By Jo Brown
MELBOURNE — The campaign to save Northland Secondary College from the Kennett government's cuts has taken a new turn with the announcement on Monday, January 24, that the school would not reopen for the start of the school year. Students and teachers arriving for the first day of school found the gates bolted shut and the locks changed, and were told by police officers that the school would not be opening.
The announcement followed a Supreme Court judge's overturning of an order of the Equal Opportunity Board to reopen the school. The state government had appealed against the board's decision.
Northland Secondary College, a school with a large Aboriginal population and an innovative Koori culture program, was closed in the first round of education cuts in 1992.
The staff and students occupied the site and continued to hold classes during 1993, while two Northland students took their case to the Equal Opportunity Board, claiming that the closure was discriminatory against Aboriginal students. After a lengthy hearing, the board ordered in December that the school be reopened for the 1994 school year.
The government immediately appealed the decision, and Justice Beach of the Supreme Court ruled that no discrimination had occurred in the eyes of the law because the students had not been denied access to public education.
The students will now appeal to the full bench of the Supreme Court, and the government has been ordered not to sell or dispose of school assets before February 28.
After the Equal Opportunity decision, around 250 students enrolled at Northland for 1994, and teachers are now planning to continue to hold classes for interested students. Fifty students turned up on Thursday morning to enrol in classes and show their support for Northland, although a large number have been forced to enrol at other schools to avoid losing Austudy and Abstudy benefits or risking exclusion from Victorian Certificate of Education classes.
When Northland was closed at the end of 1992, a large proportion of students left school altogether. According to one teacher involved in the "rebel" school, of the 400 students at Northland in 1992, only 100 were still enrolled in secondary schools in 1993.
Students who were forced to attend other schools in the area often had difficulty adjusting, and many failed or dropped out. Kathy, a VCE student, told Green Left Weekly that as a homeless student on $200 Austudy per fortnight, she found the cost of fees and books at other schools a big problem.
At Northland, students had been able to pay $10 to use textbooks at the school; other schools require students to buy books often costing hundreds of dollars in total. The up-front fee of $200 at Northland was also the cheapest in the area.
Students from Northland told Green Left that their school was "friendly and much more welcoming than other schools". Rebecca, a Koori student, said that teachers at Northland treated students differently, "more like human beings". Another student, Tina, said that Northland students, including her, had been subjected to racist abuse by teachers and other students when they were forced to enrol in other schools in 1993.
Students also mentioned the homework classes held after school hours by volunteer teachers, which allowed them to get individual help with work. Joe Griggs, a Koori student who attended Northland in 1993, said that Northland was more accepting of students with family problems such as alcoholism and drug abuse. He pointed out that the government had probably spent more money on the court case than it would have cost to reopen Northland.
The Koori culture program at Northland was unique, held up by the government as an example of innovative education in Victorian schools. The program also included Aboriginal dancing and other activities, and was designed to give all students an understanding of Aboriginal culture.
Students told Green Left that the government's proposed Koori Education Centre in the northern suburbs would not replace the kind of program developed at Northland. Bruce Foley and Joe Griggs said that they did not want a separate Koori school because "white people need to learn about Koori culture". Several students said they liked the multicultural atmosphere at Northland and that there had been no real division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.
One of the parents commented that the Northland school wasn't "only known for its multiculturalism. It had such an accepting atmosphere that a group of disabled students participated in Northland activities. That was great for my kids, to learn to mix with a wide range of other people."
A meeting at the school site on Thursday morning discussed the future of the campaign. While staff and students were angry at the Supreme Court's decision, they were confident that their appeal would be successful. They plan to continue to hold classes, "in a park if necessary", and to put pressure on the government through media actions. At present there is no plan for a broader community campaign or the establishment of pickets.