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EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS REFERENCES COMMITTEE - 18/05/2010 - Primary Schools for the 21st Century program

Senator Hanson Young —Thank you to all of you for your submission and coming along today. It seems pretty clear that we are talking about intimidation of individual school communities and principals, the sheer frustration of people not being able to get information they wanted in the beginning and the lack of follow-through as projects rolled out. That is what we heard in Victoria yesterday from individual school communities who felt like they had not even been given a point of contact, somebody to talk with. Do you feel that the federation has had to step in and provide some of that assistance and advice to your members and their school communities because they were not provided by state or federal governments?

Mr Zadkovich —Our advice to our members in the initial implementation of the P21 projects was to raise any concerns directly with the department.

Senator Hanson Young —Which department?

Mr Zadcovich —The New South Wales Department of Education and Training. If matters could not be resolved then you were to seek to raise them with your state and federal members of parliament. Indeed, months went by last year when school communities—our members, teachers and principals—were acting on that advice. Unfortunately, the flow of concerns and complaints continued to such an extent that we eventually got to the point this year of calling for an inquiry. I believe that New South Wales public schools were not given a third option that should have been given. They were told: ‘You self-manage and wear all of these pressures, liabilities and risks’—as you can tell from the tenor of the communication at schools, there was active dissuasion for principals to do that—or ‘You can let us do it through our state managing contractors,’ our seven state appointed contractors. That is why only three were self-managing and most went for the other project. Once control was given to the department in that way, the problems multiplied. That is when school communities felt like their local input—their local capacity to be involved, participate and make decisions—was taken from them.

In the private schools sector there was the third option where, yes, it is going to be project managed by a professional—someone who knows the work; we are not going to have principals with hard hats on—but you will as a school community have the opportunity to contribute, negotiate, discuss, talk to architects and builders, involve your local contractors and so on. That option was taken away from New South Wales public schools because of the particular implementation strategy adopted by the New South Wales department in this case. We heard all the rhetoric: ‘This project is bigger than the Olympics, with a couple of thousand sites,’ and so on. There was a bustle created: ‘Just let us do it. You wouldn’t want to mess around with this. Just let us do it.’ In that great process, in that great maze of bureaucracy, contracting and so on, that is where schools now contend that value for money has been lost. Every layer of fees, every particular person involved in the process—that is where people felt the problems arose. If you talk to schools from the private sector you will find that they had a much better process. We call it a healthy balance between government and department responsibility and school based decision-making. You get the mix right, you get the balance right and you get a positive and effective outcome for schools. In our case in New South Wales, once the department took control of it in the way they did, that is where we believe the problems crept in.

Senator Hanson Young —What has been the course of action for those schools that have had concerns? Has there been any process put down by the department to air grievances so that they are not intimidated when they send emails out on the local email round?

Mr Zadkovich —Yes. In fairness to the department, they would have made every opportunity available for any school principal, school P&C association or teachers federation representative to make their concerns known—to contact project managers and department officers working in their department’s section for this. Of course those communication channels were made available, but that does not guarantee the outcome that the school is seeking. Problems were raised, projects were descoped et cetera, and schools were told, ‘Unfortunately, we’ve had another look at the budget. You can’t have the hall with the canteen attached. You’re only getting the hall,’ or ‘Sorry, you’re getting the hall but you’re not getting the stage and the technical equipment to go with it,’ and so on. In the toing and froing around that, it was basically: ‘It’s a bottom-line budget. That’s all we can give you now. Tough.’

Senator Hanson Young —One of the concerns raised by the Australian Education Union yesterday was: what happens from here with the various state government departments in terms of the upkeep of those facilities that have been built and the maintenance of existing buildings? The reason I ask is that, if there are buildings that are not quite finished and the schools did not get all of the infrastructure and add-ons that they thought they were going to get, what do you see as the role of the state government department regarding the schools that have not been able to have their projects finished to the extent that they have been promised?

Mr Zadkovich —There is a clear role for the New South Wales government and that is to reverse the funding trends of the last 30 years and start to reinvest—give public schools a greater proportion of the state’s budget for their needs, in terms of completing projects and maintaining the buildings that have been constructed and the facilities that have been provided. We need an increase in the New South Wales state budget for public education, and we believe that if that were done the follow-through on these projects would be ensured.

Senator Hanson Young —Do you have any idea from your survey adds to the numbers of projects that have not been completed to the extent that they have been promised?

Mr Zadkovich —I do not have that direct information. I do not believe we do.

Dr Fogarty —No. There are not many projects that have not been finished, that are still underway, or started.

Senator Hanson Young —Without having the terms of reference for the New South Wales upper house inquiry in front of me, I am not sure, but is that something that you believe that inquiry will be looking at, to see where the gaps are in case there needs to be some recommendation about filling the gaps if it has to come from state government coffers?

Mr Zadkovich —Yes, we will be making that case to that inquiry. Those issues need to be addressed in an ongoing way.

Senator Hanson Young —What type of discussions have you had with teachers unions and associations across the country on this particular issue? This is obviously a national project, it is not just something specific to New South Wales. Have you had discussions with your counterparts in other states?

Mr Zadkovich —We are aware that the situation varies state to state. But we know in New South Wales that the particular approach of the seven state managing contractors has yielded problems unique to this state and we have obviously sought to raise those in our submission to this inquiry.

Senator Hanson Young —Where would you like things to go from here? If there are projects that are not going to be totally completed because they have blown their budget, taking the point about the rip-offs, there is that aspect, but in terms of what this inquiry is looking at, where do you really think you want things to go from here? Is there a role for the federal government in taking up these issues directly with the New South Wales government? It is very easy to continue to pass the buck, isn’t it?

Mr Zadkovich —We are seeing that predictable routine again when the federal education Minister, Julia Gillard, and her staff will point to the states for any deficiencies in the rollout of this program and state colleagues would then contend that they have been hamstrung by the particular guidelines and constraints and timelines that have been imposed on state governments to implement this program. So you do see the toing and froing, the blame game between state and federal governments. We just wish that we had state and federal governments prepared to engage school communities in the planning and implementation of these programs so that school communities felt like they were actually participating and working with governments to implement these projects rather than feel that things are being done to them by governments, things are being imposed by governments. So if we got that balance right at the outset where there was that healthy mix between government delivery and responsibility and school participation and input, we believe a lot of these problems would have been averted, particularly the problems around value for money where, with a bit more time, a bit more attention on those issues in the early months of this program, we could have avoided a lot of the concerns that we have raised here today.

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