Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 07, 2024


Education and Children's Services (Reporting Requirements) Amendment Bill

Introduction and First Reading

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:32): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Education and Children's Services Act 2019. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill, the Education and Children's Services (Reporting Requirements) Amendment Bill 2024, is an important transparency measure. It seeks to promote equality and accountability between public and private schools, and it subjects our private schools to the same reporting requirements as public schools.

Private schools currently receive $290 million of state government funding here in South Australia—$290 million of state government funding—but unlike public schools there is no requirement for private schools to report on how that money is being spent. Public money is just that: it belongs to the community, and it is only right that private schools that receive public funds are required to report on how public money is spent. This is the demand that is made of our public schools and it is only appropriate that the same demand be made of private educators.

Many private schools receive significant public funds and the public has a right to know how the money is being spent. I am going to use some examples in this speech, and I do not do so to attack or denigrate those institutions. I am more just highlighting some of the inequities that exist within our school system. I want to start with an example from Pembroke, which is currently the most expensive school in the state to send your child to.

We know from publicly available data that Pembroke receives $1,236 per year per student from the state, in addition to $5,340 per year from the commonwealth. Meanwhile, I understand that Pembroke has fundraised more than $6 million for building project, and the school charges $31,000 fees for a year 12 student to attend their institution. Conversely, we have public schools in our state that are crying out for basic infrastructure and resources.

In 2019, the ABC reported on the differences between the poorest and richest schools in Australia. At that time, they reported that Sheidow Park Primary School was one of a thousand schools across Australia that spent $25,000 over a five-year period on new facilities, while the richest private schools were spending roughly $100 million—$25,000 being spent over five years on new facilities in a public primary school, while the richest private schools were spending roughly $100 million. Something is not right there.

I had the opportunity the year before last to visit my old school, Aberfoyle Park High School and, whilst it has had some significant upgrades, it was disappointing to me to see that much of the school remained unchanged from when I was there. That was not very long ago, of course, but not much had changed in such a short window of time. It is disappointing and more money should be put on the table to support our public schools.

The My School website shows data on where schools are getting their funds and demonstrates capital expenditure, but the public are not getting clear information on where their funds are being spent. We cannot see, for example, whether or not public money is being used by private schools to support advertising activities, whether public money is being used to support luxury facilities such as swimming pools, or on courting donors.

Taxpayers have a right to know what activities they are subsidising. Is public money being used to support advertising campaigns by private schools? Is public money being used to employ fundraisers within our private schools? Many South Australians, I think, would question whether that is a legitimate use of public money.

Professor Piccoli, who was previously the director of the University of New South Wales' Gonski Institute for Education, and also a New South Wales education minister, has stated that:

The public do have a right to know where public money is going and why…and until we know that in any kind of detail, you can't be confident that they're not using it for capital [expenditure].

In December last year, the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System Report was published. The report discusses the need for greater funding transparency and accountability. On page 20, it states:

The Panel heard from stakeholders about a desire for greater transparency and accountability, including from families and communities seeking more access to information on the allocation and the use of school funding.

Recommendation 6A from that report was:

Approved Authorities improve transparency by annually publishing their school funding allocation models, actual allocations, and more information on what the funds get spent on.

This bill will address that recommendation by improving expenditure transparency and requiring private schools to publicly release their income and expenditure as part of their annual report.

Public schools are already required to report more than just expenditure. This bill would ensure that private schools are subject to the same reporting requirements. Public schools, for instance, are already required to disclose information on student behaviour, including data on suspensions, exclusions, expulsions, and all of that information is uploaded to the Data.SA website.

All we are proposing is that our state's private schools be required to do the same and that this information be reported in their annual reports. This means that the information is available to the whole community, including parents, many of whom are spending a lot of money to send their children to these schools. I would argue that they also have a right to that information.

The bill will also require private schools to be transparent about the number of complaints that are being made, to provide workforce information, such as the number of casual, contract and permanent staff and the proportion of teaching staff versus non-teaching staff, as well as the number of work health and safety incidents that occur at a school. Again, that is really important information, I think, for parents.

The data would be captured in the school's annual report, which is then made available on their website. This would give parents a holistic picture when making a choice about schools, but would also ensure that there is the same level of transparency applying to both our public and our private schools, because both are getting public money.

There is a transitional provision in the bill that ensures that this would only apply to a full financial year after commencement. That would give private schools an opportunity to collate the information and adjust some of their reporting requirements. The United Nations global education monitoring report on accountability in education back in 2017 found that:

Far stricter regulation of private sector involvement is needed to ensure that profitability does not trump equity and quality.

While public schools are underfunded and non-government schools are being handed public money, it is important that we hold the private sector to the same scrutiny as public schools. This would ensure that we have clear data and that it is publicly available for parents, funding authorities and the community as a whole to understand the private education sector.

The Greens believe that when we are talking about public money there should be a maximum level of transparency and accountability. This is a simple reform, but one that I think would be welcomed by parents who send their children to private schools and also by the South Australian taxpayer more broadly, as the taxpayer collectively has an interest in how their money is being spent.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.E. Hanson.