Registration of New Islamic School Should be Postponed

Save Our Schools has called on the ACT Education Minister, Joy Burch, to postpone consideration of the application of At-Taqwa Islamic school for provisional registration until the school obtains a permanent site other than its temporary location in Spence.

The revelation that the new Islamic school will be located temporarily in Spence shows that the Minister’s secret approval of the school last December, along with two other private schools, was premature. Approval for the school was given before its location was known so that the implications for existing schools in the area have not been properly assessed. There is a very real danger that the school’s location in Spence may become permanent and impact on the viability of existing schools in the area.

The lack of a permanent location for the school shows that the Minister managed the in-principle approval process ineptly. It once again demonstrates the need to strengthen the legislative and administrative process for the approval of new private schools as recommended by the ACT ALP Conference last weekend.

The ACT Directorate of Education and Training has announced that the new At-Taqwa Islamic school will be located in Spence. The site is the old Spence primary school closed in 1997 and now occupied by the Mt. Rogers Community Centre.

The Minister for Education gave in-principle approval for the new school even though it did not have a proposed location when it made its application. The application said the school would be somewhere in Belconnen or Gungahlin.

It is understood that the Government has agreed to the At-Taqwa Islamic School being located in Spence for one year while it continues to search for a long-term site. In the meantime, the school will be housed in demountables on the Spence site.

Clearly, the Minister approved the new school prematurely. If the school cannot acquire another site, the Government may have little choice but to house it at Spence permanently.

It is entirely possible that will be the case. The school has been unable to find a site after searching for over 18 months. Indeed, once the school is granted provisional registration it will have some incentive not to find another site as there is a Muslim multi-purpose venue in the Mt. Rogers Community Centre which is used for devotional, educational and leisure activities. The Government may find itself boxed into a corner and have to eject the current tenants at the centre so as to accommodate the school permanently.

If the school is located in Spence for some time or permanently it could have consequences for existing schools which were not considered as part of the original assessment of the in-principle approval application.

The Education Act requires that applications for in-principle approval of new private schools must be assessed for their possible impact on the viability of existing schools. However, it was not possible to fully assess impact at the time because the school did not specify a location in its application. Yet, the Minister went ahead and approved the school without a thorough impact assessment.

The proposed enrolment of the At-Taqwa Islamic School is 800 students by 2022. A new school of this size could have a significant effect on the viability of existing schools, especially in North Belconnen. It is an area of low student growth and substantial excess school capacity.

Internal enrolment data of the Directorate of Education and Training obtained under a FOI request by SOS show that there are currently over 900 excess spaces in government primary schools in North Belconnen. 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.

Even slow growth in the new school could add to the excess capacity in the area and threaten the viability of several existing schools. For example, capacity utilisation at nearby Giralang PS, which only just escaped closure in 2006, is only 40 per cent. Capacity utilisation at Mt. Rogers PS in the same suburb as the new school is 61 per cent. Capacity utilisation at Kaleen HS is only 28 per cent. Pre-schools in the area also have considerable excess space.

While the new school would draw enrolments largely or almost entirely from the Muslim population, it could have a major impact on some existing schools. According to the Directorate of Education and Training there are well over 1000 students in other government and private schools (other than the Islamic School in Weston) identifying as Muslim or Islamic. The original application by the school for in-principle approval states that over 40 per cent of its expected enrolments in 2014 will come from the Belconnen area and that it expects that about 180 of its students in 2017 will be from Belconnen.

Growth in the student population in Belconnen is projected at only 0.3 per cent a year to 2021. The population of the 5-9 age-group in the region is projected to increase by only 50 over this period. Therefore, a new school of 180 or more enrolments by 2017 in Spence is likely to have a very significant impact on the numbers in some other schools in the area.

In view of the potential implications for existing schools if Spence became the permanent site for the At-Taqwa Islamic school, Save Our Schools calls on the Minister to postpone assessment of the application for provisional registration until such time as the school can obtain a permanent site elsewhere.

Another issue of concern is that if the school remains on the Spence site it will be another case of a closed government school in North Belconnen handed over to a private school, just as the site of the old Charnwood HS is to be given to Brindabella Christian College. This is contrary to formal ALP policy.

In conclusion, Save Our Schools emphasises that it is not opposed in principle to the establishment of another Islamic school in Canberra. It has just as much right to apply for registration and government funding as any other private school. Our main concerns relate to the future location of the school and its impact on existing schools and the Minister’s failure to follow statutory requirements in granting in-principle approval. The SOS submission to the Minister on the school’s application for in-principle approval opposed its location in Belconnen but did not oppose it being located in Gunghalin.

Trevor Cobbold

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