Newhaven College principal Gea Lovell with students Camille Thompson, John Bastwrous and Hamish Bissett. All three students rely on the college’s bus network to get them to and from school. G024712

By Gav Ross

A LOCAL principal has joined forces with representatives from other regional schools in Victoria to campaign against school transport subsidy cuts recently announced by the State Government. Newhaven College principal Gea Lovell admits she has never lobbied for any cause in her life, but she feels the “discriminatory nature” of the changes to an allowance that assists students being transported on buses to and from school is too unfair to ignore. “This isn’t about Newhaven College students alone, it’s about all students in regional areas,” Ms Lovell said. Under the changes announced by the State Government at the end of October, the transport allowance available to families whose children attend private schools will be means tested for new enrolments from next year onwards, meaning only parents receiving Centrelink benefits, including a health care card, will be eligible for assistance. The changes primarily affect students starting either Prep or Year 7, or families who change residential addresses while their children are still attending a non-government school. Ms Lovell views the changes as a “further attack” on schools in rural, regional and outer metropolitan areas. “Independent schools in such locations are central to their communities,” she said. “They are called upon to deliver much more to their communities than their urban counterparts, yet funding and allowances are removed rather than provided to these schools.” Ms Lovell said Newhaven College was currently in a position where the school subsidises bus transport for students, so parents won’t be hit with massive fee hikes. “But for schools that haven’t offered the subsidy – this will hit really hard,” she said. “For some schools it can add up to 30 per cent to the cost of education of each child.” Ms Lovell said the increase to Newhaven College tuition fees to cover the cuts may be as little as $50 per annum, but it will place significant strain on the college’s budget. Newhaven College currently uses 10 coach-size buses to transport its 700-plus students to and from its junior and senior campuses. An additional bus is being added next year to cope with student growth, which is now higher than it has ever been. “All of our buses that transport off the Island are all full,” Ms Lovell said. “And then there’s a waiting list to get onto the buses.” Ms Lovell said that of the 80 new students enrolled at Newhaven next year, only seven will be driven to school by their parents and 13 are in close enough proximity to the school to walk. Ms Lovell has sent out two urgent letters to the parents of school students this past week, providing the contact details of politicians and a draft letter so that parents can assist in the campaign. Along with representatives from 15 other schools, Ms Lovell met with shadow education minister James Merlino last week and she has a meeting with Bass MP Ken Smith scheduled for early this week. “The school will leave no stone unturned in relation to this matter,” Ms Lovell wrote to parents. “Discussions with lawyers have also thrown up a number of avenues for us to pursue and these will continue in the next week.” Michael Delaney, principal of Mary MacKillop Catholic Regional College in Leongatha, said the college stands to lose “about 20 grand” out of the budget if the changes go ahead. Mr Delaney said the school board will be discussing next week whether the college is able to absorb the cost, which he added could balloon out to $150,000 over a six year period, or whether it would be passed on to parents. Mary MacKillop currently charters three buses, transporting 200 of its 529 students each day. When announcing the changes in criteria for receiving the allowance, state minister for education, Martin Dixon, said the majority of students currently receiving the conveyance allowance would not be affected by the changes. “While parents have the primary responsibility of transporting their children to and from school, the conveyance allowance is about providing targeted additional support to families in most need,” Mr Dixon said. “These changes mean the conveyance allowance will more accurately reflect public transport availability and a family’s financial situation.” Ms Lovell pointed out that in Newhaven College’s case, adequate public transport does not exist. “Where there are public transport offerings, the routes do not support getting students to and from school in reasonable time,” she said. “And (they are) under resourced, so there would not be sufficient room to carry all students.”