School funding after Batman and Longman



There's no letup in the school funding battle. It has featured in the last two rounds of federal by-elections. Economics writer Ross Gittins, with his Salvation Army roots, has a strong commitment to the poor. He says, '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!

Books, pencils, tablet arrayed around a child's shoesMinister Simon Birmingham says, 'The Turnbull government's focus has always been to deliver a fair funding system for schools that is transparent, consistently applied, needs-based and aligned with the firm belief that every student deserves at least some level of support. We remain committed to these principles.'

There are five questions in this ongoing saga: 1. Is the pot big enough? 2. Are the principles right? 3. Is the application of the principles right? 4. Are the transitional arrangements adequate? 5. Are the right parties being consulted? The National Schools Resourcing Board chaired by businessman Michael Chaney was required to address only questions 2 and 3. The government released the board's report last month.

There are three principles of public policy at play. The consistent and fair application of all three principles is a big political challenge.

1. A fair base payment and loadings for those suffering disadvantage

The Commonwealth's direct contribution to schools should include a base payment, payable per capita, and a top-up payment on the basis of need. The base payment represents the efficient cost of achieving agreed outcomes in schools with no significant disadvantage. In non-government schools, the base payment for each student has been discounted, considering the socioeconomic status (SES) of parents.

The SES hasn't been applied purely to some non-government schools, particularly Catholic systemic schools and some other schools of long standing. The modification of pure application of the SES was called 'Student Weighted Average' or 'Funding Maintained'. Critics have labelled such arrangements as 'special deals', especially for the Catholics.


"Is the Coalition or Labor prepared to pay a premium for the maintenance of Catholic and other non-government primary schools so that state governments do not need to pay even more for an expanded state system?"


The Turnbull government is proposing to apply the SES with a blindfold, ensuring that the base payment to a non-government school will be the same, regardless of whether the school is Catholic or not, and dependent only on 'the school community's capacity to pay'. There is agreement that this principle is more fairly applied if the base payment is related more to the parents' personal income, rather than an averaging of family incomes in geographic areas.

2. A realistic assessment of each school's resources

Non-government schools are largely dependent on the fees paid by parents to reach a reasonable resource level. The higher the fees, the more likely that students are provided with better educational services and outcomes. The higher the fees, the more likely that the parents have the means to pay (though some will simply make enormous sacrifices).

There is an argument that schools which charge low fees should receive a higher base payment than schools which charge high fees, so that all students have more equal access to educational services and outcomes. But it must be conceded that some parents who send their children to low fee paying schools could afford to send them to higher fee-paying schools. Similarly, many parents who choose free government schools could afford to pay, especially those living in the wealthier suburbs. Some of these parents expend great wealth to purchase houses in the finer suburbs so that their children can access the best state schools for free.

3. A base payment sufficient to maintain existing school systems

There is an established system of government and non-government schools, including Catholic primary schools which are usually low fee paying. Many parents, including those who could afford high fees, choose to send their children to state schools paying no fees. Many other parents, including those who could afford high fees, choose to send their children to low fee paying Catholic primary schools. Some of these parents would not choose to send their children to a high fee paying Catholic primary school even if they could afford it. In the past, some of these schools have survived by receiving government grants greater than would be on offer under the Turnbull government's proposed application of the Gonski formula.

In the past, these increased government grants made good public policy sense because they saved the taxpayer the cost of further state school funding with no parental fee assistance and because they provided a range of choice for parents. If these grants are cut back, inevitably the fees in these Catholic primary schools will need to rise substantially and/or some of these schools will close. In either case, there will be an increased number of children knocking on the doors of state schools, thereby requiring additional government funding.

The Chaney Review accepted principle 1 and made appropriate recommendations. The Chaney Review (with Professor Greg Craven, the Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, in dissent) rejected principle 2. The Chaney review made no finding on principle 3. And that's what the present fight is about. That's why the issue flares at election time. It's understandable that Catholic Church leaders want the final funding formula to reflect at least principles 1 and 3.

If principle 3 is not to be considered, a funding formula based on parental capacity to pay (in non-government schools, but not in state schools) will undoubtedly mean a steep increase in fees at some Catholic primary schools and the closure of some others. Some Catholic education administrators claim this to be the case even though the Commonwealth Government is all up paying more to the Catholic system than it has in the past. These administrators say it is not simply a matter of redistributing an enlarged Catholic pie even though total funding for all Catholic schools in Australia will grow from $6.3 billion in 2017 to $9.2 billion in 2027.

An unintended but highly foreseen consequence will be increased cost of running government schools (regardless of parental income). The total cost to taxpayers is then likely to rise. While the Commonwealth government might make savings, states and territories will have significantly higher education bills for running more and larger state schools.

If the pot remained the same size, there would then be reduced funds for distribution of both the base amount per student and the loadings for students with disability, students with low English proficiency, Indigenous students, students with socioeconomic disadvantage, and students in regional and remote areas, thereby undermining the application of principle 1.

In recent by-elections, the Labor Opposition has pledged a bigger pot of money, but has been slight on detail when considering how the pot would be divided in light of the three principles. That's the benefit of not being in government.

Neither side of politics has shown any interest in principle 2. It's time for both sides of politics to consider principle 3 so that principle 1 might then be applied more rigorously providing what Birmingham calls 'a needs-based funding formula without fear or favour'. This is not pleading for a special deal for the Catholics. It's asking for a funding formula which can maximise the fairness and consistency of the system, maintaining as far as possible the existing infrastructure for all government and non-government schooling — Catholic and non-Catholic.

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? In the lead up to the 2019 election, both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten need to provide a clear answer to that question.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Gonski, schools funding



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Existing comments

I think there is a bigger 'elephant in the room' scenario than who pays for what. Many parents choose a Catholic education because they perceive it as 'better' than the public system. Catholic schools need to examine their mandate when so many of their students (as many as half, sometimes even more) are not Catholic at all, but the parents are simply seeking a better way for children to go to school. Do we need Catholic schools anymore, or are we just perpetuating inequality by having the middle tier system there at all? And would resources for youth religious formation be better spent at parish level, in the way that many Protestant churches allocate their resources? These are questions that never seem to be addressed, yet to me, they highlight a bigger picture. - What is the point of Catholic schools in a secular society and one where, in some cases, the majority of students at Catholic schools are not Catholic.

BPLF | 06 August 2018  

All taxpaying parents contribute to government funded education. Some of these choose to pay more towards education of their children in non-government schools. Even if they could afford it, some choose to pay nothing additional to their tax contribution towards the education of their children in government schools. Between these two extremes there is a spectrum of additional parental contributions to their children's education in both systems. The genuine leveller would be a means test on users of the system whether government or independent. This would introduce fairness but unfortunately would be seen as political suicide. However, the Catholic schools (which have failed miserably over the last 50 years in achieving their raison d'etre) are quite free to apply their own means testing charging more to the wealthy and nothing to the disadvantaged. Such was the basis of the funding of the Catholic school system all those years ago before government subsidies were won. The people always lose when government controls the purse strings. If "independent" schools want to be independent let the user pay according to means and restore full tax deductibility for those who educate their children without government subsidy.

john frawley | 07 August 2018  

Thank you Frank for your discussion of the issues in this debate. BPLF- the mandate of a Catholic school is to impart Christ’s message of love to its students. My observation of the two systemic Catholic schools, one in NSW and the other in the ACT, attended by my grandchildren is that they are fulfilling this mandate beautifully. It would be a sad day if 2 hours instruction on a Sunday morning were to replace the loving guidance and example they experience every day at school. These schools need to remain affordable for all who want a Catholic education for their children.

Morna Falkland | 07 August 2018  

Time for a complete re-think of how schools are funded with accent on simplicity and fairness. What if each child carries a government (federal, state or combination) allowance for education. They attend the school of parental choice. In areas of poverty, school funds are topped up with govt grants and in other areas topped up by parents

Chris Halloway | 07 August 2018  

Like BPLF, I also query the relevance of Catholic schools. There are 300 kids at our parish school. None of them are regulars at weekend mass, about 5 turn up sometimes. I hope that the school can teach them maths better than it teaches religion.

Joe | 07 August 2018  

Irrespective of deficiencies, real and perceived, the fact is that Catholic schools are still recognized by many parents as desirable centres for learning and formation of their young. Undoubtedly the socio-religious demographic of Catholic schools has changed, as BPLF and John Frawley note - not least among the changes being the transmissioning of primary and secondary schools formerly administered and staffed by religious orders. to laity - Catholic and, to some extent, non-Catholic. Catholic schools today reflect a changed Australian society and inevitably face the challenges this reality brings. However, their mandate remains the same: to make Christ known and loved, expressed in a service that strives practically to transform society for the better. The efforts of religious orders to entrust and transmit the charism of their founders to staff in these changed and changing circumstances, and the willingness of staff to familiarise themselves with and live out those charisms deserves, I believe, encouragement and support, especially from Catholic parents. Changed and changing times call for the "new evangelisation" called for by Pope John Paul II and, before him Paul VI in his radically relevant encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi. Bishop Vincent Long Nan Nguyen in his 21018 Marian Lecture, "A New generation of Church in the Way of Mary", presents an inspiring and viable vision for our times based on these sources.

John | 07 August 2018  

Fr Patrick Crudden was sacked as Director of the Catholic Education Centre of the Archdiocese of Melbourne in March 1970 by Cardinal James Knox for exposing illegal anti-competitive product differentiation in education provision by the state and the Catholic Church and advising the Cardinal to close all the Catholic schools. So we have reaped what was sown in the child sexual abuse by purported consecrated celibates that is directly connected to this fraudulent collusion. Catholic social justice personnel in advocating for a nominalist individualism in discernment in forming conscience have allowed family members using Catholic education to line their pockets at the expense of the harm done to the abused. Oliver Clark, Job's Trust

Oliver Clark | 08 August 2018  

Thank you Frank for your usual considered review of the issues. It seems to me that the bandaids are no longer doing the job and probably haven't for some time We need a radical rethink of "state aid" to non government schools. SES scores do not appear to be working. Income based models may be a good starting point. The ingredients to an acceptable outcome will be many. Let's get on with the debate and see if we can sort this rotating chestnut once and for all.

Peter Hoban | 08 August 2018  

I would like to inform BPLF and other readers that non-Catholic students make up less than 30% of students in the Catholic school system. Many of these students are in regional and remote areas. What is not addressed in Frank's article is the unfair application of the SES methodology. Perhaps it is too difficult to explain within the word limit, but the outcomes it has delivered have been unfavourable to Catholic schools, particularly primary schools. For example, Trinity Grammar in Sydney's inner west has a lower SES score (114) than about 60 Catholic primary schools in NSW. Despite charging average annual fees of more than $24,000, it receives $5,969 per primary student per year in government funding. St Brendan's primary school in nearby Annandale attracts only $2191 per student because it has a higher SES score (126). We are meant to accept that the parents who send their primary school children to Trinity Grammar need more government funding support than those who send theirs to St Brendan's.

Jim | 08 August 2018  

The system is a total, unique-in the-world mess. The solution is simple: the state provides free, compulsory, secular education, and that's all. The state should not be in bed with 'religions'. Religion is a private matter and people can make private arrangements for any religious education of their children - if they can be bothered, and let's see how many that would be!

Russell | 08 August 2018  

Jim says, ‘What is not addressed in Frank's article is the unfair application of the SES methodology.’ I did however point out that in the wake of the Chaney review: ‘There is agreement that this principle is more fairly applied if the base payment is related more to the parents' personal income, rather than an averaging of family incomes in geographic areas.’ The examples given by Jim highlight the problems which arise when the SES methodology is premised on the averaging of family incomes in geographic areas rather than on the parents’ personal income.

Frank Brennan SJ | 08 August 2018  

My grandson's attended a good state school and have grown up to be fine young men of whom I am very proud. Thankfully they have internalised many Christian values from their parents and grandparents. But, and it's a big but, having had no religious learning they profess either atheism or agnosticism. Should this matter? I think it does. Growing up without the chance to contemplate on the life and death of Jesus and to ponder on the meaning of God and God's love of humanity and of each individual regardless of social status or inequality is a huge deprivation. They are not given an opportunity to develop the conceptual imagination to understand the magnitude of the divine nor the parable at the heart of Jesus's death with the enthusiastic approval of the majority.

Anna | 08 August 2018  

On whose say-so is religion "a private matter", Russell? And what is just about tax-paying parents being denied assistance in the education of their children?

John | 08 August 2018  

Here's one thing that should happen. Universities should take into account the school funding when assessing applications, giving an increased score to lower funded students. This will result in parents sending their children to less well funded but efficient and competent schools and remove the "purchase" of better results from elite schools.

David Foster | 08 August 2018  

Thanks Frank. Always a broad range in views on these issues, often just based on federal funding. Can you tell us the funding of education from federal and state sources per child and annually for state Catholic and independent schools? May need to split by state and exclude capital works

Michael Gill | 08 August 2018  

Professor Brennan lucidly discusses a policy matter that, despite his considerable grasp of the issue, ignores key critical questions: the new funding method effectively erases a distinctive Catholic alternative to school provision and, inter alia, a unique funding claim accordingly. For many years now, Australian school education has been recognised globally as providing a 'Two-and-half' school systemic arrangement, i.e. public, Catholic and independent. Is Frank now saying that the Church is happy to withdraw its claim to providing a system that, within the constraints of Australia's unique school arrangements, relocates all Catholic schools within a partially government-funded private sector? In this regard, is Frank aware that the Church teaches that the Catholic School 'is not a private school' and is 'foremost for the poor' ('The Catholic School', Congregation for Catholic Education, 1977)? Why do we persist, in a post-welfarist economy, in treating the state as if it were still in the clutches of those who promote regulation and control of a collectivist nature, such as used to be scare-mongered by the DLP? Why not entertain a suggestion to the Bishops that they ditch backing independent schools (which are not publicly-funded throughout the OECD) and opt instead for NZ-style 'Catholic-integrated' schools?

Dr Michael Furtado | 08 August 2018  

A Catholic school's responsibility is religious education not catechesis. Catechesis is primarily the responsibility of parents. The dilemma we have (and I honestly doubt if it is new) is that parents choosing a Catholic education for their children are (for whatever reason) not committed to catechesis and view reception of the sacraments primarily as a rite of passage. I can't see that either 'abolishing' Catholic schools or effectively restricting access by accepting higher fees is the way we should be going. In addition as a parent and now a grandparent of children in Catholic schools i am deeply grateful for the powerful witness of teachers.And by the way I don't measure that solely by whether they are at Mass on Sunday.

Margaret | 08 August 2018  

Margaret, whether or not Catholic schools educate in terms of catechesis *and* religious education, or religious education alone, is a matter for the diocese. In the Melbourne diocese schools are obliged to teach and practise with both catechesis and religious education in mind. It can be a tough gig to engage students within either paradigm when half of the students in a given cohort may be non-Catholic.

BPLF | 09 August 2018  

like what fr frank has said, in my opinion it is not only the parents who should instill good christian values and teach religious laws .and they dont always do as they should do it is the teachers as well, when i was growing up and being taught by the Brigidine nuns there was always fundraising done by the parents and i know about this as i quite often assisted my mother and other Parents and Friends in doing so at our Catholic Carnival,and by the way i am not a parent either just a celibate person.

maryellen flynn | 09 August 2018  

Thanks, Jim, for the information, but I was already up to date with the figures. Let’s look to the west of Melbourne for examples of Catholic communities, not at all rural or regional, but in densely populated metropolis. Here, in the Footscray parish, fully 66.7% of students attending Catholic secondary schools are non-Catholic. In Braybrook, it is 49.5% and, in Maidstone, 49.1%. The average non-Catholic population across the country is 31.5%, as you suggest Jim, but how is that a matter for dissention from my original comment? It is as if you are saying that it is ‘only a third’. A third is a lot for a secondary school teacher trying to ‘teach’ a faith for five hours a fortnight - that being the set hours for RE tuition in a Catholic secondary school. How do teachers do that when they are teaching people who do not belong to the faith being espoused? (Source for numbers: Refer: Parish Social Profiles)

BPLF | 09 August 2018  

Frank concludes his thoughtful article by posing a question for the State. The substantial question for the Church in the 150 year debate on state aid for religious schools (which it would be useful to have those committed to social justice engage with), is this: 'Will the Church give up its insistence of autonomy and control over admission in return for them becoming fee-free fully-funded state schools in which the Catholic faith continues to be taught?' This is after all the norm in most of the Western world.

james boyce | 10 August 2018  

The principle of “capacity to contribute”, whether measured by the income, occupation and education levels of the students’ neighbours, as it is under the Howard/Gonski/Turnbull SES model, or by the income of the parents, as recommended by the NSRB, is not applied to other areas of government expenditure on non-government entities that meet public purposes, such as doctors (Medicare), pharmacists (PBS), private bus companies (huge fare subsidies), church-run hospitals or, most relevantly, kindergartens. No justification for applying this principle to schools has been presented by the original Gonski panel or by the NSRB. The “capacity to contribute” principle is designed to provide high-fee schools for the wealthy and low-fee schools for the poor when they congregate in the same neighbourhood while preventing a school that wants to take both from continuing to exist. Low-fee schools in well-off areas will have their funding cut and thus be forced to put their fees up, driving poorer families out of them into the local government school. This is obvious but has been hidden from the public by the repetition of the “needs-based”, “sector-blind” mantra that has accompanied media reports on funding for more than six years now.

Chris Curtis | 11 August 2018  

I am the only person in the country who put a funding model with amounts to the original Gonski panel. I based that model on an explicit staffing formula in recognition of the fact that more than 80 per cent of the core recurrent cost of a school is teacher employment. I suggested that the basic payment be phased down as school fee increased. The failure of the Gonski panel to adopt a model of that sort, itself a consequence of the failure of the big players in the area to back it or even propose an alternative, has brought us to where we are today, 17 years into the Howard government’s unjust SES model and 146 years into the removal of full funding from non-government schools in Victoria. Most of the OECD funds non-government schools, 11 of them more generously than Australia (OECD Education at a Glance 2015, Table B3.3), but, as far as I can find out, no other country uses a system as bizarre as this one. All we have to do is look across the Tasman to New Zealand to find a better model, but even the Catholic education authorities seem reluctant to advocate it here.

Chris Curtis | 11 August 2018  

I have not seen any comment about a coupon system. Perhaps someone with some knowledge of discussions & experiences with same could comment.

Thomas Ryan | 12 August 2018  

To respond to Thomas Ryan's question: I presume that by a 'coupon system' you mean a 'voucher system'. I researched this as part of my doctorate and my findings were as follow. 'Voucher systems' give parents or carers a voucher worth a certain monetary value that they can take to their school of choice for their child and which can be topped up with private, 'out-of-pocket' contributions. They are the ultimate instrument for deregulating school funding and giving parents choice. Unfortunately, they don't work for the following reasons. They are intrinsically unjust because low-SES parents cannot afford top-ups and so must enrol their children in under-resourced schools. Schools cannot be instantly responsive to the market and take quite a bit of planning to set up and function, so the kind of instancy that vouchers would introduce in terms of expectations of schools, say in respect of teacher employment and other planning considerations, would not cohere well with the free-marketisation factor that characterises the kind of free-for-all that vouchers would trigger. And finally, schools that attracted very few students would be forced to shut down, while those that were oversubscribed would be forced to exercise the injustice of turning students away.

Dr Michael Furtado | 13 August 2018  

It's good to see that principles 1 and 3 are now in play as government considers an equitable distribution of funds to the various sectors. See Prime Minister Morrison's announcement on 20 September 2018 at

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 September 2018  

The choice and affordability fund should not exist, but the reason it does is that the “capacity to contribute” model is irrational and unjust. If the original model made sense by being based on a school’s fees and income, there would be no need for a choice and affordability fund. We are seeing a rerun of 2001-04, when the Howard government introduced the SES model, the one that funded schools according to how well off the students’ neighbours were, the one that was so bad for about half the non-government schools in the country that they were allowed to remain on Labor’s genuinely needs-based ERI model. Schools that remained on the need-based model then got called “over-funded” because they got more money than the non-needs-based model said they should get. The gullible media still peddles this line. In future, the schools compensated by the CaAF for the injustice of the NSRB model will be called “overfunded” because they will be getting more money than the new non-needs-based model says they should, and the gullible media will repeat the line. This conflict is not over.

Chris Curtis | 23 September 2018  

I was interviewed by ABC 7.30 on the principles raised in this piece on 4 October 2018. See

Frank Brennan SJ | 05 October 2018  


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