Correna Haythorpe, Federal President of the Australian Education Union (AEU), talks about the current increases in enrolment figures at public schools.
Public schools have traditionally been where the vast majority of Australian children have received their education. This trend is only set to strengthen in the future due to an unprecedented boom in public school student enrolments. These schools are now at the centre of a nationwide building boom.
Booming enrolment figures mean that state governments across the country are now scrambling to cater for the wave of students who have already hit classrooms and those predicted to enrol in the future. The Victorian Government has committed to building 100 new public schools across the state over the next eight years. NSW is looking to build or expand 170 public schools over four years.
All this construction has been made necessary because nearly 200,000 extra students have enrolled in Australian schools in the past five years. 76 per cent of that growth has been in public schools, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Figures show that the number of students in public schools increased by 113,039 between 2015 and 2018, compared to an increase in Catholic school enrolments of 196 and an increase of 29,626 in independent schools.
It won’t stop there either. The Federal Department of Education predicts enrolments in public schools will increase by 270,507 between 2018 and 2027 compared to 11,564 additional students in Catholic schools and 69,526 more in independent schools.
The data is very clear – public schools are pulling away from private schools in terms of student numbers and popularity with parents.
Unfortunately, this recent trend in school enrolment is not reflected in federal school capital funding. While the Australian Government provides private schools with $1.9 billion in capital funding over ten years, it has cut capital funding for public schools completely. While the public school sector is experiencing the greatest growth in student enrolments of any sector, it receives no extra Commonwealth funding to build new schools.
The public sector is the sector which clearly has the greatest need for classrooms, libraries, science labs or sporting facilities. For the Australian Government to provide no equivalent capital funding support makes absolutely no sense.
Public schools provide a high quality education for their students, yet they must be given the resources to give students the best start at a bright future. Just imagine what could be possible if our public schools were equipped with state-of-the-art-teaching and learning facilities?
The Commonwealth has provided billions of dollars of capital funding to private schools, in spite of My School data for 2017 showing that total capital expenditure in independent schools was already more than four times greater per student than in public schools. Catholic schools were already spending more than twice as much. This is a clear demonstration of funding inequality between the sectors.
Here’s the catch. Despite these billions of dollars in extra capital funding for private schools, some of these schools are now closing or amalgamating. The reason for this? Falling enrolments.
In its most recent Federal Budget, the Australian Government announced a $30 million ‘Local Schools Community Fund’, a one-off $200,000 grant per electorate for libraries, classrooms and play equipment to be shared amongst all school sectors. However this fund just doesn’t measure up and should not be seen as a replacement for capital works funding for public schools.
There is no indication of how this will be split between school sectors. If the fund is allocated according to school enrolments, each school could receive a one off $3158, which is only $7.77 per student. If it is evenly split between the three school sectors, it means about $1500 for each public school. This is not even enough for a new textbook for each student.
By comparison, 2018 and 2019 alone saw 315 non-government schools receive an average of nearly one million dollars per grant from the Australian Government’s existing $1.9 billion private schools capital works fund.
But its public schools which need new classrooms to cater for the hundreds of thousands of new enrolments.
It is time for the Australian Government to accept reality and acknowledge that the majority of parents send their children to public schools and that these schools should be provided with the financial resources to meet their capital and infrastructure needs.
Politics aside, it’s about giving all school students a fair go. It’s just the right thing to do.