“My heart breaks for the kids,” the person said. “Most of them just want to learn.”
Teachers walked off the job briefly on Wednesday morning, angered by what they felt was an inadequate response by the NSW Department of Education to their calls last week for staff to be sent to the school immediately and for a commitment from the department to back the next principal.
“Taking a job at Walgett is career suicide”
The school, with 138 students, needs two head teachers, six classroom teachers – English and learning support among them – and two deputy principals. The most recent, well-regarded principal also left abruptly late last year, so a retired principal is acting in the position until a new one is found.
Multiple sources said teachers and principals were reluctant to take jobs at Walgett because it had become known as a dangerous workplace.
“It has a reputation for difficult working conditions,” said one. “Taking a job at Walgett is career suicide,” said another.
In December, union members warned in a motion: “students’ safety and wellbeing were at risk when being exposed to critical incidents and trauma”. Walgett is a high-needs community, with few jobs and higher numbers of vulnerable children.
Last week, the teachers appealed to the department again, saying inadequate staffing made the school unsafe and left teachers unable to deliver the curriculum adequately – including the Higher School Certificate – or to supervise the playground.
The staff shortage has forced the merger of the “intellectually mild” class and the behaviour disorder class and led to two capable students deciding not to return to year 12 because their teachers had left, sources said. “They were extremely able, intelligent kids that could have gone places and done things,” said one.
In 2015, two police officers were stationed at Walgett Community College amid reports of violence against teachers and students. In May of that year, a video showed a 13-year-old girl being beaten by fellow students.
The following year, the NSW Department of Education unveiled $9.2 million worth of upgrades at what then education minister Adrian Piccoli described as the worst school in the state due to its dilapidated facilities. It was hailed as a fresh start.
The school is also well resourced. The latest data, from 2018, showed annual per-student funding at Walgett ($47,158) was higher than at Sydney Grammar ($42,827). Unlike private schools such as Grammar, Walgett is funded entirely by state and federal governments.
Some blamed the problems on inconsistency due to a high principal turnover, with 11 principals since 2013, when the college’s primary and high schools fell under a new Connected Communities Strategy, which was designed to improve education in vulnerable towns.
Despite the strategy, attendance remains low; the most recent data on My School shows only 11 per cent of students attended the school more than 90 per cent of the time. Since 2014, just 20 students have sat just 46 Higher School Certificate courses there, Parliament was told this month.
The original Connected Communities principal, who did not want to be named, said he could not see a solution to Walgett’s issues. He told education officials in 2016 that “the children would be benefited by closing the school and letting them study at schools nearby”.
In a letter responding to the concerns raised by teachers last week, the NSW Department of Education said it was recruiting new teachers – the six classroom positions were advertised two weeks ago – and looking at incentives to attract people to the job.
It said arrangements were being made for some year 12s to do their classes with teachers from Coonamble, an hour away. “The department does not dispute the fact that there has been a significant turnover of staff in the position of principal and executive principal,” the letter said.
Opposition education spokeswoman Prue Car urged Education Minister Sarah Mitchell to travel to Walgett immediately. “Part of that conversation should be identifying and supporting a principal,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Department of Education said there was zero tolerance for violence or inappropriate behaviour at Walgett. “Disciplinary action is taken immediately when any incident comes to light, and support is provided to any individuals involved,” she said.
She acknowledged positions were difficult to fill in Walgett. “A more holistic approach to incentives for teachers and their families are being explored in the recently announced incentive review,” she said.
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Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald