Education grants keep the faith

YOU won't find a computer in the classrooms at the Church of the Brethren's private school because they are feared and believed to "damage children's minds".

Devout followers of the Christian-based religion founded 300 years ago in Germany believe their children should be protected from universities, television, radio and the internet. Girls are banned from wearing trousers, the theory of evolution is not taught and non-believers cannot attend the Melrose Park School in the southern Adelaide suburb of St Marys.

However, despite these rigid beliefs, which breach national curriculum guidelines, the Howard Government awards the school $5666 a year for each student.

Critics of the Howard Government's $20billion funding to independent and Catholic schools say it is astounding that public schools must fly the Australian flag to secure funding, but a private school can be exempt from teaching computer skills.

While teachers at the Melrose Park School are not converts, they agree to respect the religion's beliefs, including banning technology that most Australians take for granted.

"Our children do not use computers, email, faxes or the internet due to the community's belief that they can be a corrupting influence," explains principal Ian Hargrave.

But that respect for religious freedom comes at a price. The ban on computers breaches national curriculum requirements designed to ensure students are prepared for a world of technology.

A special exemption is granted by authorities, allowing the school to remain registered and to secure about $225,000 a year in commonwealth funding.

This week, when The Australian revealed a primary school run by converts to a doomsday cult near Nowra in NSW had secured more than $331,000 in federal funding since 1996, and $45,000 in state funding over 2004-05, questions were raised over the federal Government's policy.

The school, St Joseph's, is run by converts of self-proclaimed prophet William "Little Pebble" Kamm, who has previously warned that a tsunami will devastate Australia.

Since the Hawke-Keating governments' New Schools Policy was abolished in 1996, the growth of low-fee private schools has been rapid.

Despite fuelling the growth with generous grants, the commonwealth is not responsible for registering private schools. So when it comes to checking what is being taught or the safety of children, any questions are bounced back to state authorities.

When asked this week whether children at St Joseph's were at risk, federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson said the issue of the school's registration was decided by NSW Education Minister Andrew Refshauge.

NSW Board of Studies president Gordon Stanley, who is responsible for deciding which schools are approved, warns that freedom of religion must be respected.

"The issue we have to make judgments about is whether the children are at any kind of moral risk," Professor Stanley said.

St Joseph's principal David Williams maintains the school is legally separate from the cult, which is located in the same compound. "The parents of the students of St Joseph's have chosen to have their children educated at this school and are entitled to their share of government education funding," Mr Williams said.

But Parents and Citizens Association of NSW president Sharryn Brownlee questions whether such low-fee private schools are deserving of taxpayers' money. She calls them "garage schools", set up by small operators in isolated and outer-suburban areas.

"You don't even need to have accredited teachers for all students in all classrooms to set up shop, just a supervising teacher, and that is really scary," she said. "Some of them close up shop, flick the kids to the public system and then they can open up somewhere else again."

Christian Schools Australia spokesman Stephen O'Doherty rejects the notion that schools are setting up gated communities.

"Most of our schools have a mixed enrolment policy," Mr O'Doherty said. "They simply aim to provide a Christian education."