New private school checks are not good enough, say public education groups
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New private school checks are not good enough, say public education groups

Revamped rules for new private schools wanting to set up in the ACT appeared to provide no greater protections for existing schools, and no guarantee of impartial approvals than before, according to the public education lobby Save Our Schools.

The Australian Education Union has also asked for clarification from the ACT Education Directorate on whether the new manual for registration of non-government schools in the ACT would adequately protect government schools from having their enrolments poached by potential new private schools.

Both SOS and the AEU were at the forefront of damning criticism of Education Minister Joy Burch in 2013 following her approval of a number of new non-government schools – two of which were allowed to use the sites of former government schools that were closed down.

Directorate advice obtained under freedom-of-information provisions by SOS found Ms Burch had disregarded her own directorate's advice regarding legislative requirements in approving the schools and, bowing to community concern, she committed to a directorate review of the legislation and approval process.

While SOS and the AEU conceded some improvements had been made – particularly in relation to the welfare and safety requirements of new schools – they also expressed several concerns with the new arrangements, which were announced on Tuesday.

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SOS spokesman and former Productivity Commission economist Trevor Cobbold​ said the new manual made no requirement for the minister to assess specified factors relating to the effect on existing public and private schools in the area, such as the effect on enrolments, education programs and services, and cost per student.

There were no minimum enrolment requirements for new schools as apply in many other states, and there was no requirement that applications for new private schools should supply evidence of community demand.

"There are only suggestions about what evidence that applications could provide. In other words, new private schools can choose how much evidence they provide on community demand. There is no requirement for schools to provide specified evidence of community demand to meet the provisions of the ACT Education Act. It makes a farce of the Education Act," Mr Cobbold said.

He also said there was no requirement to ensure that the panels appointed by the minister to assess applications for new private schools was "independent and unbiased as recommended by the minister's own advisory committee asked to review the manual".

"It is still possible for major conflicts of interest to occur in the assessment of applications for new private schools. It is still possible for a panel appointed to assess an application to consist of a majority of representatives of private schools as has occurred many times in the past," Mr Cobbold said.

Similarly, AEU ACT secretary Glenn Fowler said the union had concerns about how the viability of existing schools in the area would be assessed.

Having not been informed about the new manual – despite making a submission into how it should be changed – Mr Fowler wrote to the directorate on Wednesday for clarification on a number of issues.

He questioned whether it was possible for a panel to have more non-government school representatives than government representatives as well as what appeared to be a lack of appeal rights for interested parties, and he questioned why the ACT government had not made a commitment to ensure that all new suburbs received a government school prior to opening the way to non-government schools.

He welcomed the requirement that new schools must nominate a location at the time of application, and annual reporting requirements.

"We do welcome the improved transparency and communication channels so that key stakeholders aren't excluded from the process like what happened in 2013."

Ms Burch said: "This important agreement will see significantly improved communication and transparency between the public and non-government systems moving forward."

"Some people are ideologically opposed to private schools. Trevor Cobbold and the executive of the AEU have strong views which are well known to the ACT Government. I do not agree with them on this issue."

Emma Macdonald is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times.

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