I hate the idea of a country / city divide. Both would be screwed without each other, yet there is a perception that Perth has little regard for those in the regions. I’m not sure that’s entirely true; three of my neighbours all have country connections, or hail from the regions and we received a lot of city support during the live export rallies. But it’s hard to argue that point when your State Government drives in the mother of all wedges with recent education announcements.
There are a handful of organisations that are unique to outback living. The RFDS for example. It’s an icon, and the value placed on it by those who may one day have need to call upon its services cannot be understated. Another is the volunteer Rural Fire brigades, or the Ambos. They’re just, well, there. Part of the bush. Services that evolved out of a need specific to living away from the country’s capitals. That those services might not be around is unimaginable.
Another organisation, and one that is uniquely Australian, is the School of the Air.
I’m going to declare my hand here and say I don’t have kids, nor do I live remotely anymore (though some Perthites might suggest Gosnells is pretty remote), but when I heard the plan to axe the School of the Air (SOTA) I was livid. And this was before I heard the rest of the proposed education cuts. You can’t close SOTA.
We’ve all seen the photos of kids sitting by their radio, one hand holding the mouthpiece, pen at the ready in the other, or heard the audio of a school lesson. It is iconic, but today it’s all laptops, desktops and satellites. And frankly, to argue against the school closures based on nostalgia is wrong, because things change all the time. But, there are very good reasons for not shutting down SOTA.
As it stands today, there are five SOTAs. Kimberly, Carnarvon, Port Hedland, Meekatharra (based out of Geraldton) and Kalgoorlie. There is also what they call SIDE; School of Isolated & Distance Education which is situated in Leederville, Perth, and services the Greater Southwest region. The plan is, as of three days ago, to close down the SOTAs and provide education to affected students through SIDE out of Perth.
I can see why at first glance this might seem to make sense. Two separate organisations providing what looks to be the same service. Maybe they are, I honestly can’t say because I’ve never used them but what I do know is this. Each SOTA is no different from any other school in Perth save for distance. Instead of the teacher in the same room as their students, they are miles away and speaking over the interwebs, but there is an actual school in each regional town. And this is the key point. Parents and students can access the teachers because they are based in their regional centre. Isolated or not, at some point people do get into either Port Hedland, Carnarvon, Geraldton or Kalgoorlie, and if so required can pop into the school while they are in town.
By basing everything out of Perth what the WA government is doing with their proposal is no different to a school in Joondalup suddenly requiring parents to drive down to South Fremantle to meet their children’s teachers. I’ve only lived in Perth a short while, but I can tell you now that would not fly. And after spending an hour the other day to drive twenty kilometres during peak hour, I can totally understand that.
So how much is going to be saved by closing five schools? Given that closing schools is never popular, it would want to be a decent amount, wouldn’t it? $14 million. Yeah, that’s not a typo. Not 140, but 14. But even that piddly amount (piddly in the scheme of things) has its caveats. On Friday, the Minister for Education guaranteed publicly that face to face teacher time, school camps, and all the personal interrelations currently enjoyed by the SOTA students would not be affected, yet she could not say how much the additional resources that the SIDE program needs to do so would cost.
Instead of teachers being hundreds of kilometres away, they are thousands. And I’m assuming given teacher job cuts, the virtual classroom sizes are going to increase. Which is never ideal, but workable in a normal situation when the gap between students is measured in centimetres. Except we aren’t talking centimetres here. We’re talking distances larger than many European countries. So how exactly is a reduced teacher workforce going to cover that ground at a cheaper cost than just employing the original amount of teachers in each region? That is, of course, assuming the Minister keeps her promise regarding face to face time. But during the election it was also promised no cuts to frontline teaching staff, so I’ll take that one with a grain of salt.
I get WA’s finances need tightening, really I do. Others can argue who should’ve done what regarding the current fiscal position, but to me, cutting education in any form is so obviously counterproductive it makes my brain hurt. SOTA isn’t the only cut either. Residential colleges, school camp grounds, even programs for gifted students are being slashed. That’s another one I don’t get. If a kid has potential, why the hell would you restrict that? During my own high school years, I scraped into a special placement program. Some of the kids in my classes were down right geniuses, but would’ve been bored batshit crazy in the normal A grade class. In the same way you direct more resources to students who lag, you should also direct more to those who excel.
About 300 students are affected by this, and I saw one comment along the lines of ‘$14 million for 300? Glad they cut it.’ You know what? Fuck you. Since when does education, health and basic services rely on weight of numbers? Is that same principle going to be applied to special needs students who require carers in class, or the guy with some rare form of cancer that needs an expensive treatment? No. And nor should it.
There’s a number of things I haven’t touched on. Increased internet requirements, a major problem in the regions. How are school camps and class assemblies going to work?
When the live export ban happened, it was a mess. Rural folk had no real public voice, no organisation or coherence and it took some time before our own views were heard. If there is any positive that came from that fiasco, it is the fact that we got our shit together. Within hours of the SOTA announcement being made local members were swamped on Social Media, petitions raised, and phone calls made. I have no doubt the WA government has underestimated the fallout on this policy.
Whether they care enough to amend it remains to be seen. After all, there’s not many votes in the bush.
Link to online petition: Save SOTA