The ACT Government may consider legislative changes to the way in which new private schools are approved in the future following community unrest about the latest batch of approvals.
Save Our Schools has called on ACT Education Minister Joy Burch to be sacked for signing off on two new Christian schools – with Brindabella Christian College to establish a second campus in Charnwood and the Canberra Christian School to set up a campus in the new suburb of Molonglo.
But ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said yesterday that she was aware of community concern arising from the decisions and was open to “tightening up the decision-making process” having originally drafted the current legislation while she was Education Minister in 2004.
At issue is that the Brindabella Christian College will open just a kilometre away from the former campus of Flynn Primary School – a government school which was closed amid outcry in 2006.
Mr Cobbold said there were also questions to be asked about community demand for these new schools and the extent to which they would damage the enrolment prospects for neighbouring government schools.
He accused Ms Burch of turning planning processes for private schools in the ACT into a “free-for-all”, noting that Andrew Barr, during his term as Education Minister, had rejected an application for a new Christian school in West Belconnen in 2008 because it provided “no evidence to support the anticipated level of enrolments...”.
According to their applications, Canberra Christian School had indicative enrolments of only two students and these were from parents of children already enrolled at its Mawson school. Yet, its new Kindergarten-to-Year-6 campus in Molonglo is planned for 480 students and there are only 32 K-6 enrolments currently at Mawson.
Brindabella Christian College had indicative enrolments of only 31 to meet its initial enrolment plan of 75 by next year and 194 by 2018.
“This is hardly evidence of the 'ground swell of support' it claimed in its application,” Mr Cobbold said.
Brindabella Christian College did not return phonecalls yesterday.
A third new private school – the At Taqwa Islamic School approved for Gungahlin – had provided the Government with evidence of enrolment interest from 180 families.
ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher spent considerable time in 2004 as former Education Minister revising new school application processes under the ACT Education Act.
She said then that the approval provisions were designed to ensure an open planning process based on evidence of demand and community support.
This week Ms Gallagher said the Government was open to reconsidering the guidelines for new non-government schools “if gaps have been identified in the process, or perhaps the guidelines are not clear enough and we need to tighten up the decision-making process”.
While the current three approvals would not be overturned, Ms Gallagher said she might consider “how in the future these decisions come back to Cabinet. We are open to making any changes necessary but we need to discuss and negotiate with all education stakeholders,” she said.
Australian Education Union ACT secretary Glenn Fowler said the approvals process was flawed and needed to be rewritten.
“On that basis we call on the Government to immediately review its decision to provide in-principle approval for these two schools.”
The ACT Opposition, however, refused to condemn Ms Burch over the issue with Education spokesman Steve Dospot said that his reading of the decisions suggested “that due process has been followed to the best of my knowledge and a reasonable course of action has been taken.”
But Mr Cobbold said the approvals by Ms Burch were absurd.
“A government school with 179 enrolments was closed in Flynn in 2006 and now has been replaced by a private school one kilometre away with anticipated enrolments of 194. Now there will be three primary schools in Charnwood, of which two are private schools, and none in the next door suburb of Flynn.”
The Flynn Primary School Parents and Citizens Association has reactivated its membership and campaign to fight for the closed school to be reopened in the wake of Ms Burch's decision.