The ACT government has bowed to public pressure on the approval processes for non-government schools, with Education and Training Minister Joy Burch supporting all the recommendations of a departmental review of the legislation and approval policies.
The review was instigated in June following a long-running dispute between public school groups and the government over processes not being followed in the approval this year of two new Christian schools and an Islamic school. The recommendations of the review carried out by a representative each from the government and non-government schools sector will make it more difficult for new private schools to be established in the ACT.
Among its 15 recommendations is a requirement for non-government schools to provide more specific evidence of prospective enrolment numbers and longer term enrolment projections when applying for in-principle approval, as well as greater transparency and opportunity for public consultation. It also recommends greater consideration of the potential financial and enrolment impacts on existing schools when assessing new schools, as well as a requirement to state the specific location of a proposed school.
The latter was an issue this year when the At-Taqwa Islamic school was approved for Gungahlin, where it was assessed as not having an impact on other schools, but was later permitted to open in Spence.
Criticism that the panel approving school registrations was not impartial, having six out of 10 members from the non-government school sector this year, was addressed by recommending more transparency in the panel and its procedures, and by appointing a chairman with no conflict of interest.
Trevor Cobbold, convener of Save Our Schools, which has been critical of the approval process, said the signs were positive on the initial reading of the review, and he was "encouraged" by the minister's response.
''The review has endorsed many of the proposals that were submitted by SOS, though the report is lacking in many places in terms of recommending specific changes," he said. "There's going to be considerable further work needed in implementing the recommendations of the review panel … we do need to sort out the detail and I hope the minister would be open to receiving submissions from us or to consult with us on the detail of the changes."
Enhanced communication and engagement with stakeholders was a theme of the review's recommendations, and Ms Burch has asked the education directorate to update many aspects of the manual for in-principle approval of new schools.
"The review shows the existing policy does not require an overhaul. Rather, with minor changes around engaging with stakeholders and keeping them informed at various stages of the process, as well as more clearly defining the requirements that applicants for in-principle approval must satisfy, we can provide more clarity around this process," Ms Burch said.
Among the improvements in community consultation was a recommendation for a prescribed process for submitting a formal objection to a school before the minister's decision.