CHRIS BONNOR. Is it time to shut Goulburn’s Catholic School doors … again?

For those who don’t have a life and follow the school funding saga, the recent spat over Catholic school funding won’t come as any great surprise. Labor’s proposed extra $250 million commitment has attracted criticism, most recently from The Australian Council of State School Organisations. The analysis and criticism focuses on various interpretations of future funding plans, but the implications are much wider. To find out more, all we have to do is cast our eyes towards Goulburn in New South Wales. To see the future we only need to look back.

As many would know, Goulburn become a ‘state aid’ battleground in 1962. Catholic schools generally had come under increased financial and enrolment pressure….the Goulburn dispute began when health inspectors insisted that extra toilets be installed in a local Catholic primary school. The Catholic schools cried poor, shut their doors and their 1000 students attended local state schools. The state government surrendered and thus the funding of Catholic schools around Australia symbolically began – in the process establishing the belief that funding private schools made financial sense for governments.

The most recent (2016) school-by-school funding figures on My School are a tribute to the brinkmanship played by the Catholic bishops all those years ago, and to the advocacy of Catholic school authorities ever since. But if Goulburn is any guide, the case that public funding makes financial sense is now seriously flawed. Indeed, the public recurrent funding of Catholic schools is now so high that Catholic school authorities may need to be very careful what they wish for.

So what would happen today if the Catholic schools in Goulburn shut their doors and sent their flock off to the local public schools?

The most recent (2016) and readily available figures on the My School website show that governments provided $13,116,662 in recurrent funding to the three Catholic schools in Goulburn.

  1. Each student attending Goulburn’s Trinity Catholic College in 2016 was recurrently funded at $14,167, which is more than the public funding ($13 830) going to each student at Goulburn’s Mulwaree High School (Mulwaree is chosen in this example because, in ICSEA terms, it is the closer of the two government high schools to Trinity). If the 539 Trinity students had instead attended Mulwaree HS in 2016 it would have cost governments an extra $7,454,370 – instead of the $7,636,204 they actually spent to have the students attend the Catholic school.
  2. Each student attending Saints Peter and Paul’s Primary School in 2016 was recurrently funded at $10 548, which is well over the $9,284 going to each student at the closest ICSEA local public school (Goulburn West PS). If the 241 students instead attended Goulburn West in 2016 it would have cost governments $ 2,237,444 – instead of the higher $2,542,175 they actually spent to have them attend the Catholic school.
  3. Each student attending St Joseph’s Primary School in 2016 was funded at $9,960, which is 107% of the $9 284 going to each student at Goulburn West PS. If the 295 students instead attended Goulburn West in 2016 it would have cost governments $ 2,738,780 – instead of the higher $2,938,283 they actually spent to have them attend the Catholic school.

None of these figures includes fee income, which for Trinity Catholic College was $2,560,245 in 2016. The combined recurrent cost to governments of all the students currently in Catholic schools was $13,116,662 in 2016. The cost if all these students attended local government schools would have been be $12,430,594. This would represent a recurrent cost saving to government of $686,068.

The above calculations are conservative because they assume that the recurrent cost of the ‘transferring’ Catholic school students would be the same as the per student cost of the government school in which they were enrolling. In reality the cost would be lower. There are two reasons for this:

  • On average, the students in the present Catholic schools are measurably more advantaged than the students in the schools into which they would be enrolling. The per-student cost of the combined enrolment would be lower.
  • The calculations don’t take into account economies of scale delivered by the increased enrolments in the government schools.

There would be capital costs in expanding accommodation at the public schools. But My School shows that $14.4 million was spent by the Australian government on capital improvements in the three Catholic schools between 2009 and 2015. This level of investment in the local government schools would certainly ease the burden of accommodating the larger number of Catholic school students.

Is Goulburn a typical example? Anyone can check what My School shows about their local schools, but the most meaningful comparisons are between schools that, as indicated by school ICSEA values, enrol similar students. On this measure the vast majority of Catholic schools in Australia are publicly funded at between 91 and 99% of the level of similar government schools – but this rises to over 100% in many places, especially in Victoria.

Why might it matter in the future? Catholic and Independent schools, are not public schools but are increasingly funded as if they are. While they may be very well-intentioned, Goulburn’s Catholic schools can practice enrolment and employment discrimination, by charging fees they inevitably enrol students who are more advantaged, they have fewer obligations in relation to who they serve, where they serve and indeed if they serve – than do public schools.

The pressure on Catholic school authorities to accept a wider range of obligations to match their level of public funding can only increase. This is a good reason why they should be careful in their pursuit of more money, even if it is presented as a restoration of previous funding levels – in part achieved by previous special deals. They are still well placed: leaving aside comparisons within Australia, our Catholic schools are now funded in similar ways to their counterparts in New Zealand – but without anything like the same obligations.

The fact that the current debate is swirling around funding projections based on the School Resourcing Standard is partly missing the point. The projected rollout of funding is already subject to serious questioning and may easily be corrupted by existing or proposed special deals. It was ever thus. In reporting on actual dollars that end up in real schools My School tells a story about previous good intentions that dissolved in the face of vested interests.

It’s about to happen all over again.

Chris Bonnor is author, with Jane Caro, of The stupid country and What makes a good school   

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