to help allay concerns.

The brief also outlined concerns about negative media coverage of the event attributing to the loss of confidence and reputational damage.

Fronting the media last week ahead of releasing the full list of 76 public schools that contain hazardous materials across the ACT, Minister Berry was scathing of ACT Shadow Minister for Education Jeremy Hanson for implying that schools were unsafe in light of media coverage involving hazardous materials across numerous public schools.

An agitated Minister Berry accused Mr Hanson of fearmongering after he called the ACT Government’s response “slow and inadequate” and said it lacked transparency.

Lead and environmental contamination expert Professor Mark Taylor admitted that the risk from the paint had been somewhat inflated, and created anxiety due to repeated coverage in the media.

Professor Taylor said the risk had been adequately managed in the ACT and that it remained extremely low.

“In the ACT, it has been addressed,” he said. “It has been cleaned up and there is no evidence of that translating to any risk of harm.”

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This highlights the misplaced focus for education in Canberra. It’s amazing to consider that the ACT Education Directorate was primarily concerned about their reputation and losing support from the community over the lead paint.

How about the education directorate and Minister start improving the educational performances of schools that are Red zoning when compared to other public schools across the country with a similar socio economic status.

I think the students and parents from Tuggeranong public schools will suffer from not being educated to their potential more than a chance of lead or asbestos poisoning.

I bet the Minister has spent more time agonising over what key constituents and union members think, than what extra resources are required to improve declining education performances.

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