Proven by ex-prime minister John Howard, who once described education as “a BBQ stopper” and Sir Robert Menzies’ championing of school choice and funding for non-government schools, education was once part of the Liberal Party’s DNA. Not anymore. The current stoush involving funding to Catholic schools and Minister for Education Simon Birmingham perfectly illustrates how the Turnbull Government has turned its back on what has become another mutinous element of the party’s core constituency.
Catholic schools educate approximately 20% of Australian students and many are from low- to middle-class backgrounds in marginal seats, where so-called aspirational parents struggle to pay school fees — the very parents facing increased fees at the start of next year because of the Turnbull government’s refusal to accept the truth.
Despite Birmingham’s claims that the Gonski-inspired school funding model legislated for the next ten years is needs-based, transparent and “sector blind”, the reality is that it is opaque, flawed and inequitable. Under the Gonski model the amount of Commonwealth funding a non-government school will receive is determined by a school community’s “capacity to contribute”. No such requirement relates to government schools serving wealthy, privileged communities. Non-government school communities identified as having a high capacity to contribute receive less recurrent funding.
Capacity to contribute is based on a school community’s socio-economic status (SES) score based on data gathered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) relating to family and household income as well as the occupation and education of those living in a particular area.
Instead of a school’s capacity to contribute being based on the SES of individual students it is based on the total number of households in the ABS area in which students live. As a result, those less financially well-off parents choosing low-fee paying Catholic schools are considered to have the same capacity to pay as their neighbours who may be paying expensive private school fees.
This leads to the absurd situation where wealthy, well-resourced independent schools such as The King’s School in Sydney and Victoria’s Geelong Grammar and Hailebury College receive more government funding than many Catholic schools serving disadvantaged parents. As noted by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria in a paper titled “Capacity to contribute and school SES scores” the situation is one where “the way SES scores measure capacity to contribute make them biased in favour of high-income and affluent families”.
And it’s not just Catholics who are critical. Ignored by Birmingham is that the fact that the original Gonski Report in 2011 concluded the SES model was flawed and that the government start work “to develop, trial, and implement a better measure of the capacity of parents to contribute” as a matter of urgency. Six years later the Turnbull Government has only recently announced a review, but the findings will not be available until well into 2018 — long after the new model was legislated as part of the 2017 Education Amendments Bill.
Before locking-in a flawed model for the next ten years it would have been better for Birmingham to wait until after the findings of the SES review. Instead, his appalling process has thrown forward planning throughout Catholic and independent schools into chaos and disarray.
The original Gonski Report also argued that Catholic school authorities retain their right to allocate funding on the current system-average SES model instead of funding being decided by the SES of individual schools. In ignoring this recommendation Birmingham restricts authorities’ right and ability to work collaboratively across Catholic schools to ensure those most in need receive proper funding. Abolishing system-average SES also means Catholic schools and other low-fee non-government schools will be even more financially penalised.
An analysis of the way the data used to decide a school’s SES is collected and interpreted, as a well as being six years out of date, is also criticised by the very body responsible for collecting the census data, the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The ABS has concluded that basing SES calculations on a census area, instead of individuals, leads to a situation where “many people are likely to be misclassified”.
One example involves disadvantaged families living in public housing in an inner-city area that becomes gentrified — think Redfern or Balmain in Sydney or Williamstown and Richmond in Melbourne. The overall average based on the increasing number of those able to afford to buy into such an area fails to recognise that many of those already living in those areas are not as well off. On examining the paper prepared by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria the ABS also concludes that “the methodology and data sets used for their analysis were appropriate”.
The handling of this contentious issue has been completely botched. The Turnbull Government’s record in areas like ensuring reliable and affordable energy, resolving the citizenship farce, stopping the budget blowing out to record levels and providing a credible narrative to inspire voters is abysmal. Add school funding to the list.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down