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Desperate bid to salvage schools Ultranet

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Jewel Topsfield

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THE Victorian Government will seek advice on whether the calamitous $180 million schools' intranet can be salvaged, after an audit found it failed to deliver the promised benefits and has been shunned by schools.

The damning audit also revealed serious ''probity lapses'' surrounding the tendering of the Ultranet, with the budget expected to blow out to three times what was first intended in 2006.

Education Minister Martin Dixon slammed the ''appalling Labor failure'' and said the budget overrun could have paid for 12 new primary schools.

He had had ''strong reservations'' about the Ultranet since coming to office and was particularly concerned about the ''woeful'' take-up.

Only 10 per cent of students and 27 per cent of teachers logged onto the Ultranet every month over a year, which equates to just 4.2 per cent of the 1.5 million expected users.

''This money has been wasted on something that hardly anyone ever uses,'' Mr Dixon said.

''But given the massive money that has been sunk into this, I have sought detailed advice on what, if anything, can be done to salvage any useful elements of it.''

Victorian Auditor-General Des Pearson recommended the Education Department review its internal tendering, probity and financial management practices in light of the serious issues identified by the audit. He said it was difficult to understand how the Ultranet went ahead when the Education Department was advised the project should cease or be delayed.

The Department of Treasury and Finance had warned that external scrutiny was warranted so the Education Department could clarify how it intended to deliver a project with a fixed budget of $60.5 million when the preferred tenderer's offer was $77.3 million.

It also warned the government needed to be made aware that some of the Ultranet's promised functions - such as teachers sending automatic text messages to parents when their children were absent or late - would no longer be delivered.

''This external scrutiny requested by the Department of Treasury and Finance was never executed,'' Mr Pearson said.

''This situation demonstrates a clear lack of accountability and integrity in the checks and balances in place to scrutinise project approvals and expenditure,'' he said.

The Education Department had started ''a number of actions and detailed investigations in response to this''.

The ultranet was presented as a revolutionary educational tool that would connect the entire school community - parents, students, teachers and administrators - starting in 2007.

Parents would be able to log in to their child's classroom, check lesson plans and homework and results, attendance and even communicate directly with teachers via email.

However, Mr Pearson said that six years after its announcement as a government priority, the Ultranet had not delivered any of the main objectives, was significantly late and over budget and had limited functions compared with what was promised.

Although it was intended to be used by all schools, the department now said use of the Ultranet was not mandatory.

''Use of the Ultranet is low, and declining,'' Mr Pearson said.

''Without near universal take-up by teachers - as forecast in all the business cases - most of the benefits will not be achievable and the significant amount of taxpayers' funds to date will therefore be wasted.''

jtopsfield@theage.com.au

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