Thursday, February 21, 2008

NSW public hospital agonies continuing

Yet another general manager of the Royal North Shore Hospital has left, increasing pressure on the beleaguered Health Minister, Reba Meagher, who tomorrow travels to Bathurst to face the latest debacle in the state's public hospitals. Mary Bonner, who was appointed two years ago, is the eighth general manager in 11 years to walk out of Royal North Shore, the hospital that has become the symbol of all that is wrong with the state's public health system. It is not clear why Ms Bonner has left but her departure follows the recent resignations of two other health chiefs in the Northern Sydney Central Coast Area Health Service: the project manager for Royal North Shore redevelopment, Andrew Bott, and the general manager of Central Coast Health, Ken Cahill.

Ms Bonner had vowed to do all she could to help turn the hospital around but the Herald understands budget constraints and pressure to meet performance targets despite several years of under-resourcing made her task insurmountable. It is also understood that she felt recommendations from the recent parliamentary inquiry into Royal North Shore were so vague they would not rectify problems, and more funding was needed for real change. Several clinicians told the inquiry of their criticisms of the hospital's redevelopment, including a lack of beds and poor cancer and pathology services.

The latest resignation came as Ms Meagher yesterday dodged questions on how the Department of Health or the builders or project managers of the new $98 million Bathurst Base Hospital got the redevelopment so wrong that it failed to meet national patient safety guidelines. The Department of Health also remained silent on how the Bathurst plans were approved when some areas in such acute services as intensive care and emergency were too small to function adequately. The building company, the John Holland Group, and the project manager, Capital Insight, also refused to comment.

"It's a bloody scandal," a Bathurst doctor, who did not want to be named, said yesterday. "Somebody somewhere has to put their hand up and say they caused this mess ... heads are going to roll." The Herald visited Bathurst Hospital yesterday, where all but the most urgent surgery has been suspended indefinitely due to problems with communications.

One doctor, who did not want to be named, said he was concerned for a patient due to undergo breast cancer surgery tomorrow, and was searching for another hospital. He said patients had been sent to Nepean, Mudgee, Lithgow and Orange hospitals for surgery. "There was no surgery here over the weekend apart from two emergency obstetrics patients - one was an emergency caesar and the other was a miscarriage," he said.

The doctor said he had been told that it could take months before the problems were fixed. The paging system had broken down several times a day, the alarm system and backup were inadequate and the situation was so desperate that inquiries were made about whether the fire alarm system could be connected to the switchboard as a public address system. There is also no mobile phone coverage. Telstra maintained yesterday it had always told the Department of Health that it could not complete the required infrastructure until at least the end of March.

The department has denied rumours that the John Holland Group was given $2.8 million in bonuses for finishing the job early. The department said the project was incomplete because the old hospital had to be demolished and the finishing touches put on the new one. It said no bonuses were paid.

One department, ambulatory care, has been left out altogether from the new hospital, and the Bathurst Medical Staff Council is asking for it to move into the mental health unit. Staff are refusing to occupy that section because they say it is unsafe for patients because there are sheer drops and potential hanging points.

Ms Meagher was due to turn the first sod for the Orange hospital redevelopment tomorrow. Yesterday the Greater Western Area Health Service said it would delay construction after doctors there complained that plans are also flawed. "I won't be turning the sod and I have required the Infrastructure Board to undertake a complete audit of the Orange plans to ensure we are not going to have a repeat of the Bathurst incident," Ms Meagher said.

The Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, said the Health Infrastructure Board, set up last year to oversee big projects, "was just another short-term fix designed to distract from the Iemma Government's ongoing incompetence in delivering health facilities". "Reba Meagher can't even tell the public who is responsible for this latest infrastructure disaster," Mr O'Farrell said. "The public can have no confidence Reba Meagher will not repeat the mistakes at Bathurst at similar hospital upgrades at Orange or Royal North Shore."

Brendan Smith, the co-director of intensive care at Bathurst, said doctors had told the John Holland Group that there was no mobile reception as early as September last year. "In this day and age every doctor and his dog has a mobile phone and that's the standard way we communicate ... none of the areas where we have to run to fairly regularly have mobile reception. We pointed that out at the time."

Dr Smith said there had been "very, very limited consultation". "We were never allowed to see the plans; we were never allowed to have copies of the plans," he said. "With the operating theatres, two of the four were meant to be 50 square metres and that's a national standard ... there's 39 square metres. How the hell did they lose 11 square metres?" A spokeswoman for the Greater Western Area Health Service said it was discussing problems with Telstra. The Bathurst Medical Staff Council said the area health service appeared committed to fixing the problems.



Four current articles below -- no good news

Rudd's education "revolution" at work

THE Rudd Government will axe a $1.2 billion program which has allowed schools across NSW to upgrade toilets, landscape their grounds and improve facilities. The Investing in Our Schools scheme - one of the most popular policies of the former Howard government - will not be continued after the money runs out this year.

Angry primary principals are seeking an urgent meeting with new Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard at which they are expected to voice a strong complaint about the decision. A storm of protest following The Daily Telegraph's report this morning has forced Ms Gillard to defend the decision. She said the Government would continue investing in schools via other means. "The Investing in Our Schools program was only ever a four-year program," Ms Gillard said.

Ms Gillard's office earlier confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that Labor's "education revolution" - with heavy emphasis on computers and trade schools - does not extend to Investing in Our Schools. A spokeswoman said the $1.2 billion already promised to schools would be delivered, allowing schools to "build and repair vital infrastructure". "Under the previous Liberal Government there was no funding provided for the program beyond the 2007-08 Budget and therefore the program cannot be continued," the spokeswoman said.

Primary Principals' Association president Geoff Scott said schools - particularly in the government sector - were disappointed to learn the program had been dropped. "It will be a terrific shame if it is not replaced by something else that gets funds to schools," Mr Scott said. "Under this scheme a little bush school could get equal access to funds. It allowed them to get money directly for a host of things such as covered walkways, outdoor learning areas and play equipment."

One recipient of Investing in Our Schools funds has been Oxley High School at Tamworth, where students use old railway carriages as a study centre and computer room. Parents & Citizens' president Wendy Newby said the school had received $100,000 from the program which would be "put to good use". "We are very grateful for the funds . .. the P&C does as much as it can," she said.

State Opposition education spokesman Andrew Stoner said principals "could not speak more highly of the Investing In Our Schools program". "This was a $1.2 billion program making a real difference to NSW schools - often where the State Government had failed to provide adequate facilities," he said.


Rudd's school computer promise comes unplugged

THE Rudd Government has backed away from an election pledge to provide every upper secondary school student with their own computer. Education Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday the Government would provide the resources but conceded it could not force schools to provide individual computers to each student.

The Opposition seized on the concession, accusing the Government of reneging on its promise and disappointing the almost one million private and public students in Years 9-12.

Mr Rudd's education revolution, including the $1 billion National Secondary Schools Computer Fund, helped him steamroll into Government last year. A 15-page policy document labelled A Digital Education Revolution said: "A Rudd Labor Government will revolutionise classroom education by putting a computer on the desk of every upper secondary student. It said: "Students will have their own computer and access to the school's extranet and classroom content - both from their desktop and remotely. Schools will be able to apply for grants of up to $1 million . . . this could include personal laptops."

But in fiery exchange in a Senate standing committee yesterday, bureaucrats told Queensland Liberal Senator Brett Mason there was never a pledge to give students their own computers. Some schools might choose to have computer laboratories on school campuses, they said. An animated Senator Mason seized on the comments, offering to read the ALP brochure to Innovation Minister Kim Carr. "Unless I'm stupid and every 9-12 student I know is stupid, every one of them thought the Government would be providing them with a computer," Senator Mason said.

During an interview later in the day, Ms Gillard argued the Government had not changed the goalposts. "There will be sufficient resources so that schools can put a computer on each child's desk for Years 9 to 12," she said. "We are leaving it to the school how they do it , we are not mandating that every desk have a computer on it but we are saying the aim of the program is to make sure every student has access to a computer."

Senator Mason also accused the Government of fudging costs because the costs of maintaining broadband connections were not included in the $100 m broadband plan. "During the election, Kevin Rudd said that the buck would stop with him. We now discover that the buck has been passed on to others, including hard-working parents trying to put their children through school," he said. "As anyone with internet knows there are monthly costs associated with maintaining a connection."


Mathematics education still a low priority

CASH-STRAPPED university administrations diverted most of the millions of dollars meant to reverse the maths and statistics skills crisis to other purposes, confidential research has found. At least 50 per cent and as much as 80 per cent of new money allocated by the former Coalition government to the national priority disciplines appears to have been retained for administration, a draft report to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute suggests.

The report on a national questionnaire of university maths departments found that despite the $2729 in extra funds for each student place in maths and statistics granted by former education minister Julie Bishop last May, there were almost 40 fewer maths teaching and research staff at the start of this year compared with 2007.

National Committee for Mathematical Sciences chairman and University of Melbourne professor Hyam Rubinstein told the HES that, based on the survey, he estimated about $25 million nationally had been allocated to universities to support the recruitment of new staff and teaching students in maths and statistics. "But we are only getting 20per cent or less, or about $4 million to $5 million actually flowing to departments nationally," he said. Professor Rubinstein said he understood that universities were in a tight financial situation. "Universities have to make money. This issue of national priorities has become secondary to what will pay the bills. That's the difficulty."

Australian Mathematical Society president and Melbourne University professor Peter Hall thought Rubinstein's estimate was generous. "I understand that some universities need the freedom to put these funds where they are haemorrhaging most seriously, but it's clear they don't see offering maths as playing a serious role in science." Professor Hall said that having a sufficient supply of maths-qualified researchers was increasingly influential in multinationals' decisions to locate significant research facilities.

Only five of the 10 universities contacted by the HES yesterday responded to queries about how much extra they earned from enrolling maths and statistics students and how much was passed on to departments. The Australian National University rejected the suggestion it had not passed on the increase, saying it had allocated 85 per cent to the relevant areas and the rest to student support. The University of NSW failed to provide figures but said it had advertised for three professorial chairs following retirements and resignations. The University of Western Australia said it had upwardly adjusted funding weightings for maths, and the University of Adelaide employed four extra maths staff.

The AMSI report said despite initial euphoria over the funding boost and high starting salaries for graduates sparked by the skills shortage, an air of pessimism had descended on many university maths departments. One respondent said that when a senior university administrator was confronted with the failure to pass on extra funding, he said the federal education department wouldn't be concerned and that the minister wouldn't get involved in such detail.

Australian Council of Deans of Science president John Rice said he was hopeful the Rudd Government's planned $111 million maths and science HECS relief plan would encourage far greater numbers of students. Australian Council of Engineering Deans president Elizabeth Taylor said universities were working with schools as hard as they could to encourage greater numbers of students. "Students see maths and science as harder options, which would come at the expense of a nicer life and their social life," she said.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Julia Gillard said universities had discretion over the funds. The proportion of Australian school-leavers taking advanced maths fell from 14 per cent in 1995 to 10.4 per cent in 2006, according to AMSI figures.


A bleak future for those with poor literacy and numeracy

No matter how much spin you put on the recent benchmark figures for Queensland's literacy and numeracy, the state is not doing well. Cold comfort though it may be, it is not alone. Victoria has one in five students falling short in maths and besides the Northern Territory, Tasmania remains the national bottom feeder. ...

What is unambiguous is that the long-term fallout of poor literacy and numeracy affects the economy. While federal Treasurer Wayne Swan can say: "Around the kitchen tables Australians understand absolutely that inflation has been rising", to do this, you need numeracy skills. In Britain, a country which has had a national curriculum for 20 years - plus entrenched and continuing low literacy and numeracy levels - the economic danger signs of what this means are evident. People who require the greatest welfare support are those with low numeracy and literacy skills.

While Australia has low housing affordability, the fact is that buying a house is the biggest financial decision we make. If we don't understand the numbers, such as interest rates and repayments, then this is potentially disastrous.

British MP Boris Johnson, a candidate for Mayor of London and former editor of The Spectator magazine, recently summed up the reality of low numeracy skills for people securing a mortgage: "It involves concepts of percentages and interest and there is abundant evidence that millions of Britons either do not care about the debt they are taking on, or do not really understand the meaning of these squiggly figures for their future prosperity. It's not that they are stupid. It's just that they haven't been educated to understand the maths."

Johnson could have as easily been talking about Australia. The key word here is education. It is something recognised by one of the country's biggest charities, The Smith Family. As from this year, the charity has stopped welfare and put its emphasis on education. The reason is that "passive assistance", as The Smith Family describes welfare services, does not support children's education.

The reality is that in Queensland, as is apparent elsewhere, the most economically vulnerable are those who have not succeeded in education. The importance of high levels of competence in literacy and numeracy cannot be stressed enough. To this end, Queensland's indifferent performance on the benchmarks is cause for concern. The long-term health of the economy is dependent on high educational standards underpinning it. Some children do not have them.


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