New school census figures for the ACT earlier this year provoked national publicity because they showed that Territory had become the first state or territory with most students in private schools at any level. The figures showed that there are more ACT students in private high schools (years 7 to 10 in the ACT) than in public schools.
An analysis of enrolment trends by the researcher Barbara Preston shows that there are several reasons for the higher share of enrolments by the private sector in the ACT compared to Australia.
Preston’s analysis shows that the higher share of the private sector is not due to any greater desirability of private schools. If it was, the public share would be least in the senior secondary years (11 & 12), and the independent sector share would be relatively large. In fact, the ACT public sector has a relatively large share at the senior secondary level, and it is the Catholic sector, rather than the independent sector, that has a large share relative to Australia as a whole, especially at the primary and high school levels. This has been the case since before the mid 1970s when the high levels of public funding of private schools began and the Australia-wide public sector’s then increasing share of enrolments was turned around.
Preston shows that many factors contribute to the ACT public sector’s relatively small share of enrolments. These include (in approximate order of significance):
• The initial establishment in the ACT of a relatively large proportion of private schools, and the maintenance of this proportion though urban planning;
• The ACT’s very high level of urbanisation;
• the ACT population’s higher income compared with Australia as a whole;
• The ACT’s higher percentage of Catholics compared with Australia as a whole (especially in the early years of establishment of the territory’s schools);
• The ACT’s high rate of enrolment growth during a period of overall increase in private sector enrolment share; and
• The ACT’s pattern of planned urban development that results in substantial fluctuations in school enrolments as the child populations of suburbs age with the suburbs, combined with the lack of any requirement for the private sector to share the impact of enrolment fluctuations.
Given these factors and the dynamics at play elsewhere in Australia, it is surprising that the public sector’s share is not smaller than it is. Preston speculates that there are two major sets of countervailing factors supporting the public sector share, especially at the senior secondary level:
• The ACT’s occupational structure (especially the high proportion of public servants) and relative lack of geographic concentration by socio-economic status; and
• The structure and quality of public schooling in the ACT – especially the college system.
These factors are probably reflected in that fact that students from high income families are more likely to attend public schools in the ACT than Australia-wide, as well as providing some constraint on the public sector losing further enrolment share.
However, the vulnerability of the ACT public sector is clear. The public sector in the ACT experienced a very sharp decline in enrolment share over the decade from 2000 to 2010 – 7 percentage points (compared with just 3 percentage points for Australia as a whole), and the decline was greatest at the senior secondary level (10 percentage points). In addition, students from low income families are more concentrated in public schools in students from low income families are more concentrated in public schools in the ACT than Australia-wide.
Preston says this residualisation of public schooling is a ‘wicked’ policy problem, for which there are no easy solutions. Financial support and commitment to the continual improvement of public schooling is essential, and so, too, is explicit public support from governments and across the community. The private sector, in receipt of substantial public funds and with planning support since Canberra’s early days, should accept responsibilities that it now shirks – accepting its share of the education of low income and difficult to teach students and its share of the impact of enrolment fluctuations.