Wollombi and Laguna Public Schools

It looks as if the Department of Education and Communities is going to close a small school in the electorate of Cessnock. From the outset, I want to make clear that I have the highest respect for regional director Mr Frank Potter and area director Mr Bryan Campbell. The closure of a school is always an emotive and controversial issue and generally the smaller a community is, the more significant its school is. However, in the Wollombi Valley this emotion is mixed with public disillusionment with a process which many consider to be lacking integrity and good faith. 

I accept that the end solution for the Wollombi Valley may well be the closure of one of the schools, or a significant rejigging of how the two schools are set up, but many primary schools in my electorate have 400 or 500 children, and the people associated with them are entitled to question the logic and fairness of another school catering to only five at the moment. The school had 10 students at the start of the year and this number dropped to seven and even to three at one stage. 

Regardless of our views on the number of students, we should all be able to agree that a fair process must be followed. Time should be taken to establish the needs of students, the ability of the existing facilities to cope with current and future demand, and to get to the bottom of why there is currently such imbalance in the numbers at Wollombi and Laguna public schools. One school has only five students while the other, just seven kilometres away, has about 50. More than all of this, the bureaucratic machinery needs to recognise that in places like Wollombi a school is more than a production line of learning. It can be a community hub, a historical site and a place of great emotional and sentimental significance. These things need to be weighed against the dollars and cents. 

Wollombi residents in particular have a list of grievances about the process that has been followed to this point. They believe that the department made the decision more than 12 months ago that Wollombi Public School would go and that, while some community consultation has been undertaken for appearances’ sake, the result was a foregone conclusion. Many residents of Wollombi were personally insulted when, in November, the department made moves to close the school without any process or consultation at all, just six weeks before the end of the school year. 

Wollombi school has also struggled as a result of the uncertainty created by the refusal of the department to install a permanent principal after the former principal moved on at the end of last year. Much of this may be resolved through communication. For example, many locals are struggling to grasp how their school could be considered a one-teacher school, when the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority lists it as having 1.3 teachers. This might appear to be a minor distinction, but it is crucial in following due process prescribed by the department.

Some of this drama is also the product of the ferocity of the Liberal Party’s anti-public education agenda. We all know that savage cuts to education are primarily based on dollars and not always on educational outcomes. The chaos this Government wrought on the education department in its early days created a chain of people acting in roles that was complex enough to have Sir Humphrey Appleby scratching his head. Surely that is the worst time to be making a decision of this magnitude. Why could this process not have waited until there was a permanent area director and that person had a view to the future and some accountability to undertake it properly?

I am concerned that the decision about the future of Wollombi school was made when people were acting as area director, as well as acting in the acting role of regional director et cetera. I have a great deal of sympathy for the now permanent area director, a fine man who is in there for the long haul but seems to have been thrown something of a hospital pass when it comes to Wollombi school. He is going above and beyond in his efforts to work with the local community and he is making the best of a bad situation. Regardless of what members may feel about the future of Wollombi Public School, surely we can agree that the people of Wollombi deserve to be treated with respect by their Government, and the children of Wollombi deserve the respect of the department responsible for their education.