Plays from the ‘dark arts playbook’: A school campaigner’s firsthand account
Imagine this: your child starts at the local public school, and all seems peachy until you realise that due to a number of factors, your kid’s school is fast filling up. You notice that it is also happening at all the local schools. Public school closures, rapidly rising student enrolment numbers, pop-up portable classrooms all point to a perfect storm of overcrowding and under-provisioning of public education - surely this situation could not be going on un-noticed by those who are charged with the administration, care and oversight of public education in our state?
You approach your local MP armed with a plethora of research. Schools that were built for 250 kids now have 600 and growing, the number of portables, and student enrolment numbers all suggest that this is not a ‘bubble’, it is a long term trend. There are not enough public schools. Of course you will be taken seriously. Why would anyone make any of this up? Right? WRONG. And so it begins….
Play 1 – Obfuscate, ignore and delay
It takes an inordinately long time to get your meeting with the MP. Months in fact. Phone call after phone call, emails unanswered. But you persist and get your meeting. Armed with the facts, you gently point out the rising trend of enrolments that are not abating, the many and various public school closures in your area along with the request for them to please help, as the playground space that your child plays in, is fast being taken up with portables. You have more meetings and coffee chats. Months of wasted time. But in the end, you are figuratively ‘patted on the head’ and waved away, with a perfunctory ‘thank you for your time and interest’. You see red.
You start a community campaign. It is hugely successful and popular with loads of community engagement. You engage at least 2000+ people in your campaign. The local and state media pick it up. In the lead up to the election, you invite various political candidates to speak ‘town hall style’ to a packed gallery and finally, you win a promise to undertake a study of the area.
The political class become engaged. They can sniff the breeze as the issue has gained traction. But the local MP gets re-elected. You have your election promise of a plan to review whether there is adequate public school provision or not and off you go to engage with the Department of Education (DET).
Play 2 –The Bureaucracy as a tool to manage the campaign
The DET wants to have a better approach to community engagement. External consultants are engaged. The bureaucrats are professional, but processes are tightly managed with scripted questions to limit dissent. The study area is wrong. It does not even reflect what was promised. You know this will go nowhere and you are right. After months of waiting, the results of the study come in. We are not building more schools. More portables for your area. Yet, two other schools are being built on political expediency without the numbers to justify.
Play 3 – The long silence to quieten the campaign
It is almost one year later. You have participated in all the community consultations, the surveys and engaged with the expensive consultants. It has resulted in nothing. You know that the issue is still popular and another election will be around the corner soon. You continue to build your strong social media presence. You decide to continue to engage with the DET, who now recognise that there has been an explosion in enrolment numbers and they note that they are ‘keeping a close eye’ on enrolment numbers. A revolving door of bureaucrats does not help though.
By now, your child has almost finished school. That is the price you have paid, that the work you started will benefit others, but not your own child. It is still worth the cost.
Play 4 – Intervention of hard-arsed political advisers
You continue to agitate. Political hacks are more threatening. You are subject to gas-lighting, a sophisticated way narcissists project and blame shift. Statements like ‘we decide what goes on around here’ are made. You are patronised, belittled and bullied. You see this as a backhanded compliment that your campaign is making the political class squirm.
You are interrogated and accused of being a ‘middle class school shopper’ – someone who does not send their child to the closest local public school. Yet you are also told when a school is full, children will be expected to travel to another one in order to manage enrolment pressures. A completely contradictory position – a sour, pathetic joke, and more ineptitude. Most of the schools in your area now have a sea of portables to the extent that they cannot take anymore. And you are the one having your integrity questioned!
The stench of corruption has tainted your area as well with an IBAC (Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption agency) enquiry into corrupt bureaucrats at the DET. Yet another reason why people are protecting their arses. But you are now years into this campaign and you have learned loads. You lean in.
What to make of all this?
You see, the facts do not lie. Phony, made-up figures about market share assumptions; wrong enrolment figures; the long term use of portables; dysfunctionality in the bureaucracy; along; with the cost-shifting of public education provision to the non-government sector. While the government raided the cookie jar, cashing in public school land assets and selling them off for housing to developers. No care and no responsibility. Entirely new suburbs were and still are being planned and built with no public schools. Nobody cared about how that impacted on the kids nor their families who must send their children to school.
How spectacularly wrong could things go? There is a huge problem of pockets of massive under-provision of public education in Melbourne with kids being jammed in like sardines in a tin. Throw into the mix a rapid population boom as well. Nobody saw this coming they say, or perhaps they did, but did not count on parents standing up for their kids. Accountability for such a colossal stuff up needs to take place. And those that have behaved as described above, have no place working in public administration.
As Ghandi said: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – then you win. I think we are still in the fight stage. Nothing short of a royal commission into the failures of multiple governments to properly administer public education in Victoria is warranted.