Pinched private schools ponder integration

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 05/04/2012

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Falling rools at cash-strapped private schools are causing more to consider integrating into the state school system, despite a $2.5 million overpayment by the Government in the last school year.

Independent Schools of New Zealand said private schools were suffering in the current economic climate, with enrolments dropping 6 per cent in the past three years as parents struggled to pay tuition fees.

In a letter to then Education Minister Anne Tolley, released to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act, executive director Deborah James said private schools were finding financial sustainability increasingly difficult.

"Private schools are faced with closing or integrating because they are starved of adequate funding. It therefore costs the state much more to meet the costs of educating children who attend those schools because they will have to be absorbed into the state sector."

An accounting mishap discovered by the Education Ministry last August meant that private schools were accidentally given $2.496 million more funding in 2011 than they were entitled to.

The Government chose not to ask for the money back, as schools had already accounted for the money in their budgets, the documents show.

In a draft communications plan, the ministry said the human error was not significant in terms of its overall spending on schools, but it did represent a "reputation risk".

"This error could be interpreted as continuing a pattern of the ministry making mistakes in carrying out its core functions."

The mistake was paid for from within the Government's existing education budget, and did not have an impact on money earmarked other parts of the sector, the ministry's group manager for resourcing, John Clark, said.

Ms James said the overpayment had made things more difficult for private schools, which had set fees for 2012 expecting the same subsidy. Instead, it had decreased by 5 per cent, and asking parents to cover the shortfall was not an option.

However, Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said private schools were businesses, and if they failed the state should not have to bail them out.

It made the impending introduction of charter schools even more of a worry, he said.

"It is evidence that `choice' in education costs. It does raise real concerns about the introduction of and need for charter schools, if private schools are now competing for state resources."

Wanganui Collegiate – a private school – applied for integration in 2009 after its roll began dropping significantly, and is still waiting to hear from the Government whether its application has been accepted.

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State-integrated schools get to keep their special character but must abide by the state curriculum, and have teacher salaries and building maintenance paid for by the Government.

- The Dominion Post

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