Widening the gap

MULTIPLE cuts to State Government school programs are threatening the educational prospects of large numbers of Latrobe Valley students.

That was the overwhelming message of the region’s state secondary college leaders yesterday when they released damning reports on the impact of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to numerous programs, as well as details of their ongoing battle to offset shortfalls in maintenance budgets.

The reports were delivered to State Education Minister Martin Dixon last week by State Member for Morwell Russell Northe, who told The Express he understood the concerns outlined by local principals and school boards and accepted some of the State Government’s “global” policy changes would have a greater impact here than in more advantaged areas.

Kurnai College principal Anthony Rodaughan and Traralgon Secondary College principal Paul van Breugel warned recent policy changes would further widen the gap between “well-off” kids and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who represented close to half of their student populations.

Kurnai’s report to the State Government said more than $33,000 would be lost from its Education Maintenance Allowance budget, forcing a reduction to the schools’s welfare and support programs, while $125,000 would be removed with cuts to VCAL co-ordination funding.

Added to this were figures validating the college’s claim it had been “consistently spending far more on maintenance and mandatory inspections than the government gives us”.

A table showed maintenance budget shortfalls had risen sharply over recent years, jumping from $35,506 in 2009 to more than $125,000 last year, with the “majority” being spent on “reactive maintenance” and “very little” spent on improvements to classrooms or staff facilities.

“Every year the college is faced with the difficult decision of either topping up the maintenance budget at the expense of student programs or letting the campuses continue in their decline,” the report said.

Despite a statewide audit finding “serious needs” at Kurnai’s junior campus, its core maintenance budget for this year “has in fact, been reduced,” it said.

A comparative study between Kurnai and a state secondary college in south eastern Melbourne, also in the report, analysed differences in fee revenues, VCAL reductions, EMA changes, Vocational Education and Training funding and found the suburban school attracted an extra $1.5 million in revenue but experienced only a $3000 reduction in its budget while Kurnai would experience an overall reduction of more than $157,000.

Mr Rodaughan said “no-one would accept the cuts implemented by the government have been made in a fair or equitable manner.”.

In response to government references to a climate of financial restraint, he added “my point is that everyone should have to wear the pain” to avoid “further entrenching divisions” between students, according to privilege.

Mr van Breugel echoed those sentiments, painting a similarly dire picture of challenges facing TC, including uncertainty over Indigenous tutoring support, the removal of subsidies for professional development, diminishing support for programs catering to students with disabilities and fears the Federal Government’s national secondary schools computer fund might not continue.

TC’s $116,000 maintenance budget was “woefully inadequate”, Mr van Breugel said, and the college had received no feedback following two maintenance audits under the current government.

“The real community issues for our Latrobe Valley schools is our capacity to contribute in terms of voluntary school fees… a lot of people are doing it really tough here… this really puts us in a bind,” he said.

TC fits into the bottom quarter of all schools according to an education department ‘per capita’ funding document, according to Mr van Breugel.

While he agreed with Mr Northe there was some government “recognition of need” via equity funding and ‘top-ups’ based on socio-economic measurements, Mr van Breugel said “over the past few years if I listed all the things people in the department (of education) in this region have told me this (funding) is supposed to cover, we would have used it three to four times over… it only goes so far”.

Asked if he was confident of a positive government response to the school’s plight, Mr van Breugel said “I have had no indication of that”.

“What I keep hearing is we need to develop local solutions… I have no problem with that philosophically but we need the resources to do it.

“We want to be able to cater for every student, whether they are the most advantaged and capable or most disadvantaged and least capable… that ambition is much harder to realise when resources aren’t there.”

Mr Northe said Mr Dixon “understood the facts put forward to him” and had undertaken to respond to the schools’ report.