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Government accused of gagging schools over sc -

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Government accused of gagging schools over school computers

Simon Lauder reported this story on Thursday, July 16, 2009 12:28:07

PETER CAVE: The Victorian Government has denied it's trying to gag school principals from speaking
out about the Computers for Schools program. The state education department has asked principals to
sign an agreement which says they will have their funding taken away if they bring the policy into
disrepute.

The Federal Opposition says the Commonwealth is also to blame and it should change the conditions
of the Computers for Schools program to make sure principals can feel free to speak their minds.

Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: The plan to give every Australian student in years 9 to 12 access to a school
computer is central to the Federal Governments education revolution. It's a work in progress and,
it seems, a very sensitive one.

The Commonwealth's funding agreement with the states includes a clause demanding the project is not
brought into disrepute. In a letter to schools which have won money for computers under the latest
round of funding, the Victorian education department has passed that demand on along with an extra
condition.

BRIAN BURGESS: It says in the very beginning, "The school agrees to comply with all requirements
listed in this agreement. The school acknowledges that failure to adhere to any part of this
agreement may result in being required to repay all of the funds to the department."

SIMON LAUDER: The president of the Victorian Association of Secondary School Principals, Brian
Burgess, says it's effectively a gag on schools criticising the rollout of the computers in schools
program.

BRIAN BURGESS: Look, individual school principals are in a terribly difficult position because of
this. They want resources for their students, this is a fantastic opportunity to get those
resources, and so my belief is that most will sign it and then it is up to people like myself
representing their interests and being able to speak out on their behalf.

But I do think it is quite outrageous that principals aren't trusted to be able to make considered
judgements about these policy programs in their own schools.

SIMON LAUDER: By threatening to withdraw funding for schools that bring the program into disrepute,
the Victorian agreement goes one step further than the Commonwealth funding agreement which
underpins it.

The State Opposition's education spokesman, Martin Dixon, has 15 years' experience as a school
principal. He says the Government has gone too far.

MARTIN DIXON: I agree with the principals association in that they see this as a threat to keep
them quiet and I don't think it can be seen as anything else but that that if you say something you
won't get your money.

SIMON LAUDER: Victoria's Education Minister Bronwyn Pike hasn't been available for an interview,
but a spokesman says the document doesn't prohibit principals from voicing concerns about the
program. The Commonwealth has put that in writing, with a clause in the funding agreement that says
nothing should be read as limiting the right to enter public debate or criticism.

The Federal Opposition's education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, says the disrepute clause should be
removed altogether.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: The Victorian Government is interpreting the Federal Government's gag guideline
and they are getting principals to sign contracts.

What Victoria has done is likely to be followed by the other states because the Federal Government
has been embarrassed in previous weeks by the number of principals and chairmen of governing
councils who've been courageous enough to speak up about the failed schools stimulus debacle. This
is the next step and unfortunately I think we'll see it replicated across the country.

SIMON LAUDER: Family First Senator Steve Fielding says he also believes the Federal Government is
responsible for gagging schools.

STEVE FIELDING: Look I think to get around any ambiguousness about the whole issue, principals
shouldn't be feeling under threat and they obviously, it is a concern and frankly it should be
deleted from any condition.

At the end of the day we have a free speech in Australia, we don't want to have a situation where
principals are feeling as if they can't say what they're thinking and feeling because they're
worried about funding cuts or PCs being withdrawn.

SIMON LAUDER: The Acting Federal Education Minister, Mark Arbib, has been unavailable to speak to
The World Today to explain what is covered by the disrepute clause.

PETER CAVE: Simon Lauder.