Public accountability for the use of taxpayer funding is a fundamental tenet of democratic government. Yet, this principle has long been ignored by Catholic education authorities who refuse to reveal how they distribute government funding amongst their schools despite it being a legislative requirement. Their refusal has been connived at by successive governments that failed to make the Commonwealth Department of Education enforce the legislation. The latest example of this tacit agreement at work is the refusal of the Education Department to fully disclose how Catholic Education Commissions distribute their taxpayer funding.
The Department refused an FOI request for complete Block Allocation Reports of the Catholic Education Commissions and education departments in each state and territory. The Australian Education Act requires that school systems distribute funding on a needs-basis that includes a base amount per student and loadings to address school and student disadvantages. Block Allocation Reports are a key mechanism for monitoring whether school systems comply with this requirement. The reports show the payments to each school, including amounts distributed for base funding, disadvantage loadings, administrative costs and centralised expenditure.
After consultation with Catholic Education Commissions, the Department partially exempted each Block Allocation Report from disclosure. It redacted information on the payments for the disadvantage loadings for low socio-economic status, Indigenous, disability and low English language proficiency students. Three Catholic Education Commission reports were not released because they are subject to reviews of the decision to release even redacted versions. As ever the case, Catholic education authorities are desperate to avoid public scrutiny of what they do with taxpayer funds.
The Department gave two reasons for redacting the Catholic Education Commission reports. It accepted Commission claims that disclosure of the payments would reveal information about the socio-economic composition of schools that could adversely impact on their community standing and their enrolments. It also said that the information would disclose personal information about individuals. The latter reason was also given for redacting information on “prescribed circumstances grants” (which apply to disability students) from the reports of the Victorian, Queensland and Northern Territory education departments.
An application has been lodged with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) to set aside the decisions because they are wrong. The Department’s decision is based on flimsy reasons which verge on ludicrous in some cases.
In deciding that the release of the information could be reasonably expected to adversely affect schools, the Department mis-interpreted the FOI Act. It failed to establish that providing the payments would, or could reasonably be expected to, unreasonably affect schools adversely as required under the Act. Moreover, the Department failed to establish that its expectation that the adverse effect could be reasonably expected is based on reason, as also required by the Act.
The decision also ignores the fact that information about the socio-economic composition of schools, Indigenous enrolments and students with a language background other than English is already in the public domain as it is published on the My School website. The OAIC FOI Guidelines state that where disclosure would result in the release of facts already in the public domain, it does not amount to an unreasonable adverse effect.
Furthermore, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the proportion of low SES and disability students in schools from information on the payments for these loadings because there are different loadings within each student category. In addition, it is difficult to reach conclusions about the extent of Indigenous enrolments from payments for this loading.
While enrolments of disability students are not available in the My School website, it would be extremely difficult to draw any conclusions about the proportion of disability students in a school from information on the payments for disability students because different loadings apply to different levels of disability as well as for primary and secondary schools. For example, a payment to a primary school of say $476,000 could indicate 100 disability students at the supplementary support level or 13.5 students at the extensive support level.
The Department’s decision also states that release of the information on the payments for the various disadvantage loadings would disclose personal information about individuals. However, the Department failed to establish that disclosure would involve “unreasonable disclosure of personal information about any person” as required under the FOI Act.
The FOI request does not ask for disclosure of personal information about any individual let alone an unreasonable disclosure. It requests information on block payments to schools. The payments recorded in the Block Allocation Reports for the student disadvantage loadings and prescribed circumstances grants are not in themselves personal information. They are not personal information about identified individual students or students who could be reasonably identified. They are not made to individual families but form part of the funding pool of schools. They can be used to directly or indirectly support the learning of disadvantaged students.
Block Allocation Reports are also required to include funding retained for administrative and centralized expenditure. The National Audit Office has previously identified large variations in the administrative and centralised costs reported by private school system authorities. However, the redacted reports do not include this information and the Department’s decision does not state why it was not provided.
Several reports including two by the National Audit Office in 2009 and 2017, the Gonski report and, recently, the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit have criticised the lack of transparency and accountability about the distribution of taxpayer funding by private school systems. They have all recommended changes by the Department of Education to improve monitoring of the use of government funding and ensure that it is distributed on a needs-basis by school systems.
The Block Allocation Reports so far released confirm that the Department is not adequately monitoring how taxpayer funds are used by public and private school systems. Apart from the redactions to conceal payments for the disadvantage loadings, the Catholic Education Commission reports fail to report total payments to each school or report funding retained for administration and centralised expenditure despite this being a requirement for the Report. The state department reports provide even less information. For the most part, they fail to report the payments for each disadvantage loading. The Western Australian department has never submitted a report and no sanctions have ever been applied.
Full publication of the Block Allocation Reports is an important way to provide greater assurance that school funding is being distributed on a needs-basis. Publication of the payments for the base amount and the student disadvantage loadings is needed not only to hold public and private school systems accountable for how they use taxpayer funding, but also to assure the public that the Commonwealth Department of Education in fulfilling its statutory responsibilities to monitor and report on how school systems use their government funding.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools