25/01/2016 - 14:50

Affordability, opportunity key for schools

25/01/2016 - 14:50


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A faltering economy and an increase in the number of people leaving the state compared with arrivals has failed to halt growth in enrolments at both local Catholic and other private schools, and public schools.

Affordability, opportunity key for schools
SUCCESS: Peter Laurence says the WA branch is operating so well it has taken over the operation of three schools in the eastern states. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A faltering economy and an increase in the number of people leaving the state compared with arrivals has failed to halt growth in enrolments at both local Catholic and other private schools, and public schools.

For the first time in 30 years Western Australia’s public school system’s growth is outpacing private schools, making it the only state or territory besides the Northern Territory to experience growth in the public sector.

However an increase in the state’s population overall means the public system’s gain has not been at the expense of the private sector.

Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia executive director Valerie Gould told Business News parents were increasingly taking ever-greater steps to ensure their children received the best education.

She said they were paying close attention to fees, but also choosing a school for its educational philosophy, faith, culture or extracurricular activities, which sometimes meant not always sending all their children to the same school.

“There is a downturn in the economy, so the issue of paying fees may be an issue for some people,” Ms Gould said. 

“I think the other thing that might be having an impact is the thought that if we’re going to pay for the education of our students and it looks like university is going to get more expensive, where do we decide to put the dollars?

“Some families may want to subsidise (university instead) so their kids don’t graduate with a $100,000 HECS debt.”

Catholic Education Commission of WA executive director Tim McDonald and Anglican Schools Commission chief executive Peter Laurence told Business News that in cases where parents were struggling to pay fees, the schools were making concessions.

In order to keep and attract new students the Catholic Commission has also capped fee increases at 3-8 per cent.

“Our data shows growth, rather than a loss of students,” Mr McDonald said.

“We are very sympathetic to those parents who can’t pay fees, and have mechanisms in place to assist. Our policy is clear – no-one who seeks a Catholic education for their child will be refused because of financial hardship.”

For students at Anglican schools, where the more established institutions command fees upwards of $20,000 per annum, Mr Laurence said parents who could no longer afford to pay but wanted to keep their kids in an Anglican school were being helped to transfer to one of the schools run by the commission, which have fees largely between $5,000 and $8,000 per year.

Older Anglican schools such as Christ Church Grammar School, Hale School, St Mary's Anglican Girls' School and St Hilda's Anglican School For Girls do not fall under the governance of the commission, as most predate the institution.


Mr Laurence said the commission, established about 30 years ago specifically to build new Anglican schools in WA, had since built 11 schools, using government grants and loans and charging each student a levy.

The commission, which is a not-for-profit organisation, like all private schools in Australia, has made healthy surpluses in its time, allowing it to take over the running of three ailing east coast schools, on request from the diocese.

“Our view was if it wasn’t going to take away from Western Australia, but actually contribute to us overall, even if supporting it in short term, that was a good thing,” Mr Laurence said.

Mr McDonald said the WA branch of the Catholic Education Commission had experienced the second highest growth rate in Australia between 2001 and 2013.

“We’ve opened seven new schools in the past three years,” he said.

Catholic schools are funded primarily through debt; a system Mr McDonald said was proving unsustainable.

Mr McDonald described the state’s low-interest loan system, from which the sector receives $30 million per year, as generous, but insufficient even when combined with the $7 million per year in federal government capital grant funding.

“The projected population growth in Western Australia to 2026 indicates there’s going to be 11,500 (new) primary places and 10,500 (new) secondary places needed. We currently educate about 20 per cent of school-aged children in WA.

For us to cater for that growth we will need to build 23 primary schools and nine secondary schools,” Mr McDonald said.

This would cost about $800 million, he said.

If the Catholic Commission was to set up a building levy to cover the difference left after government contributions, the extra fees would amount to about $3,900 per student every year, a hit Mr McDonald said the commission would not contemplate.

Instead he is hopeful state and federal funding can help breach the gap, noting it’s still cheaper for governments to contribute to private schools than to build their own.

The Independent Schools Council of Australia has estimated the recurrent savings to government from the independent schools sector to be about $4 billion per year, with the vast majority of independent schools funding their operations by student fees.

Going public

Meanwhile, the public system has also experienced significant growth, building 50 new or replacement schools in the past seven years.

Between 2009 and 2014, WA public schools experienced the biggest increase in student enrolment market share in the country, up 0.4 per cent.

The recent uptick in market share for the state system has led Education Minister Peter Collier to attribute much of the claw-back to increased autonomy, brought about by the introduction of the Independent Public Schools program.

IPS schools now make up 55 per cent of WA state schools, equal to 70 per cent of students and teachers.

In addition, spending per student in public schools is increasing. This financial year it will go up $600, or 3.7 per cent, to $16,786.


WA independent schools have benefited financially after the funding restructure that followed the 2011 Gonski review, with the new model starting in 2014.

Under Gonski, schools receive payment dependent on their capacity to pay based on their location, size, level of socio-economic status, indigenous student cohort, English language proficiency and number of students with disability.

According to Ms Gould, this change and curricula changes have been well managed navigated by independent schools, in the main.

“In the independent sector, often we’re much more responsive to changing needs because each individual school makes its own decisions, whereas in the government sector, even the IPS, there’s still a lot that the system expects them to do,” Ms Gould said.

“In the independent sector, independent schools are free to be very, very innovative; they can take on new things, and they’ve always had that freedom to do it.”

Part of independent schools’ ability to adapt has taken the form of BYOD, or bring your own devices, which allows students to bring to school a laptop or tablet of their own choosing.

While this has led to having IT systems that are ‘device agnostic’, according to Mr Laurence, young people’s embracing of new technologies has brought about even bigger challenges for schools.

“The bigger impact without doubt, has been, you might say the world coming into the lives of children and the classroom,” he said.

Tech challenges

The advent of social media and even cyber bullying has completely changed parents’ expectations of what they’re looking for in a school, Mr Laurence said.

“The bigger impact without doubt, has been, you might say the world coming into the lives of children and the classroom," he said.

“In a funny way I think a lot of parents are expecting greater boundaries and standards than they might have been 10 years ago because it’s significantly harder for them to be a parent today than it was a decade or two decades ago.”

Ms Gould said school boards and principals were increasingly taking this and other lifestyle changes into account, when setting the agenda for their independent schools.

“When we think that children now are going to change their careers more than seven times over their lives, and the importance of automation and collaboration, school boards are now trying to craft schools that can design educational programs that mean these kids will really succeed when they leave school,” she said.

“They’re saying ‘Let’s not just focus on getting high NAPLAN results, but let’s look at the broader picture of how to develop really good communicators and all those 21st century skills of problem solving, collaboration, innovation and IT skills.’”


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