Catholic school systems have been diverting taxpayer funding for schools in poor areas to schools in wealthy inner suburbs for years. Many official and other reports have documented this unethical and unchristian practice. It may at last be about to change.
Catholic and other private schools systems will placed under greater public scrutiny as a result of a new report by the National School Resourcing Board (NSRB). The Commonwealth Government has accepted its recommendations that private school systems disclose more information on how they distribute government funding to their schools.
Under the Australian Education Act, school systems (public and private) are required to distribute Commonwealth Government funding on a needs basis which includes having a base amount per student and six disadvantage loadings and being publicly available and transparent. Past reports have shown that the Australian Department of Education has not met its responsibility under the Act to ensure that taxpayer funding is distributed on a needs-basis.
In April 2019, the Commonwealth Minister for Education commissioned the NSRB to review the needs-based funding arrangements of school systems and recommend action to improve compliance with the Education Act. Its report released in July found there is Insufficient transparency about how school systems distribute Australian Government funding and made several recommendations to increase publicly available information on system funding arrangements. It said that system funding arrangements should be unambiguous and easily accessible so the public can understand decisions about the distribution of funding to schools.
The report found that current reporting on school funding allocation and distribution is fragmented, inconsistent and incomplete. There is much variation in the needs-based funding arrangements between school systems as well as the level of detail of what is published about these arrangements.
It also found that needs-based funding arrangements also vary within systems, particularly in the Catholic school system where the relevant state-based Catholic Education Commission distribute funding to Dioceses that are responsible for the day to day operations and financial affairs of schools. The needs-based funding and distribution arrangements at the Diocese level may be different to those at the system level, but most of the Diocese arrangements are not published. This fragmentation, inconsistency and lack of detail make it difficult to see how the funding for individual schools in the system are determined.
The report noted that there is limited information on the Department of Education website about how systems distribute funding. Moreover, the Department is unable to make any findings on systems’ compliance with the Act because it collects only limited information about system distribution of funding.
The report said that there are good reasons requiring needs‑based funding arrangements to be publicly available and transparent:
“Transparency supports accountability and publicly available arrangements create an evidence base about different approaches which is valuable, especially when there is limited evidence explaining what constitutes an effective approach to respond to the variety of often competing needs of students and schools at a local level.” [p. 16]
The report recommended that the Department of Education should provide a list of school systems on its website together with a link to each system’s website where its current needs-based funding arrangement is published. It should include a statement by the Department advising whether all systems have published their current needs‑based arrangements.
The report also recommended that the Government should identify instances where school‑level public funding distribution in a private school system varies significantly from the publicly funded share of the Schooling Resource Standard for the school. This is needed to further revise funding arrangements and support public confidence that the Government is monitoring systems’ distribution of taxpayer funds to schools.
Another recommended was for the Department provide further guidance to school system authorities to standardise the level of information to be publicly available. This would require systems to make publicly available information on the methodology for their needs‑based funding arrangements as well as requiring them to provide a rationale for that methodology. It would also include the provision of this information for sub‑systems, where the system’s arrangement includes distributing funding to a lower level administration which then passes funding on to schools.
Under the Regulation of the Australian Education Act, each school system is required to report to the Department of Education on the amount of Commonwealth Government financial assistance it has provided at the school level. This information is collected through the Block Allocation Report. Systems are required to report the amount of funding distributed to each member school by base and loadings as well as administrative costs and centralised expenditure.
The report recommended that the Department publish the information provided in Block Allocation Reports. At present, the reports are not publicly available. Indeed, the Department has denied requests from Save Our Schools for the full reports by Catholic systems. After consultation with Catholic Education Commissions, the Department partially exempted each Block Allocation Report from disclosure and redacted information on the payments for the disadvantage loadings for low socio-economic status, Indigenous, disability and low English language proficiency students. SOS appealed to the Information Commissioner over a year ago to grant full access to the reports, but no decision has been made.
The Government has accepted the recommendations of the report and says many will be implemented by the end of 2020. However, it remains to be seen whether it will make any difference to the practices of Catholic systems. They have long thumbed their nose at legislative requirements for transparency and got away with it because of inaction by Coalition and Labor Governments.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools.