Proposal to Re-locate the Islamic School Involves Major Policy Contradictions

It seems that the Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, and the Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, have got their messages mixed – yet again. The ACT Government’s approach to school planning is shown once again to be riven by policy contradictions.

Last week, the Chief Minister announced that the vacant government-owned CIT Horticulture School site in Weston might be used to re-locate the Islamic School of Canberra from its current location on the old Watson High School site. The school has also applied to open a high school.  The Chief Minister virtually endorsed the proposal, subject to a community consultation.

In the Chronicle last week, the Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, stated emphatically that it is not government policy to hand over former school sites to private schools. He said that former school sites are publicly owned facilities that will remain in community use.

There are several policy contradictions here that require clarification.

First, it is difficult to understand the rationale for the distinction being made between not handing over former government school sites to private schools and handing over other government education facilities. If it is government policy not to hand over former school sites to private schools, why is this policy not equally applicable to other education facilities such as the CIT site? Surely, the same principle is at stake?

The Government should explain the rationale behind this difference in approach. The CIT site is a publicly owned facility that could be used for community or other government purposes, as are former school sites.

Second, the Government has rejected a formal proposal to use the CIT site as a public education facility but it is prepared to consider the site for a private school. Only last year, the ACT Government rejected a proposal by the Australian Education Union to establish an alternative vocational pathways school on the CIT site. The union said that the site was ideally suited to establishing a vocational training facility for both students at risk of dropping out of school and those who have disengaged from schooling. However, the Government refused to support it.

The Government should explain why the Weston site would be better used for a private school than as facility to provide an important public education and social purpose.

Third, the Islamic School appears to be gaining special consideration from the ACT Government not afforded other private schools regarding the use of government facilities.

It is established practice for the ACT Government to make direct land grants to new private schools, but it has not been a general practice to hand over existing government-owned buildings to private schools. Private schools are expected to make their own arrangements for school buildings and facilities, albeit with the aid of Federal government capital grants.

However, the Islamic School has been using the facilities of the former Watson HS since 2005. The ACT Government should explain why it has given special consideration to this private school.

It appears this arrangement will continue at the Weston CIT site. The Canberra Times [20 August] reported the Chief Minister as indicating that some of the existing buildings could be retrofitted and save the school from having to construct a new school. Such an arrangement would constitute a major government subsidy to the school not available to other private schools. The CIT Weston site is a multi-million dollar facility.

In passing, it should also be noted that the Minister for Education seems blithely unaware of the contradiction in his own policy. His government had already breached the commitment not to use government school sites for private schools by allowing the Islamic School to operate on the Watson HS site.

A fourth contradiction is that the ACT Government closed 11 primary schools under its school closure plan, 7 of which had enrolments of over 130 students. Now, it is prepared to hand over a multi-million dollar facility to a private primary school with only 100 enrolments. This contradiction is incomprehensible. The Chief Minister should explain why his Government is prepared to consider giving very generous support to a small private school while closing larger government schools. 

Another major contradiction in government policy is that it closed two government primary schools in Weston Creek at the end of 2006 because, it said, of declining enrolments. Yet, it is now considering re-locating a private primary school to the area as well as opening a new private high school. This will put additional enrolment pressures on existing government and private schools in the area.

The Government should explain why it is prepared to close government schools in a region it says is experiencing declining numbers of school-aged children while looking favourably at re-locating a private school to the region. It has all the makings of another failure in school planning by the ACT Government.

The issues at stake here are the privatisation of government-owned education facilities that otherwise could be used for public education and social purposes and the impact of a new private school. This is not an issue about a religious-based school. The right of community or religious groups to establish schools is not being questioned.

The priority use of the CIT site should be for public education enhancement. The AEU proposal for an alternative vocational pathways school for at risk students surely fits that purpose better than any private school, regardless of its religious basis. The consultation on the site announced by the Chief Minister should be widened to consider alternative options for the future of the site.

Trevor Cobbold

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