Raiders great backs autism school plan

chatting: Ricky Stuart and Zed Seselja MLA
Full support ... Ricky Stewart with Liberals leader Zed Seselja after announcing his charity will financially support a school for children with autism.

Full support ... Ricky Stuart with Liberals leader Zed Seselja after announcing his charity will financially support a school for children with autism. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The Canberra Liberals have based their plan for an autism-specific school on a Queensland model that charges families fees in excess of $20,000 a year.

But the opposition, whose proposal was endorsed yesterday by former Canberra Raiders rugby league champion Ricky Stuart, said that they will be able to keep fees for their school lower than the $23,000 per year charged in Queensland.

The amount families pay for the Queensland schools, operated by the not-for-profit AEIOU Foundation, is higher than the fees charged at Canberra Grammar School.

ACT Labor, meanwhile, claimed that the $1.5 million a Liberals government would invest in capital funding was not enough to build a school and called on the opposition to submit its policy to the ACT Treasury for costing.

Former Australian and NSW Blues player and coach Mr Stuart, whose 15-year-old daughter Emma has autism, promised all money raised by his Ricky Stuart Foundation in Canberra would go towards recurrent funding for the school if the Liberals won government.

In the past 10 months in Canberra, the Ricky Stuart Foundation has raised about $250,000.

A Liberal government would provide $1 million in recurrent funding, which would equate to about $25,000 per child at the 40-student school.

Opposition Leader Zed Seselja did not supply the costs for running the proposed school, but said remaining funding would be sourced through fundraising and fees from parents.

In Queensland, the AEIOU Foundation operates early childhood education centres for children with autism aged 2½ to 5.

Fees for the Queensland centres are set at $22,900 per child and families can offset the cost through federal government rebates such as childcare and carers allowances.

The Queensland government currently funds $11,666 per child per year at the AEIOU Foundation, and the foundation is responsible for fundraising around $10,000 per child per year.

The Canberra model would be for children aged up to six and Mr Seselja said the Canberra Liberals' plan for roughly double the amount of government funding per student than in Queensland would reduce the fees burden for parents.

''The combination of ACT government funding, should we come into government, and Commonwealth rebates, would mean that depending on the income of the family it could be nothing or it could be up to around about $7000 per year.''

But ACT Labor called on the Liberals yesterday to release more detail on their costings for the proposed autism-specific school. Community Services Minister Joy Burch said the Opposition also was not being clear on what the school's fees would be. ''[The sum of] $1.5 million is not enough to build a new school, especially one for students with complex needs,'' she said. ''The Liberals have not released any detail about what the funding they have committed would deliver, and we call on them to release the detail of their policy.

''On the face of it, it appears that once again the Canberra Liberals have underestimated the capital cost of what they have promised.''

A spokeswoman for the Liberals said the $1.5 million in capital funding was the figure the AEIOU Foundation said the school would cost to build.

Mr Stuart said yesterday that disadvantaged children had been ''pushed aside'' by Australian governments and he wanted to endorse a proposal he believed had ''substance''. He said he supported school models for children with spectrum disorders that focused on early intervention.

''Early intervention through these types of schools helps them with their communication, their lifestyle, and just living a more comfortable life,'' he said.

''I just wish we'd had this opportunity for our daughter when she was at this age.''

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