Crikey intern Elly Keating writes:
With much of the country preoccupied with their personal stimulus packages from the Rudd government, schools across the country are suffering unexpected strain from their share of the government’s largesse.
Extremely short time-frames and inadequate administrative resources have led to schools straining under pressure, despite being delighted with infrastructure funding from the Rudd Government’s “Education Revolution”.
This comes just weeks after the first round of infrastructure funding was allocated to schools across the country. Schools approved within the first round will receive between $50,000 and $200,000 for maintenance projects, new libraries and multi-purpose halls.
Money spent quickly may not be money spent wisely and schools that are now under pressure to approve new buildings may find themselves paying the price of poor planning in the future.
According to Brian Burgess, President of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Victorian schools are under “a lot of pressure” given the “very short time frames” they have been given to successfully apply for funding.
Under the National Pride Program, which assists primary and secondary schools to complete refurbishment projects and/or construct covered outdoor learning areas and sporting facilities, schools were given from February 3 until March 24 to complete their first round applications. According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the first round was expected to provide funds for approximately 60% of schools.
Schools eligible for funds under the “Primary Schools For the 21st Century” (P21) program were given until April 10 to complete their first round applications. Round 2 applications must be complete by May 15.
Burgess says that secondary schools have faired better than primary schools. Secondary schools generally employ staff with greater expertise in planning and development. But significant concerns remain about the capacity of the States to “put everything together”.
For secondary schools, time pressures have forced the utilisation of pre-constructed libraries and multi-purpose halls which will be delivered to selected schools.
Contractors for this work will be selected from a predominantly government approved panel of tradesmen. While Burgess maintains that there will be some local variation in the contractors who may be employed on the new buildings in Victoria, this raises questions about the Government’s claims to be creating and supporting local jobs.
Applying to have pre-constructed buildings built by state-approved contractors significantly departs from business as usual.
“This is not the normal process”, said Burgess. “Normally you would hire your own architect etc. and the building would be designed to fit in with the rest of the school.”
The situation is similar in primary schools across Victoria.
According to Gabrielle Leigh, President of the Victorian Principals Association, the beginning of this school year has been extremely busy as schools are faced with “a lot more pressure” and “a lot more stress” than usual.
The priorities of primary schools have been altered, says Leigh. In particular, performance plans, annual reviews and compliance deadlines have been significantly disrupted. According to Leigh, many schools have applied for extended deadlines for these ordinary operating tasks in order to be able to devote their attention to administrating their stimulus money.
“Australian schools have been waiting for many years for this kind of funding,” said Leigh. “It will take a lot of extra work to get it right”.
Schools in New South Wales are yet to experience the problems faced by their Victorian counterparts, according to Geoff Scott, President of the NSW Primary Principals Association.
“There are no major problems at the moment, because not much has happened yet,” said Scott.
Schools in NSW are currently in discussions with the NSW Government about issues which may arise once the program is rolled out. Scott and his colleagues have raised issues about cost management for smaller schools, and the logistics involved in construction work which will likely be conducted partly during school hours because of very tight timeframes.
Schools in NSW will be “generally happy to work around these issues”, if it means gaining new buildings and facilities, said Scott.
Crikey went to Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard’s office for comment but they did not get back before deadline.