Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


How schools funding became such a problem

  • 06 June 2018


When I was a child Archbishop Mannix came yearly to a local church fete. Through his speeches ran two recurrent themes. One was the wrong suffered by Ireland at the hands of the English; the other was that suffered by Catholic schools at the hands of the Australian government. Decades later, in the days of Brexit and Gonski, the same songs are being sung. Why this is so deserves reflection.

Class Wars: Money, Schools and Power in Modern Australia, Tony Taylor's superb study of the funding of Australian schools from the time when Menzies first aided Catholic schools until today, explains how school funding has come to pose such an intractable problem for governments. It is also a lament for so many lost opportunities to build an educational framework that would open opportunity to all Australians, especially the most disadvantaged.

Taylor identifies the elements that have complicated decisions about school funding. It has involved many mutating conflicts. The Catholic decision to establish its own schools without public funding took place in a poor and minority church where most Catholics were of Irish descent, and regarded the government schools as de facto Protestant.

Many of those who opposed the funding of Catholic schools, too, were secularist in their philosophy. After Mannix took a strong stand against conscription, sectarian divisions made any discussion of state aid bitter and unproductive. Catholic schools got by through Catholic sisters and brothers' gift of their lives. But Catholics resented what they saw as the injustice of it all.

By the 1960s the social division between Catholics and others had lessened; children of the baby boom had put huge pressure on all kinds of schools; Catholic schools now needed to pay lay teachers; the educational curriculum was increasingly seen as inadequate.

The advocates for government, state and Catholic schools were becoming divided by a common appeal for justice. Catholics believed that parents had the right to government aid for educating children in schools of their choice. Social activists, especially in the ALP, believed that justice demanded giving priority to the underprivileged. Defenders of independent schools claimed that justice demanded support for aspiring parents who sent their children to good schools.

The Goulburn Catholic School strike in 1962 focused attention on this multifaceted crisis. Soon afterwards the Menzies government provided funding for some science facilities and some scholarships in all schools. In contrast to those who see this simply as a response to Catholic