Having read Bjorn_Agen’s take on the public meetings about the ACT Government’s plans for schools the other day, I decided to go along the meeting at Telopea Park School and see for myself what happened.
I am a largely disinterested observer, having no children and not knowing if I’ll even be in ACT (or the country) when I do. Also, none of the schools I attended are slated for closure so there’s no personal attachment there either.
However it was somewhat interesting to see how the Government’s system of “extensive community consultation” works.
Last year during one of my courses I was given a diagram of the levels citizen participation possible in a democracy. They are, from most participatory to not at all:
* Citizen control
* Delegated power
I think what I saw tonight was probably somewhere between informing and therapy.
On entry we were given propaganda from all sides of the debate — the official minister’s statement, the union, the Liberals and the Greens (Deb Foskey herself was there shoving press releases in people’s hands). There were also Save Our Schools network flyers floating round the place. I didn’t read any of it, though my (reluctant) partner briefly perused what Clive Haggar had to say.
The symbolism of the hall was interesting. Andrew Barr, along with Michele Bruniges (Chief Executive of the department) and Craig Curry (Executive Director, I think of Southern area schools), were behind a table up on the stage and had hold of their own microphone. Us plebs (including Deb Foskey, Jacqui Burke and Vicki Dunne and about 45 others) sat in chairs set up on the auditorium floor. It was rather like being back in school assemblies, except my teachers used to stand behind a lectern.
There weren’t any children at the meeting and most attendees seemed to be parents of children at the local primary schools (Yarralumla and Forrest mainly). Oddly, there were two fellows in suits a bit outside having a discussion and a cigarette — for at least an hour. I think they might have been political staffers. Or possibly just from the hotel across the road.
I couldn’t see anyone, apart from a Canberra Times journalist, taking records of the meeting.
We arrived late and missed Mr Barr’s presentation, but could see the hypnotising green screensaver projected behind him (the CT journo kept racing up and moving the mouse so it didn’t run). Ordinary people in the audience were asking mostly sensible questions which weren’t really being answered by the minister. They were also, on the whole, allowed to ask a follow-up question if they wanted to.
Some of the questions were on the silly side, like someone (who my partner has helpfully noted as “Gentle Drone of Jargon”) who suggested that in the face of an implacable government, parents could be driven to self harm. Several parents also were concerned by the inconvenience to them by potentially having to take two children to different campuses. I’m not sure what they think is going to happen when the older of their kids starts high school and mummy and daddy still think they’re unsafe on buses.
However I thought some sensible points were raised which perhaps should be addressed by the government at some stage. These included the issue of students from NSW filling places in ACT schools (despite the priorities for student intake) and what would happen to the administrations of schools being amalgamated. Someon also raised the point that the Government appears to be being experimental with “our children’s” education and is on the one hand espousing the benefits of continuity (as in the K-6 schools) while on the other the benefits of being in just a K-3 school. Another parent wanted to know why we couldn’t see the Costello efficiency report — to which Mr Barr effectively replied because it’s a Cabinet document (I have it on good word the ACT’s own archives are due to open next year and there will be a 10-year release on Cabinet papers, so those who want to should be able to see the report in 2016 at least).
The best point I took away from the meeting (and it was quite scant pickings) was the mess of a system being proposed. If every measure outlined in the Towards 2020 proposal is taken, the ACT school system will include schools with the following year combinations: Preschool-3, P-4, P-5, P-6, 5-8, P-10, K-10, 6-10, 7-10, 7-12, 9-12 and 11-12. This in place of the general system of Preschool, K-6, 7-10 and 11-12 that we have at the moment.
I think the parents who attended the meeting may come away feeling like their views have been heard but I hope they don’t think they have especially been listened to.