OPINION: Public schools in NSW are in for a shock when they start back next year. They will find there is no one at their local office to give advice on enrolling newly arrived children who do not speak English.
There will be no one to provide on-arrival English and settlement support to newly enrolled refugees; or to advise on how to assess students' English language proficiency; or on the need to access English as a second language (ESL) professional support programs for their teachers, or help in dealing with community relations in their school.
It is then they will learn that, at the end of the 2013 school year, the NSW government, with its so-called new model of support to schools under the Local Schools, Local Decisions program, terminated all 15 regional multicultural/ESL consultants and refugee support officers working in high ESL- and refugee-need areas of Sydney, and all 17 community information officers across the state.
The NSW Department of Education and Communities is not only losing personnel with valuable specialist expertise, it is eroding its capacity to address the language and cultural needs of migrant and refugee students and develop the professional practice of its teachers.
By the end of this school year, all state professional development programs in ESL, multicultural and anti-racism education done by this consultancy network will cease.
These cuts are only the start of the government's redirection of specific-purpose ESL program funding for ESL teachers and consultants, via its new Gonski-style resource allocation model, towards supporting its school autonomy reforms, that aims to transfer more than 70 per cent of all education funds to school budgets.
Next year, ESL teachers will discover that, under the new resourcing arrangements, funding for their positions is no longer guaranteed, and ESL programs will soon have to compete with other priorities for a slice of the school's budget.
Principals are in for a shock, too, when they realise the department's model of support relies on them filling the yawning service gap from their budgets. Under the reforms, schools will have to buy the professional development support they need at market rates; use consultancy brokering services on a cost-recovery basis; negotiate co-operative resource-sharing arrangements with other schools, or, failing that, just go online.
This devolved, self-help, market-based principals-will-provide model of professional support ignores the fundamental issues of school capacity, equity and diversity.
The NSW approach to schools' professional support for cultural diversity runs completely counter to trends overseas. US research highlights the incapacity of devolved schooling systems as they scramble to address rising linguistic diversity in their states.
This research emphasises the crucial role that district-wide systems of ESL professional support and leadership play in enabling schools to address the English learning needs of their ESL students. Establishing such systems of support are identified as essential to providing effective services for English language learners in devolved education systems.
The diversity of NSW's population means schools' professional support needs in the areas of ESL, multicultural and anti-racism education will not diminish.
Without a strategic and cohesive network of officers with expertise in these areas, schools risk being overwhelmed, children from linguistically diverse and vulnerable refugee communities under-served, and the educational costs of NSW's diversity shifted to non-government and community organisations. Multicultural NSW deserves much better.
Dr Michael Michell is a Research Fellow in UNSW's School of Education.
This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.