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Gonski in an age of budget repair



School funding is a very complex issue in Australia. It's now a poisonous political cocktail.

Study notesDavid Gonski, who had been the poster boy for Julia Gillard's bold education reforms, has now been showcased by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham announcing their new deal for school funding.

The National Catholic Education Commission, the Australian Catholic Primary Principals Association, and the Catholic Secondary Principals Association are upset with the proposed funding arrangements. This has prompted the Catholic Cabinet Minister Christopher Pyne to claim 'the Catholic education system really is running a very dishonest campaign'. The Catholic system educates 20 per cent of Australia's school children in 1737 schools.

Meanwhile Labor's Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek has highlighted that the schools to be most adversely affected by the funding changes are the Northern Territory government schools. She has called the Greens 'morons' for contemplating support for the changes. Even for Canberra, this debate has gone more pear shaped than most.

The level of consultation prior to the announced changes was appalling. But that is now water under the bridge. It's time to enunciate some clear principles. And it's time for respectful consultations to take place investigating how those principles can be best applied. This must be done within the realistic political environment where the present government is committed to delivering much less for school education than is Labor, in the name of 'budget repair'.

On the government's own figures, they would deliver $6.3 billion less to schools in the next four years and $22.3 billion less in the next ten years than would Labor. The issue of school funding as a budget priority and as an item of 'budget repair' is now a key election issue.

The Catholic Bishops Commission for Catholic Education has stated, 'As bishops, we acknowledge the difficult financial situation currently faced by the government and the nation.' While the Coalition is in government, the question is whether the available pot of money (smaller though it be) is to be equitably distributed with a proper weighting for the poor and needy, and an appropriate loading for those non-government schools whose parents cannot afford the fees of the flasher independent schools.

The government says that it is time for the Commonwealth's direct contribution to school funding to be principled and transparent, 'sector-blind' and needs-based. Following Gonski's original recommendation to the Gillard government, the Turnbull government is adopting a school resourcing standard (SRS) which is based on the cost of delivering a good education to every child.


"The top-up does not consider all categories of disadvantage. For example, there is no additional payment to schools which take in students whose parents are asylum seekers with limited work and welfare rights."


This standard includes a base amount payable to all students which is then discounted by the school community's capacity to contribute. So, in a sense, the Commonwealth government's contribution to the school resourcing standard is means tested. There is then a top-up for disadvantage. The disadvantage test includes a consideration of six factors: indigeneity, disability, low English proficiency, socio-educational disadvantage, rural and remote location, and school size. The top-up is not means tested.

The top-up does not consider all categories of disadvantage. For example, there is no additional payment to schools which take in students whose parents are asylum seekers with limited work and welfare rights. Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute, who is generally supportive of the Turnbull-Birmingham reforms, says, 'The details of the SRS formula should be reviewed, since there are flaws and the original analysis was done with too little evidence.'

The core principles are basically sound. But then it must be noted that these principles are being applied by the Commonwealth only to itself and not to the states and territories. By 2027, the Commonwealth will fund all schools on the same basis, with the Commonwealth providing 20 per cent of the funding standard for state schools, which are largely funded by the states and territories, and the Commonwealth providing 80 per cent of the funding standard for the non-government sector, which receives much less support from the states and territories, being more dependent on parents' fees.

Over the next ten years it is expected that 41.6 per cent of Commonwealth funding will go to the government sector, and 58.4 per cent to the non-government sector.

The Turnbull government insists that the time for special deals with each state and with each sector has past, and that there is a need for the Commonwealth to apply the same principled criteria for funding in a transparent manner. Turnbull has no interest in maintaining the 27 separate arrangements negotiated by Gillard. And he has abandoned Gillard's restrictive precondition on Gonski that no school be left worse off.

The government concedes that the termination of the past special, negotiated arrangements will occasion some grief, particularly with low fee paying Catholic primary schools having to raise fees. They are providing a very modest $40 million as an 'adjustment assistance' package. There may well be a case for increasing the size of that package given that there will be 620 schools facing a real funding cut in the next financial year, 180 of which will still be losers in 10 years time.

When it comes to the application of the principles, the Catholic educators are stating two sound principled objections. The Australian Bureau of Statistics assessment of the socio-economic score (SES) is very inaccurate as it draws on clusters of households averaging income and education. Also, the government is wanting to abandon the student weighted system average SES.

The Catholics point out that especially with low fee paying primary schools, the parent base, even in better-off suburbs, includes families who can ill afford to pay high fees. Any significant jump in fees will result in many of those families simply shifting their children to government schools, which will then be bursting at the seams. Some of these Catholic primary schools are being expected to increase their fees radically in the next few years because the increased Commonwealth revenue stream will not come on line for another four years.


"The model cannot be needs based when thousands of public schools and parish Catholic schools lose funding and some of the wealthiest schools in the country get a funding increase." — Tanya Plibersek


The second objection is that the application of the principles results in the very wealthy being treated the same as those on moderately comfortable incomes. When it comes to means testing the schools resourcing standard, the government model treats all families earning over $156,000 the same. The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria claims that most better off families in Catholic schools have incomes less than $182,000 but that 40 per cent of those in independent schools have incomes greater than $260,000.

The third objection is that after the first four years, the indexation of the Commonwealth funding formula changes, with the result that teachers' wages in the non-government sector might remain depressed for a decade while wages in the government sector increase.

These objections need to be considered on their merits. They do not derogate from the principled criteria the government has enunciated. But they do imperil the government's high moral rhetoric in the application of the principles. The Catholic bishops have said, 'We are not asking for any special deals.' They are seeking viability for the system of Catholic schools, a fair go for parents in those schools, and rightful autonomy for the school system administrators. Everyone agrees that any changes need to be 'sector blind'. Plibersek says the model 'cannot be sector blind when it entrenches different funding levels for government and non-government schools, and it cannot be needs based when thousands of public schools and parish Catholic schools lose funding and some of the wealthiest schools in the country get a funding increase.'

The Commonwealth has agreed that the states and independent schools systems like the Catholic system will retain their own independence. The states will determine for themselves how to allocate their education funds. And the Catholics will continue to receive their Commonwealth payments in block, rather than the payments being made direct to each individual school. Birmingham has said: 'We support and respect the integrity of school systems ... to be able to make more granular and detailed decisions about funding and support for each of their schools.' He says, 'I respect the autonomy of Catholic education systems to take the pool of federal funding they receive which we are simply proposing they will receive based on the need of each of their individual schools.'

In the second reading debate on the Australian Education Amendment Bill, Tanya Plibersek pointed out:

The Northern Territory, with the nation's most disadvantaged schools system, gets the smallest increases — not even enough to cover inflation. Take Anula Primary School in suburban Darwin. Twenty-two per cent of its students are Indigenous and around half of the students have a language background other than English. By 2027 this school will get about $4232 per child from the Commonwealth government. That is an increase of just $554 over ten years. Ten years!
Compare that with Trinity Grammar School in Sydney, with fees of up to $24,000 a year for primary school children. That will receive $7799 per student, which is an increase of $2734 per student over the same time period. Trinity Grammar has great resources. It has a low-need student population. How does it get an increase in funding from the Commonwealth government that is five times larger than a public school in suburban Darwin? In what way is this needs based funding? How can those opposite claim that this is fair with straight faces?

There is clearly a need for the government to revise the application of the laudable Gonski principles ensuring that every Australian child has a fair go at accessing a good education, within the funding constraints of the government of the day committed to 'budget repair'. For its part, the Catholic sector should ensure its schools are more available to the poor, enacting Pope Francis' desire: 'I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.'


Frank Brennan

Frank Brennan SJ is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Gonski, Catholic schools



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Existing comments

Thank you for this balanced contribution to a tough debate. One comment. You indicate that the parent base, even in better-off suburbs, includes families who can ill afford to pay high fees. I have no doubt this is correct in principle, although in practice it will vary depending on how homogeneous different suburbs are. Why could this challenge not be addressed in Catholic primary schools in higher income neighbourhoods through the use targeted bursaries for those families? I suspect that the broader community would support that concept more readily than low fees across the board at schools where many families could afford higher fees (which would still be moderate compared to most independent schools in similar neighbourhoods)? To my mind, this could balance a range of considerations you raise, including budget repair. [Of course, this would not remove the need to review the calculation of the SES, as you have highlighted.]

Peter Goss | 24 May 2017  

A balanced summary of the issues, as Peter Goss has said. One needs to question the Government's motives in forcing Catholic primary schools to raise their fees in better off suburbs in many cases, by more than double. It is not due to a desire to lower fees for low SES families. Catholic schools already do this through fee concessions or exemptions for the needy and by introducing a differential fee structure that raises fees in wealthier suburb but keeps them affordable. The Catholic diocesan system distributes funding in a way that meets student needs AND keeps fees affordable. Most people would regard that as a good outcome, except perhaps high fee schools who see an opportunity to skim off some higher SES Catholic families if their local, low fee school becomes unviable.

Jim Hanna | 25 May 2017  

Thanks for an interesting run down of the school funding proposal. Let's not forget in all this that money alone doesn't make for a good education. Communities , principals and teachers need to focus on the affective as well as just cognitive skills . The role of the arts ,histories , cultures , ecology and religions need a prominent place with the appropriate action based treatment and outcomes. Dispense with placing undue emphasis on tests and unfair assessments. And for some students the subsequent "failure." Prepare students for a different life in a technological world where work will be very different and the skills of cooperation, creativity, Clear thinking and authenticity will be valuable to themselves and their communities. Parents will respond to the mission statements of schools if they see positive action as evidenced by the success, well being and initiatives of their children. Maybe the schools regardless of system that are aiming to cater to the needs of their clientele , trying to implement future looking curriculums need to be considered for funding support. Teacher development beats new buildings. Funding should ensure that teacher development and support in Wadeye, Warrandyte ,Winton and Wahroona state and Catholic and non systemic schools all receive adequate funding.

Celia | 25 May 2017  

The government does not select the school to which funds are directed nor the size of the individual grants. A lump sum is given to the appropriate educational authority responsible for a cohort of schools . That authority is then required to distribute that money on a needs basis. If low fee-paying Catholic schools will have to raise their fees, clearly the Catholic Educational Authorities are failing miserably. Why not use the funds to keep fees low in their poorer disadvantaged schools?? Perhaps wanting to maintain the prestige that high fee-paying Catholic independent schools like Xavier, Riverview or IBVM schools bring to "Catholic Education". Surely it is better to have the wealthy pay higher fees than the poor not the other way around. We now discover that Catholic education authorities have failed miserably in distributing their funds equitably over some years with some wealthy systemic schools receiving much more per pupil than poorer, disadvantaged schools. The Catholic response to new funding model is disingenuous if not deceitful. Or are they simply ensuring that they are implementing Pope Francis' vision of a poor Church made poorer by charging its poor people higher school fees. The Catholic Authorities should stop complaining and distribute the very generous funds given to them by the taxpayers according to need - and if that means the wealthier pay higher fees then they can at least afford it or go to cheaper schools. Perhaps the wealthier schools could abandon some of their expensive, unnecessary excursions and activities which might keep their fees down. Finally, Fr Frank, how do we know Labor's plan is going to cost so much less - their track record of high, irresponsible spending makes it highly more likely that given the reigns they will incur far higher debt for all involved in education.

john frawley | 25 May 2017  

Perhaps it is time to re-assess the whole idea of Catholic Schooling. Originally in Australia the schools were designed to protect Catholics against the anti-Catholic influence of the then British policies. Enormous resources of personnel and finance were invested to ensure its continuance. However the Schooling seems to be having diminishing influence on its students. Home influence seems to be the determining factor on lifestyles, and perhaps the example of Archbishop Eris O’Brien and the Goulbourn School strike, ( though it lasted only a few days), might suggest a brighter future for an expensive and divisive Educational System.

Robert Liddy | 25 May 2017  

Frank, a laudable critique and plea, but begging some worrying questions: 1. Why should the Bishops bother about budget repair with a government that is so totally committed to 'spreading the burden' of public revenue-raising over the whole community, rather than disproportionately from the well-off (or is this some new principle of Catholic Social Teaching to which they appeal)? 2. Why cannot the National Catholic Education Commission withdraw from the large disbursements to religious institute (or Catholic Independent) schools and spend the bulk of their funding on the poorer diocesan (or parish) schools, as in the UK and elsewhere, where Catholic Independent schools, such as Stonyhurst, are forced to rely, as Australian non-Catholic Independent schools mainly do, on fees? In other words, what is it about the primarily Jesuitical principle of 'a preferential option for the poor' that you cannot support? 3. Why can't you (or the Bishops & NCEC) propose other alternatives on a matter as basic and fidelitous to Church teaching on the PUBLIC NATURE of the Catholic school by adopting the NZ proposal, once proposed in Australia, whereby the Catholics integrated all their schools within the public sector with copper-bottomed guarantees for preservation of their special character?

Michael Furtado | 25 May 2017  

At last, a knowledgable , factual article to explain a complex situation and avoids the hyperbole and unsupported assertions prevalent in other quarters. This should be available to all parishes, and to the community at large, but how to achieve this?

Brian Wright | 25 May 2017  

Thanks Frank for a typically fair and informative article. I find the response of Labor and many Catholic bodies to the Government's proposed funding model disappointing and, as John Frawley notes, a bit disingenuous and dishonest. If my understanding is correct, under the proposed model all school sectors - state, Catholic and independent - will still enjoy a significant rise in funding over the next decade; the Catholic sector will still have the right to distribute the funds it receives among its own schools according to its own judgments of their relative needs; and each sector will still have the ability to pursue additional contributions to individual school budgets from other stakeholders and beneficiaries (eg state governments, parents and local communities).

David Palmer | 25 May 2017  

this is a great article , very much to the point and very articulate.well done.

maryellen flynn | 25 May 2017  

John Frawley, with respect to you comment, it is true the Minister has said Catholic education authorities can continue to distribute their bloc of funds as they see fit. But he's also sending letters to school principals, and now to parent bodies, telling them how much funding the Federal Government is giving their school, with the disclaimer that if they aren't receiving this amount, it's because of the way it's being distributed by their system authority. The Government has also set up a website that says the same thing. He also says it is up to the Catholic sector to explain why its transfers funds intended for schools in lower SES areas to schools in higher SES areas (which we can). Why is saying one thing while implying another? By the way, high fee-paying Catholic independent schools like Xavier and Riverview are independent of the Catholic system schools and therefore receive their funding directly from Government (ie, not thru a Catholic Education Office)

Jim Hanna | 26 May 2017  

It's time Australia did away with this complex funding system and got back to the basics of education similar to Scandinavian countries with a 95% emphasis on free, high quality public schooling where rich and poor kids study together.

AURELIUS | 26 May 2017  

If your last assertion is true, Jim Hanna, how come Catholic independent schools are represented on all the state Catholic Education Commissions, which constitute the first point of receipt for and distribution of government funds to all Catholic schools in each state and territory? All funds arrive at their doorstep (not at CEOs), as I discovered in my doctoral research, and are thence redistributed. It is precisely the kind of complexity and mystery that pervades throughout this overall topic that necessitates Eureka Street commissioning a series of articles, and not just one, on it. This would appear to be especially necessary if one, albeit eminent, author has been privileged to write an article and the many questions his approach raises remain unanswered. After all, ES proudly claims to be the kind of arts/social policy/literary e-journal that cultivates the kind of critical Catholic discourse for which the Society of Jesus is globally-renowned. Without such a discursive approach, it regrettably runs the risk of becoming a declaratory, positional advantage, and, despite its toleration of some dissent, mutual admiration flagship and little else.

Dr Michael Furtado | 26 May 2017  

I’d like to endorse the comments of john frawley and Michael Furtado. It seems it is not just the conservative clerical apparatus of the Catholic Church that seeks to build a shining Temple of itself, but also the brand-name “Catholic Education”, now apparently another object of institutional idolatry. The “preferential option for the poor” seems to be a bridge too far for even Catholic religious, and is worth nothing if it does not actually mean redressing the structural inequalities to lessen or eradicate the disadvantage. Why can’t Catholics in positions of influence in education discard notions of empire and caste systems and just simply give proportionately more to the poorer teachers and schools and ask more of the richer? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

smk | 26 May 2017  

Catholic Schools and their advocates are bleating loud and long - this time. Distribution deals done with the Howard and Gillard Governments were taken with suppressed glee. In those times, Administrators enjoyed the 'extras' and muttered musings that times would not always be so generous. Perhaps, those administrators have retired.and their replacements have forgotten that a re-set was inevitable.

Bill Burke | 28 May 2017  

There are two issues here that have been conflated. Budget repair and education spending. Budget repair is a nonsense. Fiat governments with free floating currencies can never run out of money. Whilst resources are lying idle in a economy, governments can continue to spend without fear. The real issue is where you want to spend your funds i.e what are your priorities. Education is a priority and all governments should be making it one of their top priorities.

Wayne McMillan | 28 May 2017  

This is a great article , Fr Frank. Education funding has been unfair for a long time with the so-called elite schools always doing much better than the poor state and Catholic schools. This has to change, but it won't with an LNP government that has maintained an unfair funding system for Australian schools for decades. It actually started with Robert Menzies. I think that the Pope Francis quote is an important one. While most Catholic parish schools have had financial problems like most of their state counterparts, the more elite ones like Riverview College (Tony Abbott's former school) have always done very well. Gonski was supposed to be about fairer funding with a priority going to the poorer schools. Simon Birmingham has not followed through this principle on his watch as federal Education Minister.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 May 2017  

Thanks for the informative post!

Adelina | 07 June 2017  

5 questions: 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? We need a clear answer to each.

Frank Brennan | 19 June 2017  

In the original article published on 23 May 2017, I said, ‘When it comes to the application of the principles, the Catholic educators are stating two sound principled objections.’ I set out the first principled objection in these terms: ‘The Australian Bureau of Statistics assessment of the socio-economic score (SES) is very inaccurate as it draws on clusters of households averaging income and education. Also, the government is wanting to abandon the student weighted system average SES. The Catholics point out that especially with low fee paying primary schools, the parent base, even in better-off suburbs, includes families who can ill afford to pay high fees. Any significant jump in fees will result in many of those families simply shifting their children to government schools, which will then be bursting at the seams. Some of these Catholic primary schools are being expected to increase their fees radically in the next few years because the increased Commonwealth revenue stream will not come on line for another four years.’

On 19 June 2017, I raised the question, ‘Is the application of the principles right?’ It was not. The Chaney Review has now been released. The present SES score methodology first introduced in 2001 and reviewed every five years was found to be deficient. ‘The data show that capacity to contribute is not evenly distributed within Census statistical areas and that patterns of school selection mean that the current methodology, while accurate in many cases, materially overstates the SES of some schools and understates that of others.’ The Chaney review panel found, ‘Based on extensive analysis of the alternatives, the Board concluded that the current approach is no longer the most accurate measure available and a direct measure of parental income is currently the most fit-for-purpose, transparent, and reliable way to determine a school community’s capacity to contribute.’ See https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/national_school_resourcing_board_ses_review_final_report.pdf

Frank Brennan SJ | 09 July 2018  

As Fr Brennan says, the NSRB has released its report. The attempt by the Catholic education authorities to have fees and other school income included as part of the assessment of “capacity to contribute” failed as it was always going to, given the terms of reference set by the Turnbull government. No one has ever justified the use of “capacity to contribute” as the method for assessing government funding for some school students; i.e., those not at government schools. The Gonski panel didn’t even try. Peter Goss made an attempt in his submission to the NSRB, but it was unconvincing. Government subsidies to private bus companies are not altered according to the income of the passengers, much less the income of the passengers’ neighbours. Government subsidies to kindergartens are not altered according to the income of the children’s parents. The question now is whether or not the Catholic authorities accept the more precise measure of the nonsense concept or fight for the adoption by federal Labor of Victorian Labor’s true needs-based funding policy, which does take account of school fees. To give up now would be to repeat the mistake they made when they accepted the SES model.

Chris Curtis | 16 July 2018