Private finance to go down under

24th February 2006 at 00:00

Australia is following Britain's lead in encouraging the private sector to help finance government schools.

The New South Wales government, which operates the nation's biggest school system, has already adopted the policy.

Across the huge state, new schools are being built and maintained by the private sector then leased back to the education department.

So far, nine public-private schools have been constructed and another nine are being developed.

The Victorian government is also considering such partnerships in helping upgrade its 1,530 primary and secondary schools.

State school principals backed the move, saying it will provide the facilities parents want but only a minority get: such as air-conditioning, comfortable libraries, computer rooms, gyms and halls.

Brian Caldwell, associate director of iNet at England's Specialist Schools Trust and a former dean of education at Melbourne University, has described facilities in Victoria's schools as deplorable.

Likewise, the Australian Education Union, in a pre-budget submission to the state government, called for action on "the dilapidated state of school infrastructure".

Mary Bluett, the union's Victoria branch president, urged the government to begin locating sporting and community facilities inside schools. She said it was important that state schools be modernised to stop the drift of students to private schools.

"We need a major investment in school infrastructure," she said. "While schools need additional funds to tackle the problem, we are prepared to look outside the normal budget borrowing process and that may include some forms of private-public partnership."

She said projects that brought community services into and around schools might lend themselves to such partnerships. This could release additional funds from the education budget for major upgrades or refurbishment of other schools.

Professor Caldwell said improving schools had to be a top priority for the government, given that more than 40 per cent of senior secondary students now "bypassed a government school to attend a non-government school".

In a paper commissioned by the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Professor Caldwell, who is also managing director of a private Melbourne company, Educational Transformations, describes the advantages of publi-private partnerships.

The paper draws on developments in Britain, America and South Africa where Nelson Mandela, during his time as president, raised private funding for 127 new schools to serve poor areas.

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