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Public school enrolments down, NSW funding cut

NSW public school enrolments have dropped by more than 24,000 since the Covid-19 pandemic, as families opt to send their kids to non-government schools.

New figures released last Tuesday show a year-on-year fall in government school enrolments for the fourth consecutive year in NSW.

Public school enrolments dropped by 5001 enrolments between 2022 (791,435) and 2023 (786,434), in what was the starkest drop over the four-year period, according to figures from the NSW Department of Education.

The numbers for 2023 were nearly three per cent below rates from peak 2020 (810,705) enrolments, which fell to 802,776 in 2021.

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics also showed total school enrolments in NSW increased by 0.6 per cent between 2022 to 2023, but parents are opting to send children to non-government schools, with rates growing 2.6 per cent year-on-year.

NSW Department secretary Murat Dizdar acknowledged that public school enrolment figures were “still not where we want them to be,” following falls during the pandemic.

“I am determined to win back parents and students,” he said.

“I want our schools to be the first choice for parents when deciding where to educate their children."

Since taking government in 2023, Labor has been vocal about the funding and staffing difficulties facing public schools.

The first week of the 2024 school term reported 1782 teacher vacancies, however, that was an improvement of about 20 per cent since 2023 figures of 2242.

NSW Education Minister Prue Car also criticised the former government for not prioritising infrastructure growth in areas with an “explosion in school-age students”.

As a result families were being “forced to turn to the private sector,” she said.

Recent analysis from the government found student population in Sydney’s north-western and southwestern corridors (the areas that saw the largest booms and which make up nearly 40 per cent of the state’s growth in students) had surpassed 2016 projections by thousands.

Topping the list was Schofields East in Sydney’s northwest, which reported about 4800 enrolments in 2023; 3300 more than estimated.

This was followed by Marsden Park and Shanes Park – also in Sydney’s northwest and west. The area recorded about 2500 students, 2200 more than the projected figure of 300.

Box Hill, where Ms Car recently promised a public school, was the state’s sixth highest student and dwelling growth area, surpassing its original projection by 600, to about 1400.

NSW school funding cut

Public schools in NSW are simultaneously suffering a “significant” funding cut, as the state attempts to bring teachers back to the classroom in order to bolster flagging enrolment rates.

Minister Car last week told principals the School Budget Allocation Report (SBAR) has been slashed by 1.25 per cent.

The SBAR refers to funding given to public schools by the government to pay for a range of things like maintenance, electricity costs and teacher salaries, which make up the bulk of expenses.

The cut coincides with disaster and pandemic supplementation, introduced in 2019, being phased out when Term Two starts on April 29.

The funding cut will affect all schools, with the exception of small schools, schools that support students with intellectual disabilities and other moderate to high learning and support needs, as well as Intensive English Centres.

Bodies representing teachers and principals say the decision won’t be popular but agree it’s necessary after years of inflated pandemic funding.

NSW Primary Principals Association president Robyn Evans said the drop in funding will be “quite significant” on budgets and hoped the government would stand by its commitment to support schools.

“It’s hard news to take but there’s a commitment from the department and the government to support the schools individually,” she said.

“While it’s a blanket plan, individual schools have unique needs. So we just have to weather the storm. No one is saying it’s going to be easy but the change had to come.”

The government said the funding reform will not affect P&C funds, community funds, spending from schools’ allocated budgets, or money already transferred.

A teacher whose job is funded under the temporary funding will also be offered to transfer into another role, with the state’s public schools reporting 1782 vacancies as of the first week of 2024.

Ms Car said the funding reform will bring teachers back into the classroom, after her government reversed part of the Coalition’s ‘local schools and local decisions’ policy that increased the amount of executive roles like assistant and deputy principals working under temporary contracts.

The funding cut also comes at a time NSW will lose $1.65bn in GST funding as the result of a Turnbull government decision to give WA get a bigger cut of GST.

Minister Car said the GST cut has exacerbated the urgency of discussions with the Commonwealth government about Gonski funding, as NSW remains firm federal Labor needs to bring more to the table.

She said all education ministers agree schools need to be 100 per cent funded, but are still working out who will fund the final few percentage points of the School Resourcing Standard.

Tassie private school enrolments hit record high

Data also shows enrolments at non-government schools across Tasmania have increased by about three per cent a year for the past five years.

Independent Schools Tasmania executive director Tony Crehan said there were now almost 11,000 students enrolled in independent schools.

His organisation represents 35 independent schools in Tasmania, from smaller schools such as Tarremah Steiner School and Christian schools to larger ones including Hutchins, The Friends’ School, Scotch Oakburn, Launceston Church Grammar, and St Michael’s Collegiate. 

“A few schools have had to expand to cater for an increase in enrolments, like the Devonport Christian School,” Mr Crehan said. 

“In general it’s the lower-fee Christian schools that have seen the largest increases.

“The other area that has been increasing has been the Indie schools – there are now three in the North and three in the South.”

Mr Crehan said Indie schools cater to students in the higher teenage years who would otherwise be at risk of not continuing their education, and had experienced a significant increase in enrolments.

He said Christian-affiliated schools offered an affordable alternative to general public schools.

“There is nothing wrong with public schools, but we believe in choice, and every child has different needs, and sometimes the public school system doesn’t suit them,” Mr Crehan said.

Australian Christian College Hobart principal David Noble said the school had kicked off the new year celebrating a great milestone, with enrolment surpassing 100 students on the campus.

“This continued growth largely reflects on the quality of education the school offers, and a positive and welcoming culture where students are well known, well loved and well taught,” Mr Noble said. 

A Catholic Education Tasmania (CET) spokesperson said enrolments across its 38 schools were at an all-time high. 

In term one 2024, CET had recorded an overall increase in enrolments of about four per cent. 

St Cuthbert’s Catholic School near Hobart's eastern shore is one of many CET schools in Tasmania’s South that has seen growth in enrolment figures. 

The school has recorded a substantial enrolment increase of about 6.2 per cent. 

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