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The deplorable neglect of our state schools

By Brian Caldwell - posted Friday, 14 October 2005

There is now broad agreement that the overall state of facilities in Victorian government schools is deplorable. Tackling the problem should be the top priority for the Bracks Government if it is to save the state system of education, especially at the secondary level, given that more than 40 per cent of senior secondary students are now bypassing a government school to attend a non-government school. However, there is more at stake, because the wellbeing of the nation is dependent on our schools being able to deliver on requirements in the early years of the 21st century.

I have travelled to 33 nations for professional purposes over the past 15 years and have visited schools in most. I have come to the conclusion that, overall, the condition of schools in Victoria is the worst among those in developed nations.

Moreover, there is an absence of a plan to deal with the situation in more than piecemeal fashion - especially compared to decisions taken in England to replace or refurbish about 85 per cent of its secondary schools and more than 9,000 of its primary schools. Scotland is undertaking the largest program of rebuilding schools in its history.


How did this situation come about? There is little point in the present government claiming a higher level of expenditure than its predecessor when commitments to address the situation fall far short of what is needed. Indeed, there is little value in pointing the finger at particular governments when there is an accumulation of decades of bad decision-making and neglect.

Many of the problems began in the 1950s and 1960s when governments had to provide schools for the baby boomers. We also tended to build our primary schools much closer to each other in metropolitan areas compared with other states. There was extraordinary duplication of facilities because virtually every suburb had to have a high school and a technical school, often on adjacent sites. The state invested in light timber construction buildings with a limited life span.

The 1980s brought a decade of neglect as priorities shifted to maintaining the workforce in the face of a budget crisis that took Victoria close to bankruptcy at the start of the 1990s. The state was borrowing to pay the interest on loans to pay the salaries of teachers. Negligible funds were available for the maintenance of buildings that had long passed their use-by date and thousands of students were forced to learn in substandard portable classrooms that can still be found in most communities.

A stronger economy in the late 1990s and the early years of this century has enabled this government to tackle the problem on a limited scale and to build new schools in the growth corridors.

Our schools are ill-suited to an era of personalised learning, flexible use of facilities and rapidly changing technology. We are wedded to a standard comprehensive one-size-fits-all design when specialist facilities are now required. The state government recognises the need for diversity in curriculum and pedagogy, as do both sides of politics at the federal level. The Federal Government is pressing ahead with the funding of Australian technology colleges and the Opposition has called for new designs to suit a range of specialisations, including technology and the arts.

But there is nothing on the horizon to match the initiative of the Blair Government that has resulted in more than 80 per cent of England's 3,000 secondary schools becoming a "centre of excellence" in at least one specialisation, while tackling the national curriculum.


What is to be done about it? Nothing less than the largest injection of capital in the history of state education in Victoria will suffice. A well-designed approach to public-private partnerships is required along the lines already adopted and broadly accepted in England and Scotland, and recently taken up in NSW. If the record in these places is a guide, schools will be built ahead of schedule and under budget, with a higher standard of design and better maintenance over the long haul. An example of the latter in NSW is that maintenance is carried out by the private sector, with penalties if needs are not met immediately. For example, if graffiti is not removed within two hours of a report.

Thirty-year contracts for maintenance mean high incentives to ensure quality construction in the first place.

It is pleasing to see teacher unions come on board. After initial opposition in NSW, union leaders have now expressed satisfaction with the outcome and support a new round of public-private partnerships. Early signs of support in Victoria are encouraging. This is long overdue, given that the profession has been forced to endure sub-standard conditions for decades while their peers in other professions are working in state-of-the-art facilities, including counterparts in non-government schools.

Teachers deserve the highest praise for the accomplishments of our students who rank high on international tests of student achievement. In a recent study by Richard Florida in The Flight of the Creative Class, Australia is one of the top-ranked nations for creativity in its workforce. Schools deserve much of the credit. They are doing so in the face of unrelenting criticism of their efforts in some quarters and dispiriting working conditions. The government sector will prove unsustainable in the longer term unless we provide students and their teachers with a new deal.

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First published in The Age on October 11, 2005.

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About the Author

Professor Brian Caldwell is managing director of Educational Transformations and former dean of education at the University of Melbourne.

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