LYNDSAY CONNORS. Tempora mutantur…

Aug 17, 2018

Times change, but the Australian system of planning and funding schools is in a time warp, being held back by vested interests from keeping pace with the demands upon it.


In an article entitled School Funding after Batman and Longman, this was the immediate response by Frank Brennan SJ to a provocation from leading economics journalist, Ross Gittins.

Following their political interventions in the Batman and Longman by-elections, Gittins wrote that ‘the Catholics are trying to extract special deals from both Labor and the Coalition before the election, while the largely Protestant “independent” sector is threatening to arc up if the Catholics succeed. Hope Jesus is pleased with the example you’re setting your students, guys’.

‘Ouch’ is a sadly inadequate response to the circumstances outlined by Ros Gittins, where too many of our students are left without the resources they need to gain the full benefits of schooling and get a good start in life. 

The Australian school system, to use a current buzzword, has undergone a great ‘disruption’. But there is no hint of this from Frank Brennan. 

Back in 2007 WA education researcher Max Angus stated that ‘the Australian education system, taken as a whole, is evolving into something but we don’t know what’. A decade on, we know more about the ‘what’ and it is not all good. And we know for sure that the system is not heading back to the world reflected in the Eureka Street article.

This article includes the statement that ‘there is an established system of government and non-government schools, including Catholic primary schools which are usually low fee paying’. Certainly there ‘was’ such an established system. And the old framework within which that system operated is intact and visible, with its divided system of public and private, largely religious schools. But nothing inside that framework is what it seems. That ‘established’ system has been in flux for decades. 

Australian schools are funded inside a framework that was originally legitimised by the Whitlam Government’s Schools Commission Act. It was a framework constructed to accommodate old political and sectarian divides from the colonial era, just as Australia was becoming a far more culturally and linguistically diverse society. For many, it was becoming a more affluent society as well. 

That framework constructed in the 1970s is now a shell. It has been hollowed 

out from within by a series of political compromises and appropriations, and the vagaries of our Federal system of government. Nothing is what it seems from the outside.

Within the old familiar shell, political deals and market forces have produced a hybrid system of schools, with a mishmash of value systems, governance structures and processes, financial incentives, obligations, responsibilities and accountabilities.

Between 1974 when the Commonwealth became a significant partner in schools funding and 2017, the proportion of the total student population in public schools fell from 79 to 66 per cent. It remained roughly similar in the Catholic sector, rising from 17 to 20 per cent, while the proportion in private independent schools rose from 4 to over 14 per cent. This shift in the school population from secular to the religious schools (which comprise 95 per cent of all private schools) was accompanied by a drift away from religious belief and observance in the wider population. Such has been the decline in students professing ‘no religion’ in these schools that the peak independent schools body is now advising its member schools to rethink their marketing strategies. 

These statistics are the net effect of parents to-ing and fro-ing within and between the public and private school sectors. The market forces that produced them were starting to ramp up by the 1990s, when old loyalties were breaking down. 

In Canberra, the public school my own children had attended went from being rather ordinary in the educational and social hierarchy to being a magnet for out-of-area enrolments. Friends who had themselves been educated in the public system and gone on to successful careers were now sending their children to private schools.

Changes were also afoot in the local Catholic system. Some primary schools confronted by falling enrolments arising from local demographic decline backfilled their empty places with students from non-Catholic families. While some ‘aspirational’ Catholic parents were moving their children up the social hierarchy into non-Catholic independent schools, other parents were re-discovering their Catholic roots and joining the march into private schooling. 

The character and composition of Catholic systems were changing. The displacement of children to the public system from Catholic families unable to pay fees was acknowledged in internal reports. 

But it was the 1996 election of the Howard Government that brought disruption to the funding of schools in Australia and spelt trouble for the Catholic systems. 

The funding model introduced by the Whitlam Government had been congenial to the concept of Catholic systems as a communitarian form of schooling. This was dismantled by the Howard Government, which favoured policies based on consumer choice and provider competition, fuelled by increased public funding to non-government schools. 

Although Minister Simon Birmingham is now being lined up as the scapegoat in the latest row over funding for Catholic schools, it was John Howard and his education minister, David Kemp, who brought the changes that led to tensions within the Catholic sector itself. The attempt to fit Catholic systems into the Howard Government model, which was more compatible with traditional independent schools, was characterised by a series of ‘special deals’. These special deals corrupted a deeply flawed funding model, and placed Catholic systems on a false footing within it. The link between the level of public grants and the educational needs of students through a resource standard was broken. 

The cumulative effects of the ‘special deals’ that occurred in the Howard years became clear once the concept of a schools resource standard was re-instated by the Gillard Labor Government on the advice of the Gonski Review panel in its 2011 report. The current tensions within the private school sector between Catholic systems and independent schools can be traced to the attempts by Simon Birmingham to deal with funding anomalies between those Catholic schools that benefited from these special deals and those other schools that did not. 

Frank Brennan’s commitment to social justice is respected widely within and well beyond the Catholic community. This high standing brings with it a responsibility to advance his arguments on behalf of Catholic schools based on the best available data and informed by current realities. 

His claim that ‘non-government schools are largely dependent on the fees paid by parents to reach a reasonable resource level’ is not true. The only private schools that are largely dependent on parental fees are the minority which operate at resource levels far beyond what governments consider to be ‘reasonable’ generally. It was never true for ordinary local Catholic schools, which were largely dependent on the contributed services of religious teachers prior to the 1970s. It is surprising that Brennan does not know this history.

As those services dwindled away, the costs of teachers in Catholic schools have been transferred to the public purse. The latest National Report on Schooling shows that by 2016 Catholic schools overall were receiving 73 per cent of their funding from government (17 per cent from state and 56 per cent from the Commonwealth). The fact is that parents pay less than a quarter of their total funding.

School funding after Batman and Longman re-cycles arguments that have grown increasingly thin and outdated over the years. It relies heavily on the claim that increased public funding of non-government schools has ‘saved the taxpayer the cost of further state school funding’, accompanied by the threat that any interruption to funding increases will result in ‘an increased number of children knocking on the door of state schools, thereby requiring additional government funding’. This harks back to the stand-off in Goulburn over ‘state aid’, in 1962. But the circumstances in Goulburn have changed, as Chris Bonnor has demonstrated:

‘The combined recurrent cost to governments of all the students currently in Catholic schools (in Goulburn) 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 argument that increased public funding of non-government schools has saved ‘the taxpayer’ is simplistic since cost-shifting from the states to the Commonwealth is not a saving to ‘taxpayers’; and the full costs of this transfer are poorly researched or understood.  The Turnbull Government has used changes to the Australian Education Act to secure the place of private schooling as the top funding priority, at $11.8bn, in the Commonwealth’s 2018-19 education budget, well ahead of the $9.8bn and $1.8bn for universities and VET respectively.

The particular tensions that led to the Brennan article between the Catholic sector and independent schools concern a miniscule share of the total public funding of these private schools and, as school education program director for the Grattan Institute, Peter Goss, has pointed out, it is about how public funding should be distributed between those students who need it least. 

The Turnbull Government has recently released advice from its National Schools Resourcing Board on how best to measure the anticipated private income of non-government schools, as a basis for calculating their public funding entitlement. The review has proposed the use of parents’ pre-tax income data as a way of calculating their capacity to contribute privately to their children’s schooling, rather than the previous reliance on a less direct measure using socio-economic status. 

Frank Brennan observes that many parents who could afford to send their children to high fee Catholic schools prefer to send them instead to low fee schools. The reader has the feeling that he has a sympathy for such parents and that his concern about measuring a school’s ‘anticipated private income’ on the basis of parents’ capacity to pay fees is more with the principle itself than with the technical details of how to measure it.  From the point of view of a Catholic system that was committed to keeping a balance between fees, resource levels and access for all Catholic families, the time to take a strong stand was in 2000 when the Howard Government introduced the concept of ranking schools for public funding purposes according to parents’ capacity to pay based on an indirect measure – their socio-economic status.

Instead, Catholic leaders settled for the special back-door political deals offered by the Howard Government. After eighteen years of benefiting from the distortions and anomalies that resulted from these deals it is too late now for them to take the stand that should have taken in the first place. Furthermore, to suggest that wealthy Catholics paying low fees in their denominational schools is the equivalent of wealthy parents sending their children to public schools that are freely open to all is simply tendentious.

Those who want a clear understanding of how Catholic schools are funded under Gonski 2.0 would be better advised to rely on the work of, say, a Peter Goss than on this article. 

In his article, Brennan refers to the claims from within the Catholic sector that, without ongoing increases in public funding, fees will need to go on rising and some Catholic schools will be risk of closure. There is no doubt that systems have significant benefits over stand-alone independent schools, through their capacity for economies of scale and for fine-tuning the distribution of resources among schools in the interests of equity, efficiency and effectiveness. There is quite a deal of evidence, including in audit reports and analyses of My School data that it is the internal management of Catholic schools rather than any dearth of public funding which may explain some of the problems with which these systems are now having to deal.

Nevertheless, Frank Brennan proceeds to ask the following question:

‘Is the Coalition or Labor prepared to pay a premium for the maintenance of Catholic and other non-government primary schools so as to ensure that state governments do not need to pay even more for an expanded state school system when parents decide that unsubsidised non-government schooling is not worth the extra cost? ‘

‘Unsubsidised’? How on earth can schools that now collect around $15bn annually be described as ‘unsubsidised’?

Leaving that gaffe aside, the question is really about paying a premium to maintain small and uneconomic Catholic (and other) faith-based schools in leafy, gentrified, inner-city suburbs for parents of whom an increasing share are not of that faith community.  This is not a question for governments. It is fairly and squarely a question that Frank Brennan should address to the Catholic church itself. 

The ‘premium’ has already been paid, and continues to be paid, for a system of planning and funding our schools that looks back to times that have long gone – a system that is failing far too many of its students and holding back our educational performance overall. 

Our national school system is now what Professor Anthony Giddens in the BBC’s 1999 Reith Lectures, Runaway World described as a ‘shell’ institution: 

Everywhere we look we see institutions that appear the same as they used to be from the outside and carry the same names, but inside have become quite different…..The outer shell remains, but inside all is different – they are what I call shell institutions. They are institutions that have become inadequate to the tasks they are called upon to perform.

We have now to deal with a school system within which our children and young people have been sifted and sorted and dispersed among schools in ways which have fortified the schools that enroll the offspring of the most socio-educationally advantaged. Those left behind in this upward migration have been left to absorb the effects of ‘choice’ policies, in schools with unstable populations and a disproportionate share of those students who are most dependent upon a good education for their chances of decent and rewarding lives. We now have to deal with what can only be described as an iniquitous gap in achievement levels between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this highly unequal competition which has been intensified by funding policies. 

With his expertise and commitment to social justice, this raises basic and significant questions more worthy of the attention of Frank Brennan than the one his recent article raises.

What is the primary role and obligation of government in relation to schooling? That is the question we now need to be asking ourselves and that our political leaders to be clear about.

It is a question that needs to be grounded in some significant facts and not in political and sectarian rivalries or demands that governments are obliged to protect the market share of any particular denominational schools.

Take the significant fact that Australia now has a valuable asset that is rarely acknowledged: a publicly-funded, national teaching force that spans its public and private schools. 

No government report to my knowledge and certainly no report from the non-government school sector chooses to acknowledge the fact that government grants to non-government schools in Australia are now in excess of the salary bill for teachers in that sector. What this means is that taxpayers are footing the bill for teaching in all but a handful of wealthy, private schools.

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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