Schools run by the Exclusive Brethren sect have received tens of thousands of dollars in Federal Government building grants, even though their parents are among the richest and most generous in the country.
Former principals, teachers and students of the Brethren schools agree the sect is able to raise millions of dollars a year from parents at concerts and auctions, called “fun days”. The most recent fun day in Sydney is said to have taken $1.3 million from the city’s Brethren members, many of whom run successful businesses. Raising $500,000 is commonplace.
Even so, the Brethren’s growing number of schools are putting out their hands for government grants that do not require them to open their books for scrutiny.
Fun days might be held at Brethren schools three or four times a year, former members say. At one of the first fund-raisers in Sydney, the sect’s leader, Bruce Hales, paid $100,000 for a pumpkin apparently left over from the children’s performance of Cinderella, after bidding against his brother Stephen, said a former Brethren member, “Janie”.
“It makes a huge amount of money,” she said. “Even in a little country town they could get $80,000 on a Saturday, and they probably do it three to four times a year.”
The Brethren own and run secondary schools in all six states, with 38 campuses educating 1441 students in 2005. Some country campuses have as few as 15 students. In each state the schools go by one name, with numerous campuses.
The schools’ purpose is to educate Brethren children with minimal “contamination” from “worldly” Australians.
Recently the sect has started building primary schools to help complete their separation. The schools receive more than $6.6 million in recurrent federal funding under the socio-economic status model. They attract a generous level of up to $5471 per student per year, because the schools tend to be in poorer areas.
Brethren schools have received $313,000 in capital grants in the past two years under the federal Investing in Our Schools Program, as well as a $219,000 capital grant in 2004.
The Meadowbank campus, in John Howard’s electorate of Bennelong, was given $70,000 this year for the “upgrade of furniture and resources for classroom”, “design and technology equipment”, library resources and playground equipment. The campus has 70 students.
Grants were approved this year for a campus of the Tasmanian school ($30,000 for 42 students to upgrade a manual arts area) and a South Australian campus ($63,600 for 37 students for a science area and canteen). The Victorian school, Glenvale, has applied for a $70,000 grant.
Under federal government guidelines, a school does not need to open its books for scrutiny if the grant application is for less than $75,000. All the Brethren applications fit under this threshold.
Ray Whitfield, the chief of the NSW Block Grant Authority, said: “We don’t look at the finances for the smaller grants: there is no financial assessment required.”
A former principal who helped set up the Brethren schools in one state said their tiny student numbers would not have been accredited had the Brethren not presented them as campuses of one school.
Brethren do not allow students to continue to higher education, apart from technical courses.