There has been a significant change in the setting of funding priorities for schools during the past ten years.
Prior to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, it was extraordinarily difficult to attract money for school capital works programs. Principals and school councils were often frustrated by the delays in gaining initial approval. Generally works were included in treasury’s forward estimates.
In some cases, approved works remained in abeyance for so long, they were re-announced as new initiatives before gaining final funding approval.
Minor New Works programs for infrastructure projects up to $250,000 were similarly queued for lengthy periods of time.
The GFC consigned this scenario to history. In order to stimulate building and construction, the Federal Government created the Building Education Revolution (BER). Many billions of dollars were released to state and territory educational systems. ‘Build, build build, like there is no tomorrow’ became the order of the day. Along with all educational authorities, the NT Education Department was overwhelmed with BER money.Funds were allocated for major construction in every Northern Territory school.
A BER downside was the prescription placed on the use of money. Buildings had to be for science laboratories, school libraries, classrooms, assembly halls and physical facilities. When particular schools had higher priorities they were discounted. Timelines attached to the program required projects to be completed and funds expended by specific dates. This meant that building and construction programs had to be undertaken during term time disrupting school programs, in some cases for weeks on end.
Although the BER is now history, there has been a significant shift in funding priorities for NT schools. Compared with pre BER days, it seems that limitations on capital and minor new works funding have been relaxed.
Government tenders in the NT News each Wednesday confirms that money is being allocated for playground equipment, shade structures, irrigation upgrades and other works that were rarely funded in past times.
Previously, it had been up to school communities to fundraise for these ventures.
It is a worry that major funding for schools seems to be based on the fact that projects must support the building, construction, and infrastructure industry. There is a need for funding to recognise and support teaching and learning programs in classrooms. The ‘heart’ of the school is the teaching/learning interface. Buildings and facilities are necessary but should not be prioritised to the detriment of core learning needs.
Funding balance is important. While facilities are necessary, the support of students through classroom programs must not be compromised.
Note: This paper is based on the Northern Territory but there are parallels around the rest of our country.