Emma Macdonald April 16, 2012
ACT government schools have this year withstood an historic enrolment drift to private schools - most notably, clawing back students in the high school years where the drift has been the biggest.
But the independent and Catholic schools say the results merely reflect that the non-government sector in Canberra is operating at capacity and families are being forced on to waiting lists.
According to preliminary census data taken in February by the ACT Education Directorate, government-school enrolments have increased by 1064 students on last year while the non-government sector has increased by 328 students.
Crucially, government high schools have increased their intake of students compared with non-government high schools after a dramatic enrolment shift over the past decade which has seen the ACT with the highest proportion of private high school students of any state or territory in Australia.
This year sees most high school students - or 51.8 per cent - enrolled in the government sector compared with 49.6 per cent last year. The census recorded a total of 40,074 students enrolled in government schools - up by 2.7 per cent on 2011 enrolments. Last year, government school enrolments rose by just 157 students on the year before.
Broken down, the government school enrolment rise includes 885 new students in primary schools, 45 students in high schools, and 81 students in colleges.
Conversely, Canberra's private schools received an overall increase of 1.2 per cent, with all of the enrolment growth, of 369 students, taking place in Catholic systemic schools while independent schools faced a net loss of 41 students.
Last year non-government school enrolments grew by 575 students.
Nearly all the new private students, or 325, were in primary schools, with just 7 new high school students and a decrease across colleges of 4 students.
The figures are significant because in 2010-11, the ACT became the first jurisdiction in Australian history to record a majority of high school students attending non-government schools, suggesting the national capital's parents were having a crisis of confidence in the public system.
It was a crucial tipping point as the government sector has always been the dominant provider of education.
The census results still leave the ACT with 41.3 per cent of its students in the non-government sector, the highest proportion of any state or territory compared with a national average of 34.6 per cent.
ACT Education Minister Chris Bourke said the results were a win for government schools. He paid tribute to former education minister Andrew Barr for recognising the need to bolster community confidence in the government school sector.
Dr Bourke singled out the government's Excellence and Enterprise policy which specifically targeted student engagement in government high schools. He noted that more than half a billion dollars had been spent on infrastructure upgrades across every government school in the past six years and that the new enterprise bargaining agreement was providing six-figure salaries to the territory's best public teachers.
''I think parents clearly see the success of the government system in the ACT, which is clearly illustrated by our NAPLAN [literacy and numeracy] results,'' Dr Bourke said.
He also noted the ACT provided 12 per cent more funding for government schools than the national average. Australian Education Union acting ACT secretary Glenn Fowler said the figures were a welcome relief.
''Frankly last year's figures were a source of shame given ACT public schools are national leaders in innovation and excellence.''
But the Association of Independent Schools said independent schools had reached capacity, forcing many parents to put their children on waiting lists.
Executive director Andrew Wrigley anticipated enrolments would be static this year.
''I advised the board in May last year that our census numbers would be 'flat' in 2012 because no independent schools were expanding their enrolment base and no new schools were being built in 2012 … ''
Catholic Education Office senior policy officer Tim Smith attributed the strong growth in the systemic system to taking in a new year level at Mother Teresa Primary at Amaroo and more than 100 new students in Catholic pre-schools which was feeding into strong kindergarten enrolments.
He noted a recent information evening for John Paul College, opening in Gungahlin next year, had seen 340 expressions of interest in starting places in Year 7.