Capital works crisis

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State and territory governments are rolling out building programs over the next decade, but an infrastructure crisis is looming and they cannot do it alone. The federal government must step up – and provide critical financial support.

Last year the Morrison government provided a $1.9 billion capital works special deal for private schools without providing a dollar for public schools. Capital works funding – for new school buildings and school maintenance – has not been provided to public schools by the federal government since 2017, leaving state and territory governments to pick up the slack.

This is despite the original 2011 Gonski review stating that “all levels of government need to provide greater attention to addressing issues in these schools to ensure that the existing capital is at the very least adequate for delivering 21st century education.”

The massive discrepancy in capital works funding between the public and private schools is clear. Catholic schools spent 2.2 times more per student on capital works than public schools in 2017. Independent schools spent four times more per student.

While public schools educate 66 per cent of school students, their infrastructure funding was just

38 per cent of the total provided to all schools. In fact, My School data shows that Australia’s four richest private schools spent more on new facilities and renovations than 1800 schools combined.

Many elite private schools have, in recent years, reallocated substantial amounts of recurrent funding to capital works projects and are using income from fees to pay running costs, which allows them to divert recurrent income from government to fund extravagant building projects. Nationally, more than $1 billion in recurrent income was reallocated to capital works by Catholic and independent schools in 2017.

Added to this, the Morrison government has widened the gap between rich and poor schools by creating yet another “slush fund” for private schools, says AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe.

“Elite private schools, some of which charge $70,000 a year for board and tuition, have unrestricted access to the new $1.2 billion Choice and Affordability Fund while public schools are prevented from accessing it. The federal government has also recently announced a $10 million drought relief package for private schools but nothing for the public schools in drought-affected areas.

This preferential treatment for the private sector is continuing even though public schools are increasing their share of overall enrolments at the expense of non-government schools. The Grattan Institute has estimated that as many as 750 new schools will be needed by 2026 for an extra 650,000 students, and that number is growing. Most are likely to be public schools and costs could reach

$11 billion.

School enrolments rose by about 200,000 in the five years to 2018 and public schools accounted for 76 per cent of the increase, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

NSW Teachers Federation president Maurie Mulheron says the state government needs a “massive” injection of federal government funds for capital works programs to meet the needs of its public schools. “It’s not helping that the federal government is channelling funds into private schools that already have diving pools, orchestra pits and ski lodges at Thredbo.

“We’ve heard predictions of an extra 300 schools, 1700 classrooms and 250,000 more students in the next 10 to 15 years (just in NSW). And that’s a nanosecond in planning terms when you’ve got to find the sites, buy the land and build the schools,” he says.

Meanwhile, existing schools need attention, says Mulheron. “Many need to be rebuilt. They’ve had virtually no maintenance for decades and they are beyond their use-by date.”

It’s a similar story in Western Australia where most of the capital works budget has been eaten up in new school construction in recent years rather than maintenance, says State School Teacher’s Union of WA president Pat Byrne. However, the WA government has recently announced a boost in funds of $200 million over the next two years for maintenance to address some of the more serious and dangerous jobs.

Despite the focus on new school building, Byrne says there is a lack of proper planning. “Some of the new schools are full to capacity in a very short time, earlier than the department anticipated.”

Haythorpe says the federal government must step in to rectify the shortfalls in capital works funding for public schools across the states.

“The Morrison government has completely and utterly abandoned the concept of needs-based school funding in Australia,” Haythorpe says.

“All governments have a responsibility to ensure that every child has access to a quality education and the federal government must play its part in funding the public sector properly.”