High School at the Coal-Face: The Cost of Getting "What We're Owed"

Snapshot: In this case from Australia, a high school principal in a regional town is seeking community input on a sponsorship arrangement with the local coal mining company—how should he lead his school through the sponsorship evaluation process while respecting community stakeholders’ fears and responding to students' climate future concerns? This case invites readers to wrestle with the ethical implications of aligning a public school with an industry implicated in the climate crisis and the desecration of Country whilst at the same time seeking both recompense and much-needed provisions for the educational needs of students.


Case Description: The erosion of Government funding for public schooling in Australia means that many schools are so affected by the high needs of their local communities that they seek philanthropic and corporate sponsorship to assist them to deliver on programs they could otherwise ill afford. In fact, Australian educational policy over the previous 30 years has created significant financial shortfalls for public schools, resulting in the need to seek private funding to provide a basic standard of education. To improve learning and future employment opportunities, particularly for poverty affected regional and rural groups of secondary students, some schools have developed partnerships with local businesses, including the fossil fuel industry. In 2013, for example, a Narara Valley High School partnered with Nucoal to develop a Mining Academy program to prepare students for work in the mining industry. The partnership was met with criticisms by the New South Wales Teachers Federation over concerns about corporate influence on the curriculum. Fossil fuels companies have developed a range of learning materials to encourage understanding of the skills required for the industry. Recent examples in Australia include excursions such as School Mine Tours in the New South Wales Upper Hunter and a controversial primary school incursion provided by Woodside Petroleum where Year 3 students were asked to make an oil reservoir using bread slices, vegemite and sprinkles.

These interactions with schools help fossil fuel companies publicly execute positive corporate social responsibility, which is valuable ethical capital. Concerns about these partnerships between mines and schools aren’t solely curricular. The antagonism of mining companies to the Traditional Custodians of the Land is well documented. In May 2020, Rio Tinto destroyed the Juukan Gorge caves, a 40,000 year old sacred site to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples in Western Australia, during an iron ore exploration project. Given the number of concerns raised about these partnerships, an important caveat for sponsorship with public schools in New South Wales is that the arrangement should not bring the Department of Education into disrepute.
In this fictional case, Nick Donovan is the Principal of a public high school in an Australian regional mining town. As a condition of the sponsorship agreement between his high school and South Mining, a multinational fossil fuel company in the region, Nick is preparing a report outlining how the agreement has served the school in the past year with the interest of continuing the agreement into the next year. The partnership has been invaluable, supplementing the limited funding the school has secured through the Department of Education for educational initiatives, including laptops for at-home learning during the pandemic, and funding for academic scholarships. But the school community is divided on whether these financial benefits are worth the costs of the partnership, given the immense cost of mining on the land and the students’ lives. Do the benefits that students receive from these mining sponsorships outweigh the environmental and cultural destruction perpetrated by the mines? Is the school limiting their students’ vision of their future careers by showcasing the mining industry, or do these industry connections better prepare students for future opportunities? Can the school provide students with empowering opportunities for environmental and sustainability education from within a fossil fuels community?

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