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Mouldy bathrooms, broken air con and holes in the walls: new data shows Australian public school facilities in rapid decline | Australian education

PoliticsMouldy bathrooms, broken air con and holes in the walls: new data shows Australian public school facilities in rapid decline | Australian education

When 14-year-old Catherine Paton arrived at Thursday Island from Canberra, she knew starting school afresh would be an adjustment. New peers, new teachers, new surroundings.

What she didn’t expect was classrooms with sagging roofs and holes in the walls, bathrooms filled with black mould, broken air conditioners and rusty desks.

“Most students at Tagai state college have only ever gone to schools in the Torres Strait, and have nothing to compare school facility standards to,” the year 8 student representative says. “But I do, and I know these facilities are disgraceful.”

New research from the Australian Education Union, provided exclusively to Guardian Australia, shows there has been a significant decline in the adequacy of public school facilities in the four years to 2024, with principals citing degrading bathrooms, school halls and science spaces as their biggest concerns.

The 2024 State of Our Schools survey, which canvassed more than 13,000 educators, found 19% of principals said they didn’t have enough classrooms at their schools and 40% said they wouldn’t have sufficient space to meet enrolments in the next three to five years.

On average, an additional 4.6 classrooms were required for each school – equating to 12,503 across the country.

A sign at Tagai state college, Queensland’s most remote school. Photograph: Anna Paton

The findings have prompted calls for the federal government to restart infrastructure funding for public schools, which was temporarily introduced by the Albanese government in the 2023 budget and is set to expire.

The one-year upgrade fund spread $215m across thousands of public schools, with the onus remaining on states and territories to maintain campuses.

Non-government schools have been allocated $1.37bn since 2017 in commonwealth funds as part of a capital grants program. If the scheme remains in place, data revealed at Senate estimates forecasted that private schools would receive an additional $732.7m in federal government funds to 2027.

Before the last federal election, Labor said the standard of school campuses and facilities was a “clear indication of the deep inequities between Australian school systems”.

But since then those inequities have continued to widen.

Catherine Paton, 14, says Tagai’s facilities are ‘disgraceful’. Photograph: Anna Paton

In 2022 private schools spent more than double the amount public schools did per student on buildings and infrastructure, rising to an all-time high of $3,285 a student. At the same time capital expenditure in public schools per student decreased to $1,576.

The AEU estimates the total investment needed to rectify the gap over the decade from 2013 to 2022 is $35bn, or $4.4bn in 2022 alone.

Its federal president, Correna Haythorpe, is urging the commonwealth to commit to a permanent capital fund for public schools, plus a one off “nation-building investment” of $1.25bn.

“The Turnbull government stopped capital funding for public schools in 2017 and the Albanese government only brought it back for one year,” she says.

“Private schools are set to get $1bn more in capital funding from the federal government over the next four years, and $2.7bn more over a decade, while public schools will get nothing, unless the prime minister steps in.

“It is through the quality of school facilities that we can send a powerful message to children that their education matters, that we value them and will provide each of them with a learning environment that helps them succeed.”

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The federal minister for education, Jason Clare, said the government had delivered urgent funding for public school infrastructure projects, including $3.2m to Tagai state college this year.

“After almost a decade of Liberal neglect to public school infrastructure, the Albanese government has invested more than $200m in funding to improve public school infrastructure,” he said.

“I want public education to be the first choice for parents. As a proud product of public education, I know how important it is.”

At Tagai – which operates across 17 campuses on fifteen different islands – just $8.5m was accrued in capital expenditure in the three years to 2023. The vast majority – $7.9m – came from the state government.

The sprawling campus, which educates more than 1,000 students, is the most remote school in Queensland and the only secondary option for residents of the Torres Strait, unless they’re willing to board on the mainland. About 96% of the students are Indigenous and 65% are in the bottom quarter of socio-educational advantage.

Students perform well below their counterparts in Naplan across all categories, and just three in 10 attend class more than 90% of the time.

In comparison, prestigious schools in Queensland, such as Brisbane girls grammar, Kelvin Grove state college, Kings Christian college and Southport, accumulated more than $30m apiece in capital expenditure in the same time period.

Kings Christian college had the highest sum of $49.8m, with $9.6m contributed from the state government and $200,000 from the commonwealth. The rest came from private sources and new school loans.

A spokesperson for Queensland’s Department of Education said it had been working with the department of planning to improve the maintenance of remote schools, including Tagai.

“The department … have commenced infrastructure improvements at the Thursday Island campus … and work is progressing,” they said, adding it had also allocated funding from the latest budget to refurbish the school, with a contract expected to be awarded in term four.

Tony Abbott with Tagai students on Mer Island in 2015. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

“Mould remediation work is also underway across various spaces across the secondary campus. Other rectification work, such as roof replacements, have been completed, are underway or are slated to begin shortly.”

Paton loves her teachers but she says paying attention in grossly inadequate facilities is almost impossible. Acoustics are poor, making it hard to hear, the technology lags and when the air conditioner is broken, children sweat through extreme heat.

She says the community feels sidelined because they’re remote – out of sight and out of mind.

“If these kind of facilities were on mainland Australia, there would be community outrage and parents demanding to speak with the principal,” Paton says.

“Just because this is school is in very remote Australia does not make these standards tolerable … these facilities are actively disadvantaging us.”

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