Disadvantaged by the Revolution

The Building the Education Revolution program has not quite been the revolution expected by some government schools.

Many have been disadvantaged by a “revolution” which has delivered millions to wealthy private schools and wasted money through mis-management and over-charging on the primary school building program.

Some of the most disadvantaged high schools in Australia have been denied funding to build science laboratories and language centres as a result of the Federal Government’s recent decision to re-direct $200 million into the primary school building program. About 140 schools, mostly small and in rural areas, have missed out on the funding. Many of them serve Aboriginal communities.

The $200 million was re-directed to cater for the unexpectedly high demand from primary schools for libraries and halls. Funding allocation for the primary school building program is based on student numbers while the science and language building program is based on need.

It is scandalous that some of Australia’s most disadvantaged schools have missed out on funding for science and language centres.

The Federal Government stands condemned on two counts.

First, because the primary school building program is not based on demonstrated need many elite private schools operating with what can only be called sumptuous facilities have received extensive funding.

For example, PLC Pymble and Sydney Grammar school both received $3 million for multi-purpose halls and libraries. Abbotsleigh received $3 million to build an infants block. Other wealthy private schools have received millions of dollars in total to upgrade their already luxurious sporting facilities.

In the ACT, Canberra Girls Grammar received $3 million to build a multi-purpose hall and Canberra Boys Grammar received $3 million for a library.

Gillard’s defence of the decision to transfer funding from the science and language centres program was pitiful. She said that the program had over-delivered on the Government’s promise to 500 centres by providing 537 centres.

It is surely of more concern that she has over-delivered funding to some of Australia’s most wealthy schools.

The incongruity of providing millions of dollars to wealthy private schools to upgrade their luxurious facilities while denying funding to disadvantaged schools is outrageous. It makes nonsense of the rhetoric of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard about closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students and between disadvantaged and wealthy students.

The Government also stands condemned because in its rush to put the spending program on the ground the primary school building program has incurred substantial waste as a result of over-charging and cost overruns. This waste is being covered by diverting funding from disadvantaged schools.

There is widespread evidence that the primary school building program is rife with waste and mismanagement leading to significant cost inflation.

Many building decisions have been forced on government schools by state education authorities using appointed contractors. Government school principals have complained their authority to seek independent quotes from local tradesmen with whom they normally do business has been suspended under the program, leading to inflated costs.

In contrast, private schools have direct control over how to spend the funds. Catholic and independent school principals have had the flexibility to use the funds where they see the greatest need, and to employ their usual contractors. Many of them have used the funding for urgent refurbishments rather than major building projects.

Public School Principals Forum chairwoman Cheryl McBride said last July that “by pressuring principals not to undertake their own projects in government schools and pressuring us towards using the contractors the NSW government has employed, we’re not going to get the same value for dollars that our colleagues in the independent and Catholic system might be getting”.

Following the complaints about over-charging and waste, the Federal Government has been forced to commission a performance audit of the Primary Schools for the 21st Century Building program by the National Audit Office. The Senate is also conducting an inquiry into the program.

As it is, some of Australia’s most disadvantaged schools and communities have missed out because of Government incompetence in designing and administering the Building the Revolution program. A better planned and better administered program could have saved millions of dollars which would have precluded any need to transfer funding from the science and language centres program.

Trevor Cobbold

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