Education cuts short-sighted

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AEU ACT branch assistant to the secretary (industrial) and schools organiser Glenn Fowler writes:

In 2010, under the guise of the oxymoronic “efficiency dividend”, the ACT Government has again demonstrated that it is incapable of providing for the complex needs of the public education system.

The Australian Education Union was advised by ACT Department of Education senior officials in May 2010 that every ACT government department would be required to find a 1% “efficiency dividend”. In DET’s case this was approximately $4 million. The Department informed the AEU that schools would be quarantined and that cuts would be made from DET Central Office.

Subsequent to this, cuts were proposed that have a demonstrably direct impact on the provision of services to schools.

AEU member action combined with community and political outrage during a brief consultation period has seen the restoration of a number of positions (such as two hearing support teachers, one vision support teacher and two disability support officers) but, at the time of writing, the following cuts are set to take place:

  • Two school counsellor positions, thereby reducing the provision to 42.5 school counsellor positions across 83 schools. At the inquest into the death of Alex Wildman on 17 June 2010, the NSW Coroner recommended that every school with 500 or more students should have a full-time school counsellor. In the ACT in 2010, one secondary college and three primary schools did not have access to a school counsellor at all.
  • Six Student Management Consultant (SMC) positions, creating an increased workload for those officers who remain, as well as school counsellors and teachers in schools.
  • One Post School Options teacher position, placing more pressure on high schools and colleges to take on the role of establishing connections with providers and agencies that support students with a disability after they leave school.
  • Five classroom teacher positions and one school leader position currently allocated to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Literacy and Numeracy (ATSILN) program, flying in the face of federal initiatives to enhance the learning outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and “close the gap”.
  • A total of 4.5 teacher positions in the Early Childhood Education section, which takes early childhood education in the ACT in the opposite direction to that supported by the Commonwealth Government which has made this area a priority. These cuts include two itinerant ESL support teacher positions, in the context of increasing ESL needs in our system and the fact that public schools in the ACT educate 100% of students under the ESL New Arrivals Program; one Early Childhood Education School Leader C position, which will leave staff and programs with a reduction in specialist support; and one Behaviour Management support teacher position, reducing support for students, families and teachers across all preschool sites.
  • The closure of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) Resource Centre, which has been a one-stop resource base extensively used over many years by teachers and pre-service teachers from across the Territory. Valuable resources have been dispersed to various locations across the ACT.

It is worthy of note that there has been no proposed cut in government funding to private school education in the ACT and that no positions in the DET Senior Executive Team have been cut.

It is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that this is an attack on the most vulnerable in our education system and our community. And this is particularly galling when money appears to be lavished on luxuries like itinerant AFL teams. Supporters of event funding will say that it is an investment through which all Territorians will benefit. The same could be said of Early Intervention programs, where research shows that every dollar spent eventually saves seven dollars.

It is deeply disturbing that cuts are being made to services for the most vulnerable of students at a time when the ACT has increasing numbers of public schools, student enrolments, special education students (an increase of 49 students, or 2.5%, in the last year) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (an increase of 66 students, or 5.5%, in the last year). This reduction in support is indefensible on both educational and equity grounds. It comes down to a purely economic argument – and a flawed, short-sighted one at that.

One wonders why cuts have been made to public education at all, given that in the years 2006-2010 the ACT Government closed 23 public school sites. One would have thought this represents a significant contribution to “efficiency”.

Further, ACT teachers have contributed to government savings by seeing their salaries go from the best in the nation to the second worst. Little wonder that teachers and community members have become cynical about the government’s ability to look after the interests of staff and students. The only guarantee a child has of an education is their local public school and, as we move into an enterprise bargaining period in 2011, our government may need reminding that public comes first.

The ACT Government has stated that future so-called efficiency dividends will be imposed on DET to the tune of 1% in 2011 and 0.5% in 2012. It is difficult to see where further cuts could possibly be made, even if a raft of federal or territory initiatives are put on hold, which appears unlikely.

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