ON the day State Treasurer Ben Wyatt handed down his first budget, Premier Mark McGowan’s website proclaimed the budget included “a big investment in the Wheatbelt, with a focus on projects that (would) create jobs and opportunities for locals as well as improve important services such as health and education”.
Somehow Minister for Education and Training Sue Ellery failed to get that message and just before Christmas announced the universally unpopular and (by her own admission) rushed decision to close the Schools of the Air and the Moora Residential College among a host of other cuts to the education budget.
The residential college is home to about 15 per cent of the student population of the only senior high school between Geraldton and Perth and includes children from as far away as Meekatharra, Sandstone and Marble Bar.
The Central Midlands Senior High School in Moora provides incentives to entice professional people to live and work in rural WA – where doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, bankers, farmers and others can raise young families in an inclusive environment, safe in the knowledge that their children can be educated to ATAR level without having to change schools or place of residence.
If Moora loses its residential college it is likely the diminished numbers of enrolled students would see the school downgraded to a district high school which would take students only as far as Year 10.
An independent economic impact assessment commissioned by the Shire of Moora in February found the closure of the college would manifest itself in an estimated $2 million annual economic impact through the direct loss of employment and expenditure in the town and families leaving the area in search of better educational opportunities for their children.
This suggests the most alarming potential of the college closure beginning a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of decline.
This type of cycle has led to the demise of many small towns across Australia.
Ms Ellery wore the political fallout for the cuts and when he returned to work in January Mr McGowan admitted they had “taken things a bit far” and stood alongside his minister as she apologised publicly for the anxiety and distress caused.
This seemed to becoming a bit of a habit for Mr McGowan when the lead testing in the school drinking water had not been completed before the start of the school year, again backing the Minister for Education and Training, as well as the Education Department director-general Sharyn O’Neill in February while suggesting “someone in the bureaucracy needed a good kick up the pants”.
Ms O’Neill was appointed acting director-general in 2006 and elevated to the position of director-general in 2007, the same year a report of a study by her department into the future placement of Year 7 students determined there were early indications of community anxiety about student well-being.
In rural and remote areas, communities were very concerned about the emotional, social and economic impacts of a change in the setting for Year 7 schooling on the students, their families and the community and that the removal of Year 7 students from some primary settings could have a detrimental effect on the remaining students and local communities.
Significantly the study concluded there was “no evidence at either the State or national levels that outcomes improve when Year 7 students are in secondary settings”.
To his credit, during a short stint as Minister for Education and Training, Mr McGowan abandoned the proposal to relocate Year 7s, only to see it resurrected by Dr Liz Constable soon after she was appointed Minister for Education in Colin Barnett‘s ministry, announcing in 2012 that Year 7s would be attending high school from 2015.
Despite the declared aim of Ms O’Neill’s much-vaunted Classroom First Strategy “to get rid of uniformity and the one size fits all” approach and efforts to “find smarter ways of ensuring our students are not disadvantaged by their location”, assurances that the department would “only be adopting programs and methods that have a proven track record of effectiveness” seem to have been ignored as the program was implemented by the Liberal/National government amid mounting opposition including protests by disaffected parents on the steps of Parliament.
Ms O’Neill was also chief executive officer of the Country High School Hostels Authority for many years until the authority was recently subsumed within the Department of Education and Training.
Taken together, the Year 7 change and the Moora college closure are a serious blow to the future of education in country WA, and particularly the Wheatbelt.
An examination of schools with less than 100 students enrolled in the Mid West and Wheatbelt education regions in May showed there were 43 public schools with 45 or fewer students enrolled which might be considered at risk of closure if enrolments continue to spiral downwards.
Official records reveal a decline of four per cent per year in total student numbers in the five years since it was announced that Year 7s would be relocated to secondary school.
No wonder parents are alarmed.
With budget repair virtually assured by the largesse of Federal Liberal and Labor leaders in their scramble to win votes in forthcoming by-elections, Mr McGowan should make a bold promise to keep the Moora Residential College open for at least the next five years.
Such an announcement would provide staff and students and their families as well as Central Midlands businesses and residents with reasonable certainty in making plans for the medium term.