LYNDSAY CONNORS. Latest OECD Education report should spark a reality check.

Sep 14, 2018

According to the OECD’s 2018 Education at a Glance report, one measure that places Australia in an extreme position internationally is its high proportion of private funding across the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors. And Australia is certainly out on a limb when it comes to the public/private funding mix for private schools. 

The release by the OECD of this compendium of statistics measuring the state of education across the world is an annual event. Interpreting international reports of this kind requires care and a sophistication. Differences in financial accounting conventions and practices; definitions of ‘public’ and ‘private’; and scope for confusion between proportions and levels of funding all create hazards. 

The 2018 OECD report has been released at a significant time in the Australian political context. Schools funding is again looming as a political issue in the run-up to the next Federal election.

The Coalition Government is giving priority to meeting the demands of the politically powerful sectional interests behind private schools. It is also sitting on a report from an Expert Panel chaired by Phillip Ruddock on whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. And the new PM has just defined religious freedom with particular reference to the right of parents to choice of private schools for their children on religious grounds. (Around 95 per cent of all private schools in Australia are affiliated with religious bodies.)

For many years, proponents of private schooling argued that subsidising these schools saves taxpayer funding by encouraging fewer parents to use public schools that are fully government funded. In 1996, the Howard Government adopted this argument, along with expanding choice and competition, as a policy rationale for increasing the public funding of private schools. The level of public funds provided by governments to these schools now exceeds the total costs of their teachers nationally – well beyond the level of a ‘subsidy’

This economic rationale for public investment in private schooling was not underpinned by any sophisticated analysis nor informed by understanding of the realities of a compulsory school system. 

Those who argue that shifting enrolment share to the non-government sector saves public spending generally base their hypothesis on a comparison of total enrolments in non-government schools with ‘average recurrent costs’ in government schools, ignoring that these average costs are not comparable across all sectors as well as sector differences in student profiles. They also ignore the savings in recurrent funding to government from economies of scale that would apply if there were one large system in each state, rather than a scatter of uneconomic government and non-government schools – not to mention the savings from demographic planning, sharing of teachers, professional development, buildings, equipment, technologies and transport. 

Also largely ignored are the practicalities that arise from our democratic commitment to universal, compulsory schooling. This means that governments are obliged to provide for public schools that are open to all-comers in most local areas (or a substitute such as forms of distance education where this is not practicable). The only way in which governments could make significant savings from funding the transfer of students from public to private schools under the conditions that prevail in Australia would be by driving the proportion of enrolments in public schools down to the point where a large number of public schools can be closed down. Until then, having to keep open schools with unstable and declining enrolments tends to trap students (and their teachers) in schools with restricted educational options and inflated per student costs. 

As the rate of public funding to private schools has continued to rise, the mantra of ‘saving public money’ should have received more questioning, rather than acquiring the status of an urban myth. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no up-to-date comprehensive gathering or analysis of data on the full public costs of private schooling above and beyond their direct grants from government. This would need to include other benefits to these schools at local, state and national level, including subsidised transport; all forms of tax exemptions, exclusions and deductions; local government rates concessions; access to publicly funded infrastructure; charity status; the share of costs of regulation, curriculum, assessment and examination services and contributions to regulatory agencies; as well as the costs of teacher education provided in the public sector. 

At the philosophical level, the justification for public investment in private schooling on the grounds that this saves taxpayers money has always seemed to me shallow, and even unedifying. There are many ways to save money on schooling – eliminating a year of two of schooling is one idea that would save money. Using under-paid, unqualified teachers is another. But these ‘savings’ would not be wise or ethical forms in the short or the long run.

What of the mantra of ‘freedom of choice’ so recently voiced by the new PM? This is another concept yet to be given the rational and practical scrutiny it deserves. Clearly, for parents to have a ‘choice’, there must be at least two schools available for their child. But what range of choice of private schools does the PM have in mind that should attract taxpayer funding? A choice among 2, 4, 5 or 20? The proponents of this idea need to be pinned down to the practicalities. And where does the responsibility lie for footing the bill for whatever number and range of schools might constitute “freedom of choice’ for parents outside the public school system?

It is understandable that private schools will claim the right to apply religious criteria to the selection of students and the employment of teachers; but it is clear that schools that exclude those students whose parents are unable or unwilling to meet these criteria cannot provide the foundation for a system of compulsory schooling in a secular democracy. 

Do most Australians really want to give up the aspiration for a strong and socially representative public school system which provides all parents with access for their children to a high quality education? It is high time to ask this question?

The 2018 OECD statistics confirm that Australia has veered in radical directions and raises the question of whether it is high time to take a reality check particularly given international and national evidence that these directions have not been accompanied by improvement in our school performance, but rather the opposite.

Lyndsay Connors AO is the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research

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