HUNDREDS of old public schools are lying vacant around the state - and many could soon be sold off by the Baillieu government to build more private schools.
In a move critics fear could exacerbate the drift to the private system, the government wants to offload some of the land to Catholic and independent schools, arguing it will improve schooling choices for students and parents.
The proposal is buried in an economic strategy released by Premier Ted Baillieu and Treasurer Kim Wells days before Christmas. It reveals that the Education Department ''currently holds in excess of 200'' vacant sites, some of which have been idle for years following mergers or closures.
''While some of these sites are in areas of declining numbers of school-aged children, others may offer potential for new schools,'' the strategy says.
''Starting up new private schools is a clearly difficult enterprise and some recent examples have struggled. However, this remains a critical ingredient in a diverse future for Victorian schools and is key to boosting choice for students and parents.''
The government has refused to reveal the locations of the vacant sites, but recent examples of closures suggest they are all over the state, from schools in Dallas North and Upfield, to Altona, Croydon and Mildura.
And while private school leaders have welcomed the sell-off, public teachers and principals warn it could further segregate Victoria's education system by leading to more parents abandoning government schools.
Bureau of Statistics figures show that between 2001 and 2011, the number of students at independent schools in Australia increased by almost 35 per cent. Over the same period, Catholic school enrolments grew by 11.6 per cent while government schools only rose by 1.8 per cent.
''I'm really concerned that the government's 'choice agenda' is driving government schools in a really negative direction,'' said Frank Sal, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals. ''To many this would appear to be another step to further marginalise the government sector.''
The push to expand private schools comes after three were closed last year because of financial stress: Mowbray College in Caroline Springs, St Anthony's Coptic Orthodox College in Frankston North and Acacia College in Mernda.
It also comes after the Catholic Education Office announced plans to build 13 new schools in Melbourne's growth suburbs over the next few years.
One of those schools will be built on the site of the old Western Heights state school in Geelong, which was purchased to cater for students in two local Catholic schools: Clonard College for girls and St Joseph's secondary for boys.
Catholic Education Office director Stephen Elder said he would happily buy more public land from the government, but insisted the private system ''gets no favours'' when it comes to cost.
''We pay full valuation on the land, but if there are opportunities for the government who want to sell the land and reinvest it into the state, we'd be more than happy to purchase sites that are surplus to their needs,'' he said.
Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green described the proposal as ''a good idea and a sensible use of existing resources''.
''The local community will benefit if a school takes over the site because it becomes a community asset,'' she said.
Others, however, are not convinced. Australian Education Union state president Meredith Peace said the policy showed ''a real lack of commitment'' towards public education, while Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh said the government should focus on reinvesting in public schools ''because that's where it is desperately needed''.
Education Minister Martin Dixon has defended the policy. His spokesman, Ashley Gardiner, described concerns as ''hysterical and plainly wrong''.
Surplus government land generally goes through a three-stage disposal process. It is first offered to other government departments, then the local council, and then for sale to the public.