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Motion - Consideration and Noting - Number of Public Primary Schools - Auditor-General Report No. 10

Mrs Armitage (Launceston) - Mr President, I express my thanks for the work of the Auditor-General, Mike Blake, who recently announced he would retire next year after 11 years in this role. He has served the Tasmanian Parliament with great distinction and I wish him well in retirement.

The aim of this audit was to form an opinion on the efficiency and effectiveness of the number and location of public primary schools in Tasmania. This document begins one of the state's most important conversations. It asks, 'What is the best model of learning we can offer children in our public primary schools, and how should we get there?' I note the report stated there were too many primary schools, particularly in rural areas. It is estimated each potential school closure could save the state government $433 000 per year.

However, it also uncovered equally important insights into smaller-sized schools. Smaller-sized schools were found to provide greater and more equitable participation, extracurricular activities, and leadership roles. Students were found to have more positive attitudes, lower dropout rates, higher attendance rates, and less bullying. Teachers were better able to respond to the needs of individual students.

While so much of the long-running debate during the life of the last two governments has been on closing some schools to save money for state coffers, it is critically important that we look beyond the numbers and closely examine where schools are having success, and what they are doing well. We do not ignore the cost by any means, but we need to move deeper than the economics. Do government budgets allow our primary schools to meet all the community and government demands on them?

On the issue of occupancy, the Auditor-General found the average occupancy in Tasmanian public schools in 2014 was 70 per cent; 51 per cent of schools were below 70 per cent occupied and 23 per cent were below 50 per cent. The regional breakdown: north 74 per cent; south 70 per cent; and north-west 65 per cent. For Tasmania to reach Queensland's 78 per cent occupancy average, this would require 20 of our state's public primary schools to be closed, achieving long-term annual savings of $8.66 million. While the Government has said it will not force school closures, in a hypothetical scenario, if these schools were to close, would that $8.66 million be reinvested in resources for our public primary schools?

Recommendation 4 on page 37 is particularly commended:

We recommend that both the Department of Education and individual schools perform manual assessments of the adequacy of the range of educational experiences offered at each school.

While budgets are allocated annually by the Department of Education, schools have myriad needs, and these can change suddenly through the school year. Our primary schools, particularly in my electorate of Launceston, are doing a wonderful job in a tough fiscal environment. They are innovative, progressive, and while focused on the academics, pursuing programs that benefit the wider community. I am aware of primary schools in my electorate that are doing an incredible job of supporting students who have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

On 9 August the Sunday Tasmanian produced a report which showed how much public schools received per student from the Tasmanian government. While this notice of motion refers to the number of public primary schools in Tasmania, it is equally important that we talk more about how resources are allocated. For example, one primary school in Launceston received almost $3 800 per student while another, which had only 25 more students, received only $1 700 per student.

While I accept that some areas need more funding based on socio-economic factors, most schools could rightly argue that they too have to meet a range of needs, including literacy and numeracy standards, and supporting students with a range of additional needs. These pressures on our primary schools are not restricted to certain postcodes. Primary schools still have to meet the demands on them regardless of the budget they are allocated.

I thank the Auditor-General, Mike Blake, and his staff for the insightful report. I hope the state Government will use it as a building block for the future. I trust they will have open conversations with the leadership of the schools to ensure that they have the full resources they need.

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