Official figures show that the registration of private schools in the ACT is now being decided by a “club” of private school interests. Regulations requiring registration panels to be independent are being ignored by the Minister for Education.
Figures released by the ACT Directorate of Education and Training show that bias in the composition of registration panels for private schools has developed only in the last two years. They refute claims by the Minister’s office that the panel membership to report on the registration application of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood is consistent with “all other panels appointed since 2010”.
The 10-person registration panel for the Charnwood school has a majority of members from private schools. The Directorate’s figures (see table below) show that registration panels appointed by the Minister in 2012 had a large majority of members from private schools. These biased panels are a recent development. In contrast, 70 per cent of all panels in 2010 and 2011 did not have a majority from private schools. There is also other evidence that panels prior to this generally did not have a majority of private school members.
The figures were provided to the Canberra Times and they show a clear change in practice:
• 2010: 1 panel out of 5 had a majority membership of private school representatives.
• 2011: 2 panels out of 5 had a majority.
• 2012: the 2 panels appointed had a majority.
• 2013: the one panel appointed has a majority.
The figures also show that the Minister has stopped appointing panel members drawn from the wider educational community. Seven out of 10 registration panels appointed in 2010 and 2011 had one or two members from the wider educational community. None of the three panels appointed in 2012 and 2013 included community members.
There also appears to have been a secret change of practice regarding registration of Catholic systemic schools. A spokesman for the Minister for Education was reported in The Canberra Times as saying that “the Catholic school system assessed all its own registrations internally”. This is contrary to an agreement between the ACT Government and the Catholic Education Office that has operated for the last decade which permits the Office to appoint panels to report on the renewal of registration of Catholic systemic schools. The agreement does not include appointment of panels for the registration of new Catholic schools, additional Year levels of existing Catholic schools or new campuses of existing Catholic schools. As for other private schools, these panels are supposed to be appointed by the Minister.
Given the statement by the Minister’s spokesman last week, the Minister should clarify whether or not responsibility for the appointment of these panels has been secretly devolved to the Catholic Education Office. The issue to be clarified is whether all forms of registration of Catholic systemic schools are assessed internally by the Catholic Education Office as stated by the Minister’s office or whether it is just renewal of registration as stated in the agreement with the ACT Government.
The Directorate of Education and Training Manual for the Compliance and Registration of Non-government Schools states that registration panels are independent. However, it is clear that this is no longer the case in practice.
The Directorate’s figures show a recent change of practice to having a majority of panel members from private schools for the registration of new schools and additions to existing schools in the form of additional year levels and campuses. In the case of registration renewal for Catholic systemic schools, there is no requirement for them to be independent. The only requirements are that at least one member is external to the school community and at least one member is not employed in the Catholic school system.
Registration panels for both Catholic and Independent schools are now stacked in favour of private schools as epitomised in the panel just appointed to assess the registration of the new campus of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood. In effect, the self-regulation granted to the Catholic Education Office for the renewal of registration for Catholic schools has been extended by stealth to registration of all new schools and extensions to existing schools.
ACT private schools receive millions of dollars in funding annually from the Federal and ACT Governments. Most ACT private schools receive about 70 per cent of their income from the taxpayer. The taxpayer should be assured that all private schools meet the registration criteria specified in the Education Act. All private schools should have an adequate curriculum, facilities and policies to assure the safety and welfare of students and properly qualified staff. They should meet the same stringent requirements as government schools on these matters.
The taxpayer can only be assured that the registration criteria required under the Act are met by an independent assessment of applications for registration. All registration panels for private schools should be independent – they should have a majority of members from outside the private school sector. These could include members from tertiary education institutions, qualified community members, government school principals, retired principals and officers of the Directorate of Education and Training.
Appointing qualified community members with no stake in private schools would add a layer of objectivity and independence to the assessment of whether the school meets the registration criteria of the Education Act. The Minister should renew the practice of appointing community members to private school registration panels. She should immediately appoint community members to the registration panel for Brindabella Christian College to reduce the bias in the composition of the panel.
The Education Act should be amended to provide that registration panels appointed by the Minister are comprised of a majority of members from outside the private school sector. Further, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Education and Training Directorate and the Catholic Education Office on the re-registration of Catholic systemic schools should be revised to ensure that panels are independent.