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EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS REFERENCES COMMITTEE - 17/05/2010 - Primary Schools for the 21st Century program

Estimates & Committees
Sarah Hanson-Young 17 May 2010

Senator Hanson Young -Has the union been involved at all in helping and giving advice to your various members, whether it has been putting forward their applications, knowing who to speak to or resolving any of those issues at that grassroots level before it has gone through to the department or the minister's office?

Mr Watt -The short answer is no.

Senator Hanson Young -Who would have done that? Do you believe that every school has dealt with the department themselves? Obviously, we heard earlier from the Catholic grants body that they managed it themselves for their member schools. Do you think that is what the independent sector would have done?

Mr Watt -No. There were two basic models that operated where there was a systems approach-and the Catholic systems is a good example-but they are not the only system; there are other less structured but reasonably formal systems in terms of the Anglican schools and the Seventh-day Adventists. Within those systems there is administrative capacity and they would have experienced people around building works and have taken a systems based approach to it.

In the case of individual schools, which are more stand-alone and not part of any system formal or informal, by and large almost all of those are members of the state association of independent schools and would have relied, where necessary, on expert advice from those. In those particular cases, whilst they do not have the local administrative capacity or are part of a system, those independent schools associations would have been able to provide the linkage with DEEWR and a knowledge and understanding about the requirements around the guidelines to be able to give advice.

Senator Hanson Young -The sector itself has ways and means of being able to provide that support for those individual schools.

Mr Watt -Either has, in a system, or has developed it as a consequence of experience.

Senator Hanson Young -That seems to be one of the clear differences. That whole process of application, chasing your application and getting the feedback-'We missed out the first round. Do we do something different in the second round?'-and peer support, almost, for those government schools does not seem to have been there, from the submissions that we are getting. I think most schools are pretty happy but it seems-from my reading of people's submissions-that, for those who have had a not so positive experience, it comes down to just not knowing who to talk to or to get advice from and being able to say, 'I haven't heard back yet; who do I go and chase?'. Do you think that that would be a fair representation of how you see it?

Mr Watt -Again, without having studied how individual government schools felt that they had a relationship with their regional office or whatever the appropriate authority was, it is clear to us that having access to competent, capable and experienced people is going to be important. An individual school principal is not an expert building site manager. They are required to be from time to time but it is pretty important that they have access to people who can do that. So it is important that there are systems either in place or that can be put in place. It really is a question about what those systems are. Do they exist? Again, not knowing how the government system works, if there are regional offices, the question is: what mechanisms or approaches are there in, for example, the block grant authority approach in the non-government sector or the Catholic system? What are the things that happened there that might be usefully looked at in some other circumstance, But, without knowing how the government sector works, it is very difficult for us to say, 'Yes, you could do that over there.' I am not sure it would be reasonable for us to suggest anything like that.

Senator Hanson Young -So you have not had any direct dealings with people in resolving any of the issues on the ground and you are saying that you have not had any negative come through your members either?

Mr Watt -That is correct.

Senator Hanson Young -You obviously see that this is a good investment in the Australian school system.

Mr Watt -Absolutely. From the outset, we understood clearly-and I think our members understood this, as did the system and school employers-that there were two elements to it. One was clearly about massive investment in the economy during the global financial crisis and the other part of it was an opportunity for schools-given that there was a school in every town. I understood that to be the concept around it. There is no question that our schools have felt that it was worth while, not just to have new buildings but also to have buildings that actually assisted with the demands of 21st century learning.

Senator Hanson Young -Do you have any thoughts or observations around the targeting of the funding? We know that some schools are much better resourced than others in terms of their own income generators, particularly in the independent school sector. You have such a broad width of those schools that are quite well maintained because of their own funding arrangements right down to independent schools that are a bit more needy in terms of support and, particularly, infrastructure, I would imagine. If we are going to learn from things and make sure that next time around-though God forbid there is another global economic crisis-and we are talking about big blocks of funding, are there any observations you would make about the targeting of the needs of different schools and how that is balanced?

Mr Watt -I made the comment earlier that certainly in the independent school sector, the vast bulk of capital works historically has been footed by parents and the school community, and this was an opportunity for the schools that had never in the past really been able to access to capital funds to do so for the first time. Whilst it may be true that you could portray some schools as being well resourced, it is not as if there has been a history of them being able to get capital works moneys in the first instance.

As for the extent of such a program again and if there were not an urgency in terms of expenditure, and I think you have got to measure this in terms of urgency, you might have a more structured and formal approach around targeting, for want of a better word, need or whatever have you. But on this occasion that would have added, in my assessment, another level of bureaucracy and time constraint that would not necessarily have dealt with that element of dealing with the structural situation at the time. But certainly if any government in the future would like to throw another $15 billion or $16 billion at schools we would be happy to talk about targeting. So, yes, in another place and another time we could have that conversation. But in the context of if it could have been better targeted, my assessment was that this was an important thing to do across Australia, to get spades into the ground and cement into the holes as quickly as possible.

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