We are at an historic moment of apocalyptic threat to the survival of the Australian Catholic Church, the Catholic Bishops say. Among the institutions facing their greatest threat are Australia’s Catholic Schools. Here’s what’s happening.
On attaining office Scott Morrison announced an additional $4.6 billion in federal funding for non-government schools. “Our government believes that parents should have choice in education,” he explained. “The policies that we pursue as a government are about ensuring that choice for parents.” The extra cash was branded as the Choice and Affordability Fund.
As public policy, this announcement, following upon the Gonski 2 Reforms, was an abject failure for Catholic schools. Every year reports of steep increases in private school fees surface in the media, along with stories of parents struggling to cope. Now figures from the My School website, encompassing every school in Australia and incorporating all sources of revenue, confirm what anecdotal evidence has long suggested.
Despite an evidently huge boost in public funding, private schools haven’t reduced their fees. Between 2011 and 2017, the average tuition fee at non-government schools grew from $3600 to $4700. By 2017, fees averaged $2290 at primary schools, $5700 at secondary level and $8560 at combined K–12 schools. Private school principals and lobbyists often point to rising costs, but this increase equates to an average annual hike in tuition fees of 4.5 per cent, which is more than twice the rate of inflation.
What this makes clear is that more public spending on private schools has not put downward pressure on fees; it has merely compounded the resource advantage enjoyed by those who can afford a private school education, while excluding the poor from them. Net recurrent income per student increased by 29 per cent to just under $20,000 at Independent schools and by 33 per cent (to more than $16,000) at Catholic schools.
When the Howard government presided over a substantial increase in federal funding to non-government schools in 2000, the then Prime Minister predicted that fees would soon fall as a result. Various principals confirmed that fee cuts were imminent, and the executive director of the Independent Schools Council disclosed that many schools were ‘poised to move very quickly’ to reduce costs to parents.
Howard’s education minister, Dr David Kemp, claimed that ‘the new arrangements will particularly extend choice to low-income families.’ ‘Choice in schooling is now a reality for working-class Australian families,’ Minister Kemp told parliament. At the prior Australian Parents Council Conference at Nudgee College, Brisbane (1997) Dr Kemp claimed that his government regarded school-funding policy as akin to a ‘social justice’ strategy. Its purpose was to give opportunity to ‘kids who might otherwise languish academically for want of choice’.
After his Keynote Address, I publicly asked Dr Kemp why he should not consider the full-funding of Catholic systemic schools, thereby placing them on an equal footing with state schools, thus enabling them to offer genuine school choice and also to better pursue their mission, first and foremost, to educate the poor. Dr Kemp agreed that this was an ‘interesting idea’, notwithstanding the opposition such a policy would engender from state and independent school, and despite Church teaching that the Catholic school is not a private school.
Two decades later, the My School data reveals a very different story. Far from making school choice a reality for low-income families, the policies pursued by Dr Kemp and his successors have had the opposite effect. In 2018, 36 per cent of students at public schools came from the most disadvantaged quartile of Australian society. Only 17 per cent of students at Catholic schools came from the same group. The proportion of very disadvantaged kids at Independent schools was even less, at just 14 per cent.
Currently funding policy is largely determined by the SES-status of non-government school locations: the higher their socio-economic-status the lower the funding and vice-versa. On the face of it this economic-rationalist argument appears unassailable, but what it results in is SES-specific schools, whose catchment and geography can have damaging impacts on the curriculum, reinforcing social and cultural reproduction and stymieing diversity and inclusivity.
Nowadays parents living outside a Catholic school’s catchment have to contend with a widely-differentiated scale of Catholic school-fees to augment the neoliberal dogma of ‘market choice’, rather than a standard fee common to all schools in the Catholic system. Instead, Catholic schools are being dragooned into operating class-differentiated schools.
For instance, in the Brisbane suburbs of Wynnum and Manly parents are distracted from focusing on the Catholic character of the school in which to enrol their children by having to contend with a differentiated scale of school fees. St Jean Vianney, Manly, whose higher-SES positioning means that it earns less funding than Guardian Angels, Wynnum, has to augment its resources by charging parents higher fees ($1860 p.a.) than Wynnum ($1620 p.a.), which has a socio-economic-status lower than Manly’s.
This differentiated Catholic school fees-effect, more pronounced where overall Brisbane archdiocesan enrolment statistics and the funding they attract are read as a whole, serves to drive a class-based wedge, already evident across Australia in terms of where middle-class parents enrol their children, and regardless of whether they attend state or non-government schools. While numerous overseas and Australian studies show that increased funding for disadvantaged students brings improved student outcomes, to link increases to socio-economic factors is problematic.
In sum, the current funding model exacerbates the socio-economic differences that already obtain in a deregulated economy, thereby offending against the principle of equal opportunity through schooling, which is widely regarded in the developed world as a public good, available to all, so that they can benefit from and focus on the common good rather than possessive individualism. And it also challenges Catholic teaching that the Catholic school serves a public-function.
The same deleterious effect that differentiates Wynnum from Manley is widely replicated throughout Australia, especially in inner-city Catholic schools. These, in order to survive, are forced to prioritise their intake of inner-city dwellers, who disproportionately constitute a wealthy subset of Australian society that can afford to meet the higher-fee structures that, among other postcode-ordained differentiated outcomes (Wayne Swan, 2005), inner-city Catholic schools have been forced to charge under the Gonski 2 proposals.
My current postdoctoral research into the Catholic primary school populations of inner-city Brisbane reveals a colonizing effect on them from wealthier inner-city residents, as well as a discernible pattern of transition from them to high-fee exacting inner-city secondary schools, some of them Catholic. While no argument is advanced here about the differentiating effect of inner-city state-schools (in respect of which parents who favour them save on fees by paying high mortgages to gain access to their equally exclusive catchments) what such a trend does is to place limits on the counter-cultural mission of Catholic schools.
While the National Catholic Education Commission strenuously opposed this aspect of the Gonski 2 proposals, using the last federal election to swing the vote against the government, in recent times it has negotiated a deal to correct the above anomalies. However, a body that is largely appointed by the Bishops to its senior policy forums is unlikely to digress radically from established Catholic-sector funding-policy practice, relying on this kind of pressure politics brought to bear on Prime Ministers by archbishops before elections. This age-old Catholic sector funding policy strategy needs to drastically change, as Quentin Dempster’s commentary of Malcolm Turnbull’s criticisms of his dealings with Archbishop Comensoli suggests.
At state-based Catholic Education Commission levels several Executive Directors have repeatedly drawn attention to the insidious effects of Gonski 2 funding reforms as they took effect, and in respect of which Catholic-school enrolments began to decline. In effect this negative funding effect also casts doubt on the reform mechanisms of Gonski 2, intent upon improving Australia’s standing in global school performance tables.
In several similar overseas jurisdictions Catholic schools are treated on an equal basis to state schools so that parents are given a genuine choice between enrolling their children in two fully-funded public school systems on the basis of their competing and historically-linked special-character positions and philosophies rather than their wealth.
The refusal by all sides – Church and State – to explore such models has resulted in a uniquely Australian phenomenon in comparative global school effects, obscuring the fact that while selective Australian schools, both private and public, score very highly in comparative global school performance outcomes, the funding-driven social differentiation that Australian schools, both public and private, reinforce, accounts for the continuing overall averaged mediocrity of Australian rankings as a whole, obscuring that fact that low-SES schools perform poorly.
And in referring approvingly in this journal to Fraser’s criticism of Archbishop Comensoli of Melbourne, John Warhurst ought to have understood this. After all, his partner, Joan Warhurst, was for several recent years Chief Executive Officer of the National Catholic Education Commission and, as critically active members of the Canberra Catholic community, the unique and politically problematic issue of the Australian Catholic school funding policy strategy cannot have escaped their keen policy attention over the very many years of their joint professional careers.
In the current post-statist policy climate, when the instruments of state authority are employed to counter the historically-acknowledged inclusive effects of Catholic schools in the name of economic deregulation and treating schools equitably, Australian school funding policy makers on all sides need to return to the drawing board in order to build both an Australia and a Catholic Church that are ‘inclusive’ (National Theme for Discernment, Australian Catholic Plenary Council 2020).
Michael Furtado is a Catholic educator and education policy sociologist. His postdoctoral research is conducted through The University of Queensland, where he obtained his doctorate in the funding of Australian Catholic schools.