$9.9 billion capital funding divide in NSW

Pressure on the Albanese Government to end a decade of neglect and urgently invest in public school infrastructure has grown in the wake of a bombshell report released by the Australian Education Union.

The Ending the capital divide in Australia’s schools report revealed a staggering $30 billion funding gulf between the nation’s public and private schools and exposed five private schools that spent more on lavish new facilities in 2021 than governments spent on over half the public schools in the entire nation. To match private school capital spending in NSW between 2012 and 2022, the state government would have needed to spend a staggering $9.9 billion.

Shining further light on NSW private schools, the report found Cranbrook School spent more on capital works alone for 1599 students than 2549 public schools across Australia spent on almost half a million students combined. The $63.48 million cash splash was more than the combined total public school capital expenditure of Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

While the link between improved student outcomes and the design of learning spaces and school facilities was made clear in 2011 in the original Gonski report, the federal government has continued to administer policies and provide funding to programs that have helped deliver Olympic standard swimming pools, gymnasiums and performing arts centres to private schools.

In 2017, the federal Coalition ceased providing capital funding to government schools. At the same time, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull made the decision to redirect all public school spending towards the federal Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) target. These decisions effectively ended a combined capital and recurrent funding stream that had been in place since 2009.

A major contributor to the capital funding divide has been the federal government’s $1.9 billion Capital Grants Program, exclusively for private schools.

While the program’s guidelines make clear its intention is to “assist non-government primary and secondary school communities to improve capital infrastructure where they may not have access to sufficient capital resources”, and despite its stated objective of assisting “educationally disadvantaged students”, the program has delivered millions to overfunded elite private schools across the nation.

In NSW, the program has delivered $250,000 to Loreto Normanhurst, which has an annual income of more than $50 million per year. Newington College, which charges fees of more than $42,000 per year and has assets of more than $265 million, received $150,000 through the program.

With an anticipated increase in children aged between 5 and 19 by 2042, the need for urgent and sustained investment in public school infrastructure has never been greater.

The capital funding divide has forced public school students to learn in classrooms that are outdated, unsafe and unfit for modern learning. The report found there are more than 5000 temporary demountable buildings being used as classrooms in NSW public schools, a 30 per cent increase from 2011 to 2021.

The report identified more than 2000 of the state’s demountable buildings as aged 20 years or older, discrediting the NSW Government’s claim that demountables are merely short-term necessities used to address enrolment growth.

Further analysis of NSW public school demountable stock, conducted by Federation, revealed west and south-west Sydney have disproportionately higher numbers of demountable classrooms. Almost one quarter (1237) of the 5093 demountables were found to be located in the federal electorates of Greenway, Mitchell, Parramatta, Fowler, and Blaxland (the electorate of federal Education Minister Jason Clare).

In its submission to the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System, the NSW Department of Education recognised the importance of capital funding in negotiations around a new National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) and students with disability, stating: “Capital funding remains a crucial lever to facilitate such supports, in alignment with a key recommendation from the Gonski Review. This must be considered in the next NSRA if we are to lift outcomes and create inclusive educational environments for students with disability. If we can appropriately better support students with disability through national collaboration, we will be better placed to get it right for all students and see the desired shifts in education outcomes.”

The NSW Government’s call for greater investment in capital infrastructure for students with disability is crucial given the recent announcement from the Federal Government that foundational supports for children with disability are likely to be delivered as part of ‘full service’ schools providing a broader range of allied health and community support services on site.


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Sources: NSW Department of Education, GIPA 22-01653

One-off public schools upgrade
In October 2022, for the first time since the Building the Education Revolution infrastructure funding injection (2008– 09), the Federal Government announced a one-off public schools upgrade fund. The fund, valued at $216 million, is dwarfed by its private school equivalent and stretches across more than twice as many schools than are eligible for the nongovernment schools Capital Grants Program. An average of $310 million a year has been provided to private schools from government funds in the decade 2012 to 2022. The average annual per student capital investment 2012–2021 for public schools was $1052 and $2331 for private.

Next steps
First-class facilities mean first-class improvements in learning. The For Every Child campaign is calling on the Commonwealth to take the following urgent steps:

  1. Provide a significant and immediate injection of capital investment of $1.25 billion to public schools to equal Commonwealth capital investment in private schools since 2017 and in recognition, and partial rectification, of the billions of dollars lost through the abandonment of Commonwealth capital funding in 2017.
  2. Create a permanent Commonwealth capital fund of a minimum of $350 million a year indexed in line with rising costs and enrolments to ensure that all public schools have access to the funds they need to provide adequate and safe 21st century learning environments.
  3. Negotiate a joint commitment in the bilateral funding agreements (to be negotiated this year with state and territory governments) to invest in new and upgraded public schools and facilities to ensure that Commonwealth capital funding for public schools also triggers increased investment from all governments.
  4. Ensure that all public schools have access to funds to prioritise purpose-built learning spaces and school facilities including modified bathrooms and playgrounds that are accessible for students with disability.
  5. Work with, and incentivise, state and territory governments to ensure that all growth suburbs have public primary and secondary schools that are open and accessible when residents arrive.