Tuesday 24 June 2008

Estimates Committee B (Bartlett)

Department of Education

1.1 In school education

Northern Support School Debate
Mr DEAN - Absolutely.  I have one further question to go, and I think the minister would be disappointed if I did not raise it.  I think it is in this section, the closure of the flexible programs in the Northern Support School of Ravenswood.  I raise that because there has been a lot of information brought my way.  I am quite convinced that the member for Rosevears and the member for Launceston would have interest in this as well.

Those flexible programs offered by that school have been very successful.  They have turned around a number of at-risk youth and have had some return to their schools proper, the schools from whence they came.  It has changed their attitude to life and without any doubt at all the information I have from some of the parents is that it has kept their children away from Ashley and they will probably not now end up at Ashley.  So it has served a real purpose. 

Mr BARTLETT - It does.

Mr DEAN - One of the reasons for them being there is the fact that many of them cannot assimilate into a school environment for many reasons, but many have returned to those schools, as I have said, as a part of this program.  It is an important program. Therefore, after all of that, I ask the question:  Why have we closed the program here?  I understand what you are going to say about the schools having the opportunity to provide some funding to these flexible programs.  I understand all of that.  But the fact is on my advice - and I have spoken to a number of teachers who have to remain nameless but who have indicated that the schools do struggle to provide the services to these at-risk youth on a one-on-one basis.  They just do not really do it.  They might say they do it but they have difficulty in providing that service to them.  Minister, would you review this?  What is your position as to the real reason why it was closed in the first place?

Mr BARTLETT - I have participated in a lengthy debate and put my view on the Hansard through the House of Assembly but I am very keen to repeat it briefly here today, and that is, the schools themselves made this decision - 32 out of the 37 or 39 participating schools who funded these programs made this decision.  Number one, the funding has not been cut.  Funding to these sorts of activities across all schools in Tasmania has improved, and I have just explained that through Student at the Centre.  The schools themselves - and I understand it was 32 out of 37 or out of 39, an overwhelming majority - chose not to not fund these programs any more because they believed they could get more value for the kids by developing the programs in their own schools.

The teachers who have been involved in delivering these flexible programs will be working with those schools over term 2 to ensure that the programs are right within the schools and within their local areas.  It might not be in the school; it might be down at the community garden or whatever it is in their local area.  This goes to the heart of what Student at the Centre and school empowerment is all about.  When schools make - particularly by an overwhelming majority - a decision on how to use their resources, I am not going to be the one to overrule them so I will not be changing this decision.

But I want to make it clear that this has not been a funding cut.  In fact, it has been a funding increase over time.  Schools who some three years ago chose to set up these programs have now chosen to dismantle these programs because they believe they can do better with the money elsewhere.  That is essentially what has happened here.

There has been a lot of misinformation put about that I am closing the Northern Support School or that I am cutting funding to the Northern Support School, and none of that is true.  Schools have chosen to use their money.  I go to my opening statement that I believe the best decisions in education overall are made by those who are closest to the students, not by me sitting up here from on high responding to political pressure about a given issue or not.  And in this case 32 out of the 39 schools chose to work in other circumstances or chose to use their money better.  I understand, and I might have this wrong, that it was $3 200 per two days that it was costing the school to send a student to these programs -

Mr DEAN - It costs $300 a program, I think -

Mr BARTLETT - It costs $3 200 per two days for one term - so sending the kid for one term for two days a week was costing $3 200.  Therefore, those schools chose to take that $3 200 and use it in other ways within their own school or in partnership with other schools or with the local community garden.  A whole range of programs and innovation will stem out of this change.  This will not result in a diminution of services to those kids.  It will not result, I believe, over time in not dealing with the services and supporting the kids that are most in need of these sorts of programs; it simply means that they will be delivered in a different way in different places.

Mr DEAN - I just wonder whether or not the principals - and obviously the principals of all these schools had to be engaged in this whole process of making the decision that they have made - have an absolute appreciation of the whole situation. I wonder whether they spoke to the parents of the students that are going to and using those flexible programs in the Northern Support School and whether they realise the success of those students in that situation. I wonder whether they will be able to deliver anywhere near the same sort of success on the funding - I am advised that each school was paying $300 per student per term.

Mr BARTLETT - No, that is incorrect.  It is $3 200 per student per term.

Mr DEAN - So there is a significant difference in the information I was given in that regard.  That is something I will need to check but I accept what you are saying.  My question is:  Have the teachers involved in making that decision, because we have 32 out of 37 or 39 -

Mr BARTLETT - I now have the figures here; it is actually 27 out of 33 schools -

Mr DEAN - So obviously there is a consensus of opinion.

Mr BARTLETT - were not prepared to fund future Northern Support School flexible programs on a per capita basis.



Mr WING - It is probably understandable that they would not want to be providing that money because they wanted to keep it in their own school.  But it seems to me that, if you take these students with behavioural problems and integrate them back into a normal class, it is likely to upset the class and adversely affect the rest of the students.  It does seem to be mainly a funding issue in that the schools obviously want to save that amount of money.  We are asking that the Government be prepared to make extra funds available so that the school can continue.  We are not saying you are taking money away but we are really asking if you would put money in because of the excellent results that have been obtained, which have been referred to by Mr Dean, and I know Mr Finch has a letter from somebody involved saying what a beneficial effect it had on their children.  If those children go back and are integrated and their behavioural problems are not given the specialist attention that they have been receiving at the Northern Support School, they will probably become vandals and finish up in the courts and then prison, which will cost the State much more money in the long run and affect their lives.

Mr BARTLETT - But that is not entirely true either, in that what these schools have made decisions about is that they will not co-fund the flexible programs that are available at the Northern Support School, but there are a plethora of other flexible programs that they will be able to access and implement with their own schools.  I will give you a list of them - for example, Stanners, the West Tamar Ed Zone, Community Gardens, Shine, Mates, Peak Program, Shed Program, Automotive School Farm, Mentored Learning, Bike and Building Maintenance, Friends Program, Small Animal Care, Catering and Cookery, to name a few.  Schools have been surveyed to determine the types of flexible programs they will be planning, trialling or accessing during terms 2 and 3.  Schools have indicated an interest in developing other programs in meeting their students' needs, including Cool Cats Cafe, Woodwork, Male Mentors, Foundational Literacy, School Gardens, Community Mentors, Rock and Water, Social Skills, Shine, Self-Esteem and the George Town Ed Zone.  The expertise of the Northern Support School staff, who have been running these programs, will be used in terms 2 and 3 to assist in schools with the development of these programs.  There is no diminution of services; there is no cutting of programs; there is no sense that all of sudden these kids these kids are being abandoned. All these kids would have had an individual education program associated with them and their parents would have been consulted in the development of that program.  That is all still intact.  Therefore, what we are really talking about here is schools making a decision to get better value for money by accessing other programs and developing their own.  On top of that, we have made available more money for alternative education, right throughout the State.  Part of the Student at the Centre is making sure that we build capacity in schools as well, so that we get those skills.  We have completed a review of the flexible programs in Tasmanian schools and an audit of department-provided and community-based alternative settings.  That is a significant spread of alternative education flexible programs across the State. 

The Northern Support School was not the only place on the planet providing flexible support programs in any way, shape or form.  We are working with a group of principals statewide to look at this review and audit and determine where gaps are and where future investment might be made.  It was all right for the inner urban schools in Launceston to access the flexible support programs of the Northern Support School, but schools such as Cressy and others, outside the area, were not able to access them for transport and a whole range of other reasons.  I do not believe that this will lead to a diminution of services to those children who have those particular needs and have their own individual education plan that dictates they require flexible learning environments.  Ultimately, I can only rely on 27 out of 33 of the principals telling me that this will be better for their kids, because that is the criterion on which I believe principals are making their decisions.

Mr WING - I wonder why the school was established in the first place.

Mr BARTLETT - Well, times change and things, such as resources and access, change.  More money is going through the school gate and therefore they do have capacity to develop their own solutions, work in partnership with their local communities and those sorts of things that they might not have had before.  I cannot tell you what was in their mind three or four years ago when they set the programs up versus what is in their mind now.  But essentially they have run these programs for a while and while their funding has been increased they have chosen not to continue to run them.

Mr FINCH - I can only hope, Premier, that you are correct and it turns out that this is a better program, because the evidence we had very strongly from parents of those who use the Northern Support School was only of praise and support -

Mr BARTLETT - I don't doubt they were doing a good job.

Mr FINCH - It took the pressure off the families and alleviated the parents' concern for the development of their children.  The ones who spoke to me - and I had three very lengthy conversations with them - felt that their school life now was not succeeding, that their children's lives had been changed by being taken out of the school and accessing flexible programs.  It was the fact that they were not staying in the same school environment.

Mr BARTLETT - But I hear the same stories about many of the flexible programs - that many of those listed in the audit, right across the State are having the same sort of achievement.

Mr FINCH - What are you saying?  That the work back in the schools -

Mr BARTLETT - No, these are flexible programs both in schools and in community-based alternative settings.

Mrs JAMIESON - I would like to endorse the comments that the other members have made.  Certainly with special education in Devonport, for example, it is imperative that we have these students within a like kind, shall we say, of specific education.

Mr BARTLETT -I do not disagree with any of that.