Minister Ignored Dept Advice on New Private Schools

Information obtained through a FOI request by Save Our Schools shows that the ACT Minister for Education ignored advice by her department in granting in-principle approval for two new private schools. It is spectacular evidence of the Minister’s failure to follow the requirements of the ACT Education Act.

The FOI documents are a ‘smoking gun’. They provide irrefutable proof that the Minister for Education ignored her responsibilities under the Education Act in approving the new Islamic School and the new campus of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood.

The documents clearly reveal that the Minister was advised by her department that there was insufficient evidence of demand for a new Islamic school and that the school is unlikely to achieve its enrolment target. They also show that the new campus of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood is likely to impact on the viability of existing schools in Belconnen and even elsewhere.

Despite this advice, the Minister went ahead and approved the new school and the new campus. In the case of the Islamic school, she claimed that there is sufficient evidence of community demand but conspicuously failed to provide the evidence. In the case of the Charnwood school, she claimed it would not have any impact on existing schools despite the advice of her Department to the contrary.

It is a requirement of the Education Act that in deciding whether to give in-principle approval for a new school or a new campus of a school the Minister must have regard to whether there is likely to be demand in the community for a new school and whether it will impact on the viability of existing schools.

Several documents show that the Directorate assessed that there was insufficient evidence of community demand for the Islamic school. For example, a brief to the Minister by the Deputy Director-General of the Directorate of Education and Training, Leanne Cover, stated that the application by Canberra Muslim Youth Inc “has not provided sufficient evidence of demographic demand for a second Islamic school in the ACT” (22 November 2012).

A letter from Tracey Stewart, Director of the Planning and Performance Branch of the Directorate, to Lynda Tooth, Manager of the Liaison Unit of the Directorate, included as part of the brief stated:

As enrolment projections provided in the application are based on expressions of interest from parents in enrolling children at the proposed school, the applicant has not provided sufficient evidence of a demographic need for a second Islamic school in the ACT…..As the ISC (Islamic School of Canberra in Weston) has experienced very slow growth, from 62 students in 2007 to 150 students in 2012, it is unlikely that the proposed school would experience enrolments of 800 by 2022 as stated in the application.

The assessment of the application by the Planning and Performance Branch of the Directorate stated:

…the claims relating to demand for a second Islamic school are unsubstantiated by the applicant. There are currently 1019 students in public schools across the ACT identifying as Muslim or Islamic who choose not to attend the ISC…it is likely that there are also a large number of Muslim or Islamic students attending non-government schools.

Despite these assessments, the Minister claimed in her letter granting in-principle approval for the school that there was “sufficient evidence of community demand for the campus” (17 December 2012).

The FOI documents also show that the Directorate of Education and Training advised that the new campus of Brindabella Christian College in Charnwood would impact on the viability of existing schools in Belconnen. A letter from the Director of the Performance and Planning Branch, Tracey Stewart, to Lynda Tooth, Manager Liaison Unit, stated:

…as there is currently capacity at most public schools in Belconnen, particularly in the high school and college sectors, the proposed BCC Charnwood campus is likely to impact on the viability of existing public schools in Belconnen.

The assessment of the application by the School Planning Section of the Directorate and given to the Minister stated:

As many public schools in Belconnen are under capacity, particularly in the high school and college sectors, the development of an additional high school and college may impact the viability of existing public schools. The proposed campus is less likely to impact public primary schools as there is more enrolment pressure at a number of Belconnen primary schools.

The Directorate further advised that the proposed Charnwood campus could affect schools across a broader area than Belconnen. The letter to Lynda Tooth from Tracy Stewart stated:

In addition, the proposed campus may impact the viability of the BCC Lyneham campus as 73% of existing enrolments are currently drawn from Belconnen and Gungahlin. If existing students of BCC living in Belconnen and Gungahlin are encouraged to enroll at the Charnwood campus, enrolments at Lyneham will need to target a broader geographical area of the ACT and surrounding districts.

Despite these assessments, the Minister claimed in her letter granting in-principle approval for the new campus that it “…will not negatively impact upon the viability of any existing public or non-government school” (17 December 2012).

If anything, the Directorate’s analysis under-estimated the impact of the Charnwood campus on existing schools. Its figures on population growth in Belconnen are incorrect and it failed to take full account of the high excess capacity in existing primary schools in north Belconnen.

The projected population growth in Belconnen is less than half that reported in the brief prepared by the Planning and Performance Branch. It claimed that population growth in Belconnen is projected at 7.3% for 2007-2019, but figures published on the Chief Minister’s website show projected growth of only 3.2% for 2009-2021. The figures also show very low growth amongst the school age population in the region. For example, the 5-9 age group is projected to increase by only 50 between 2013 and 2021.

The brief to the Minister failed to analyse this low growth against existing capacity in the region. Internal enrolment data held by the Directorate and obtained through the FOI request by SOS show that there are currently over 900 excess spaces in government primary schools in north Belconnen alone. Average capacity utilisation in the area is only 74 per cent. There are also about 800 excess spaces in the two high schools in the area with an average capacity utilisation of only 49 per cent.

Clearly, a new school of nearly 600 students by 2021 is going to have a significant adverse impact on enrolments in existing schools in an area experiencing very low growth in the school age population.

The Minister has trashed the process to examine applications for in-principle approval originally introduced by her own Chief Minister when education minister. The Minister ignored the lack of evidence of community demand for the Islamic school and said that there was evidence of demand. She ignored the evidence that the Charnwood school would negatively impact on the viability of existing schools in Belconnen and elsewhere and said that it would not impact negatively on other schools.

Clearly, the Education Act needs to be strengthened to ensure that a Minister can never again ignore it with impunity as in this case. It needs to be strengthened to ensure that assessment of potential impact and evidence of community demand for new schools is carried out thoroughly. The review being carried out by the Directorate of Education and Training must come up with major changes to the Act. It should not be a sham review.

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