Save Our Schools has called for sweeping changes to the legislation and administrative regulations governing the approval and registration of new ACT private schools. It has made 23 recommendations for change in a submission to the ACT Government review of the process. The full submission can be downloaded below.
The submission says that there are five major problems with the in-principal approval and registration process for ACT private schools which should be addressed by the review. These are:
- Inadequate formal guidelines for the Minister for Education to assess applications for in-principle approval and registration against the criteria set out in the Education Act;
- The lack of an appeal process for interested parties other than the applicant;
- There are several inadequacies in the process for the public notification and inspection of applications for new schools and the publication of in-principle approval decisions and assessment panel reports on registration applications;
- Inadequate policies and standards to meet the registration criteria set out in the Education Act;
- The appointment and composition of the registration assessment panels.
Assessing applications for in-principle approval
In assessing applications for in-principle approval for a new private school, the Education Act requires the Minister to have regard to whether the proposed school would undermine the viability of existing schools, and whether there is sufficient demand for the school.
The SOS submission proposes changes to include specific guidelines for the assessment of these criteria. It says guidelines are needed to ensure that all children from whatever background and location continue to have ready access to a government school. The changes are also needed to ensure orderly planning for the provision of schooling in the ACT and avoid unnecessary duplication and under-utilisation of existing schools.
It proposes that the Minister should have regard to the special role of the government school system to provide free and reasonable access to a secular education in all regions of the ACT and ensure that this role is not impaired by the establishment of new private schools. New private schools should not threaten the continuation of reasonable local access to a government school for families. New private schools should not be opened in suburbs or regions where there is already substantial excess capacity in existing government schools. More choice for some should not mean loss of choice for others.
The submission recommends that the Education Act be amended to include the following factors to assess impact on existing schools, government and private:
- Whether total enrolments in existing schools will be significantly reduced and unused capacity increased;
- Whether the extent and nature of educational programs and services for students in existing schools will be significantly restricted;
- Whether the social composition of enrolments in existing schools will be significantly narrowed;
- Whether the cost per student of operating an existing school will be significantly increased by reduced enrolments; and
- Whether reduced enrolments will significantly reduce the income and financial support available to an existing school.
If any proposal is found to have a significant effect on any one of these factors it should be assessed as not being consistent with planned educational provision.
To support implementation of these criteria, the Directorate of Education Manual for Compliance and Registration of Non-government Schools should specify the data to be collected to assess impact. This data should include, but not be restricted to the following:
- Projected enrolments for each school in the region of the proposed school over the next decade and compared with recent trends;
- Excess capacity in existing schools;
- The range of programs and services operating in existing schools and threshold enrolment numbers needed to sustain them;
- The social composition of existing schools and the likely social composition of the new school;
- Average cost per student in existing schools.
The Directorate of Education Manual on the registration of private schools should also specify the data to be collected to assess community demand. This information should include:
- Population trends in the ACT and the region in which the proposed school is to be located;
- Enrolment projections over the next decade for the proposed school;
- The number of the prospective enrolments by district and percentage of each district’s enrolments;
- Details of the level of community interest for the proposed school and the method used to obtain this evidence;
- Signed forms by parents indicating intention to enrol students.
SOS also recommends that the Education Act be amended to require that a report on the assessment of impact of proposed new schools on existing schools and likely community demand for new schools should be prepared and published on the Directorate website. This would improve transparency of the process. In addition, the Directorate of Education Manual on the in-principle approval and registration of private schools should include some practical measures to improve public notification of and access to applications.
The body applying for in-principle approval or registration of a new school has appeal rights if the Minister rejects an application. However, there is no right of appeal against a decision to grant an application, even if the decision is prima facie seriously in error. SOS has proposed that the Act be amended to provide the opportunity for other interested parties, such as schools or organisations affected by an in-principle or registration approval, to appeal approval of an application.
Assessing applications for registration
The Education Act includes several criteria for the registration of private schools. These cover governance, curriculum, student safety and welfare, qualifications of teaching staff, monitoring of education outcomes and financial viability.
Private schools face a much lighter regulatory framework than government schools. Government schools are required to meet a range of policies and standards that are not specified for private schools. For example, government schools have to comply with many detailed policies on student safety and welfare that are not specified in the Directorate of Education Manual for the registration of private schools. These include policies on excursions, outdoor adventure activities, playground supervision, illness, infectious diseases, accidents, critical incidence planning, administering medication, HIV/AIDS mandatory procedures, racism, sexual harassment, sun protection and many others. Many of these policies include standards and procedures for implementation.
Government schools are also required to comply with many other policies and guidelines that are not required of private schools by the Directorate’s manual. These include policies on behaviour management, care and use of animals, equal opportunity employment, gifted and talented students, and school canteens.
There is little reason why similar requirements should not be made for private schools, particularly in relation to student welfare and safety. A large proportion of private schools in the ACT have around 70 per cent of their total income provided by the taxpayer. They should be required to have similar policies and meet similar standards as government schools.
Student safety and welfare
A glaring omission in the registration requirements for new private school concerns student safety and welfare. The registration criteria of the Education Act require appropriate policies for the safety and welfare of students, yet no such policies are specified in the Directorate of Education Manual. The Manual includes only a requirement that a school have student welfare policies, programs and support structures. In contrast, all other registration criteria are specifically addressed by some guidelines and evidence requirements in the Manual. This is a significant omission that should be corrected.
SOS has recommended that applications for the registration of new private schools should be required to supply evidence that they have specific policies and programs in place that provide for student safety and welfare in all its aspects, just as government schools are required to. The Manual should include a list of specific policies and programs to ensure that the registration criterion is effectively met. These should cover matters such as student welfare and support, behaviour management and discipline, bullying and harassment, racism, drug and alcohol use, accidents, excursions, outdoor adventure activities, playground supervision and a range of health related matters.
Schools should also be required to have programs in place to meet the personal and social needs of students. They should be required to demonstrate how pastoral care, including counselling, is to be organised and the qualifications of personnel to be responsible for them.
Another gap in the regulatory framework for private schools concerns the minimum governance requirements. The Directorate’s Manual fails to require that private schools are governed and staffed by people of good character who do not pose a physical, psychological or sexual threat to children. Private schools should be required to meet the same stringent standards of behaviour that are expected in the governance of government schools.
SOS has recommend that the Manual should require that members of the government body of private schools should be fit and proper persons to manage a school and any related facilities such as boarding facilities. The members of governing bodies should have demonstrated good character and repute as appropriate to the management of an institution educating children. They should have documented police clearance to confirm that they have no conviction that would render them unfit for involvement in the governance of a school or related facility such as boarding facilities.
SOS has submitted that guidelines for registration assessment panels should be revised to assure the independence of the panels. The existing guidelines are not adequately specified and allow potential bias and conflicts of interest in the composition of panels.
It recommended that the Education Act be amended to provide that registration panels appointed by the Minister are comprised of a majority of members from outside the private school sector. It further recommended that the procedures should be tightened to specify that no more than one member of each panel can be an employee or parent in the school sector from which the application is received. No member should be appointed to the panel if they have an interest in the school being reviewed for registration.
SOS has also called for the Memorandum of Understanding between the Education and Training Directorate and the Catholic Education Office (CEO) on the re-registration of Catholic systemic schools to be revised to ensure the independence of the panels. These panels should be comprised of a majority of members who have no association with the private school sector in any capacity.
While panel reports must be available for inspection by the public there is no requirement for the Directorate of Education to inform the public of the existence of a panel report. This limits the opportunity for public scrutiny of decisions by the Minister. SOS has recommended that the Education Act be amended to provide that panel reports on applications for the registration of private schools be published on the Directorate website.