Newcastle Herald Op-Ed: School demountables on Labor's hit list



Originally published: Newcastle Herald, 29 January 2015.

This week, thousands of children are experiencing their first day of school. It is a time of trepidation and joy for any parent. I should know – my son is one of them. 

The future should be limitless for the next generation entering the classroom. Technology is opening up new horizons. Laptops and iPads are replacing computers. E-textbooks and interactive learning portals are becoming more prevalent. 

Yet the fundamentals of a quality education system – dedicated teachers, small class sizes and decent school environments  – remain timeless. 

Yesterday, I announced that a Foley Labor government would invest an additional $100 million to replace ageing, demountable classrooms across NSW with permanent air-conditioned facilities, properly integrated into the school grounds. 

It should trouble our conscience that each day, about 100,000 children attend lessons in a substandard facility.

Newer demountables may not have leaky roofs, mouldy carpets or insufficient power points – but too many of the older ones do. 

In the Hunter alone, there are 40 schools where demountables have languished on school grounds for 10 years or more, despite assurances they were only ever meant to be temporary. As an example, West Wallsend High school has eight, Tomaree High School seven and Singleton High School six. 

There are no easy solutions. Demountables will always have a place in our education system. But only Labor is prepared to dedicate serious resources to eradicating the most dilapidated. 

In one of its first acts, the Baird government abolished the Demountable Replacement Program initiated by Labor. It palmed off this issue into the wider budget for school capital works – and then proceeded to cut this budget by more than $280 million. 

Demountable replacement in NSW is now completely ad hoc. Only when an individual school community protests to the point of exhaustion – an example being The Junction Public School, damaged during the 1989 earthquake – has the Baird government been shamed into a response. 

By contrast, Labor will conduct a methodical statewide audit and ensure that schools are prioritised for a share of the $100 million where both the quantum and age of demountables demands it. 

On day one, I promised to make school investment one of my hallmarks as premier.  

By 2030, NSW will have to find places for 347,000 more school children. As the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy makes it clear, this pressure will be felt keenly in the Newcastle CBD. Yet enrolment growth is a reality that must be accommodated across the Hunter. 

After famously promising a “unity ticket” with Labor at the last election, the Abbott government has abrogated its responsibility by walking away from the Gonski school funding deal. Most of this injection was due to occur from 2016. Instead, the disastrous budget has cut $10 billion from NSW schools over the coming decade – with next to no protest from Premier Mike Baird. 

If our schools fail to keep pace, it will mean less integration of teaching with technology and less individual attention for our most gifted and those falling behind. 

Labor’s commitment to replace the worst demountables is a down-payment on our children’s future and the world class education that they deserve.  

Originally published as: OPINION: School demountables on Labor’s hit-list