Approval of New Belconnen Private School Conflicts With Previous Assessment

The ACT Government has replaced a government school in north-west Belconnen with a private school with its decision to approve a new campus of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood. Six years ago, Flynn PS was closed; now a new private school has been approved in the next suburb.

It seems that the ACT Government cannot make up its mind whether there is too much excess school capacity in the north-west Belconnen region or there is not enough capacity. The new private school has been approved even though a similar application by another private school was rejected only five years ago because of excess capacity in the area.

Last December, Ms. Burch secretly approved a new campus of Brindabella Christian School to open in Charnwood. She claims that the new school is needed to meet growing demand in the region. Yet, only four years before the then Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, rejected an application for a new private school in the same region because there was excess capacity in the region and the likely impact on the viability of existing schools.

The two decisions make conflicting assessments of capacity and demand in the region.

In August 2008, Mr. Barr rejected the application for a new campus of the Emmaus School in west Belconnen because it “could undermine the viability of existing schools in the Belconnen region”. He said that the proposed school “is likely to have an impact on existing schools in Belconnen, including Catholic schools…”.

In his decision, Mr. Barr said that Education Department analysis showed that government and private schools in the Belconnen region were not fully utilised and its projections indicated that schools in the region are unlikely to reach capacity in the future. He concluded that there is capacity within existing schools in the region to cater for the projected enrolments of the proposed campus and that “the demand for schooling places in Belconnen can be met by existing schools”.

In contrast, Ms. Burch found that projected enrolments and population trends warrant the opening of a new school. She did not provide any evidence of this in her decision statement. She has since justified the decision on the grounds that enrolments in north Belconnen schools have increased.

Ms. Burch does not appear to have considered existing excess capacity in the region as a factor in assessing the application as Mr. Barr did in the Emmaus case. It is true that enrolments in the region have increased since 2008 but there is still considerable excess capacity that could cater for the projected enrolments of the new campus.

The Brindabella Christian College campus at Charnwood is initially planned as a K-4 school and will later apply for approval to expand progressively to a K-12 school. Its planned enrolment is 194 by 2018 and will eventually cater for 650 K-12 students according to its application to the Minister.

At the time Ms. Burch approved the new campus there were around 900 excess places in government primary schools in north-west Belconnen (it is not known what excess capacity exists in the three private schools already in the region). Thus, there is plenty of space to cater for the estimated 194 students at the new campus. Even assuming that none of these students will be drawn from existing schools, which is highly unlikely, there will still be some 700 places to serve any further growth in enrolments in the region.

There is also sufficient capacity in the region to take meet the future expansion of the Charnwood campus to a full K-12 school (which will need separate approval). There were nearly 2000 excess places across K-12 schools in north-west Belconnen in 2012 which could easily cater for the 650 enrolments projected for the new campus.

The implication of this new decision is that school capacity in a region is no longer a factor in deciding to approve new private schools. It now seems that a private school will be opened anywhere enrolments are increasing and without regard to existing capacity. This is a clear breach of the Education Act which requires the Minister to have regard to the impact of a new school on the viability of existing schools. Existing school capacity is a key factor in making such an assessment.

Ms. Burch’s rationale for approving the new Charnwood campus also clearly contradicts the ACT Government’s decision to close Flynn PS only six years ago. Flynn PS, which is only a kilometre or so away from the new Charnwood campus, was closed because the Government deemed that there was too much excess capacity in the region and projected population growth was too low.

If there is now such new growth in projected enrolments in the region to warrant a new school as Ms. Burch asserts, the simple solution would be to re-open Flynn school. Instead, the Government has closed a government school in the region only to open a new private school. What it all boils down to is that the Minister preferred to open a new private school instead of re-opening a government school. Yet, this is a Minister who claims to support public education!!

The Minister’s decision has now put a question mark over the future viability of other government schools in the region. The ACT Government uses excess capacity as a criterion for closing government schools. The new campus is likely to draw some enrolments from existing schools and put them in the Government’s sights. The Minister should at least give a commitment that the Government will not close any more government schools in Belconnen.

Trevor Cobbold

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