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Jostling for justice on school funding's contested ground



Amid the furore surrounding Education Minister Birmingham's disclosure of figures showing massive discrepancies in public funding between some independent schools and low-SES schools, some facts need scrutinising.

Kincoppal-Rose Bay in SydneyCatholic Education Commissions, seeking to safeguard an equitable share of Commonwealth funds, maintain what must be to some an uneasy alliance in times of austerity between Catholic systemic schools and Catholic independent schools.

In general terms, systemic schools draw for their enrolment from lower-SES postcodes than Catholic independent schools. And postcodes being an indelible predictor of the educational and other life chances of Australians, balancing systemic school funding claims against those of independent schools is both politically and ethically problematic.

Of course, the solution to such economic discrepancies has traditionally been to reapportion funds at Commission level so as to ensure that those with the greatest need get the highest funding.

However, Australian school funding attitudes are rarely flexible and ameliorative at the best of times. This leads to a complex policy discourse, inevitably reduced to ideological posturing, becoming hijacked by partisan interests. What better reason for a new start!

It often escapes our attention that Catholic schools in nearly all of the other OECD polities are fully-funded. As such, they are part and parcel of a fully publicly-funded state-based school provision.

Of course, in every one of those other polities (with the exception of the US, where religious schools are unfunded and, tellingly, in decline) the Church enjoys certain rights in relation to maintaining the religious autonomy of its schools.

But in all other respects, members of the public wishing to avail of the services of Catholic schools in those countries are welcomed to enrol in them.


"Since the mid-70s, what was once a virtually Catholic funding dispensation resulted in a burgeoning Australian private school sector, a phenomenon considerably out of kilter with contemporary constructions of Catholic schools as bastions of social justice."


Indeed, the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales, which is the peak body responsible for framing policies that guide Catholic schools there, emphasises their public character and welcomes the enrolment of all, whether Catholic or not, who desire a Catholic education for their children. And, because such schools are part of the public provision of school education, they are fee-free.

At the time of the Karmel Interim Report (1973) — effectively restoring public funding for Catholic schools after being cut off for nearly a century — Education Minister Susan Ryan discussed with the National Catholic Education Commission the question of a fully-funded integrated school arrangement, similar to the model whereby Catholic schools in New Zealand are publicly funded.

At no stage were those who canvassed this as a superior alternative to the current model, which partly but differentially funds all Australian non-government schools, consulted. The net effect was to diminish Catholic school funding as a social justice discourse as well as to introduce a 'private school funding' issue that has been shut down in all other countries.

Perhaps the reason for this was the abject opposition by the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) lobby to any tampering with the secular clause in any of the state-based Education Acts. However, the balance of legal and public opinion on this matter has shifted.

Further obstacles, now non-existent, were advanced against NZ-style integration, chief among which was fear of a takeover of Catholic schools by statist forces, now manifestly in decline as school-choice inexorably becomes a major justification for a funding policy responsive to the neoliberal impulse for the state to withdraw from large-scale public provision of essential services.

Meanwhile, 'provisional' NZ integration agreements, initially cumbersome and requiring diocesan and congregational owners to refurbish their schools before availing of full funding, were relaxed and restrictions on setting up new Catholic schools lifted.

In fact, all NZ Catholic schools are now integrated, including schools with the same socio-economic profile as Kincoppal-Rose Bay in Sydney (pictured), such as Baradene in Auckland. In other words, the charisms and other identities of NZ Catholic schools have not changed a jot and integration has benefitted the mission of NZ Catholic schools in ways that now compare unenviably with their Australian counterparts.

Thus, the original Australian dispensation, won against entrenched anti-clerical interests from the DOGS lobby and fought for mainly by Catholics, was achieved at the hidden cost of reconstructing Catholic schools in the public mind as private schools. Since the mid-70s, then, what was once a virtually Catholic funding dispensation scandalously resulted in a burgeoning Australian private school sector, a phenomenon non-existent elsewhere and considerably out of kilter with contemporary constructions of Catholic schools as bastions of social justice.

In the UK, as elsewhere in the OECD, independent schools receive no public subsidies, as do the handful of Catholic private schools there. Instead, such schools charge substantial fees to meet the market for clients seeking an alternative to a public education. Why cannot similar schools in Australia, Catholic or otherwise, opt to fund themselves entirely from their own lavish available and potential resources, as they already partly do?

The executive director of the Victorian Catholic Education Commission, Stephen Elder, argues that selective Australian state schools are most in breach of current funding-equity arrangements. Since principled arguments are marked by their consistency, educational practices that subsidise the wealthy, as much as privileging the select few, are surely deserving of his most unequivocal condemnation in an overall funding policy that is marked for its injustice as its inconsistency.


Michael FurtadoDr Michael Furtado is a former Education Officer (Mission & Justice), Brisbane Catholic Education.

Topic tags: Michael Furtado, Catholic schools, education funding



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Existing comments

One important fact about school funding in the UK is that schools like Eton do not get state funding but do have charitable status. Eton does provide "needs blind" admission in certain cases which is highly laudable. Not all other similar schools do and the charitable status of schools like Fettes College in Edinburgh ('Scotland's Eton/Geelong Grammar') has been investigated by the Charity Commissioners. Your suggestion is credible but I fear the vested interests of the very wealthy Australian private schools, which, like Eton, should not get any public money and the still strong anti-Catholic bias among some Australians plus the ecclesiastical authorities wanting to ensure that systemic Catholic schools are not forced to teach the Safe Schools program et sim may not make it possible.

Edward Fido | 06 November 2016  

The funding of private catholic schools has been a sore point with me since I struggled financially to give my three children private school education without govt funding. It was my choice then and pleased with what I did. Here in Port Macquarie we have a private Anglican school built with govt funds, added to needs with govt funds and using ratepayers money for our Council to make the road and then enlarge it as the number of pupils increased. Funnily, it bears a Catholic Saint's name. This is against all my ethics. This is because it was promoted by a member of Council who is now an Anglican priest. What is wrong with honesty and integrity coming to the fore in abuse of govt funding for private schools. My son also teaches at a private catholic school since his education at Catholic University Strathfield. His children have all attended private catholic schools but with funding. A very sore point. People up here believe their children will come out little ladies and gentlemen from their Anglican education. Education on this point comes from the home background, not from the school you attended.

Maria Fatarella | 06 November 2016  

Has Michael read "Blazing a trail"? For instance, there was discussion with Catholic authorities re the new Zealand integration model.

Anne O'Brien | 06 November 2016  

"...contemporary constructions of Catholic schools as bastions of social justice" is indeed an interesting description. One would have hoped that they were indeed bastions of Catholicism, something that can hardly be proclaimed when some 90% of the students leaving Catholic schools know near to bugger all about the philosophy and teachings of the Church and do not practise Catholicism in their lives. Catholic education would seem to have failed them badly. We should not forget that when Henry Parkes (destined to become the "Father of Federation" in this country) held his education bill aloft in the NSW parliament and proclaimed, "In my hand I hold the death knell of the Catholic Church in this country" that the catholic community faced great social injustice and had the spunk to build the biggest independent education system in this country with the express purpose of preserving the Catholic Church, its teaching and its faith. The present day Catholic education system is unrecognisable in the abandonment of its roots, ideals and very purpose. Indeed it would seem to be the bell ringer that Henry Parkes was talking about 150 years ago.

john frawley | 06 November 2016  

Thanks, Anne, and greetings many years after you responded to my doctoral survey! I did indeed read 'Blazing a Trail' and quoted from it extensively in my dissertation. While illuminating in many respects, its data collection and distribution, owing to the hugely complex and necessarily devolved administrative duties of Australian Catholic Education, did not comprehensively cover the range of opinions from all stakeholders that might have swung the funding model decision in favour of the NZ integrated schools model. Br Lynch, as well as his predecessor, Fr Hughes, both of them Executive Directors of Catholic Education New Zealand, complained when I interviewed them that there appeared to be no co-ordinated approach from the Australian side to researching and comparing the benefits and disadvantages of introducing Integrated schools to Australia. Indeed, Br Lynch declared his astonishment when he understood that I came from Queensland, at having to 'field' questions from five or six state-based Catholic educational representatives who traveled to NZ in order to report back to their state-based Commissions on their findings. The Queensland Catholic Education Commission couldn't even furnish me with a copy of their report and Sr Miriam McShane RSM told me that she had not written one.

Michael Furtado | 06 November 2016  

John's lament about the state of praxis amongst Catholic school alumni misses a question about an impossible set of binaries evident in all education. Fr Arrupe, a former Jesuit Superior General, cogently addressed these as follow: " (There are) six pairs of complementary theses (here). My purpose .... is not to bring about an opportunistic harmonisation of irreconcilable opposites. I am convinced that the principal Christian affirmations and attitudes relating to justice are true and correct only if they bring into profound harmony extremes which at times are presented as contradictory and conflicting. I here offer a list of the main pairings of apparent oppositions. 1. Effective justice for people AND a religious attitude toward God 2. Love of God AND love of others 3. Christian love (charity) AND justice 4. Personal conversion AND reform of structures 5. Salvation and liberation in this life AND in the other 6. The Christian ethos AND its technological and ideological mediations." Fr Arrupe then explained how reconciling such dualities or apparently irreconcilable opposites was a matter for discernment or reading the signs of the times. In the 1980s and 90s this was done through the formation of educators in missiology, now sadly terminated.

Michael Furtado | 07 November 2016  

I was educated by Nuns and Brothers in the 50's and 60's . I admired their dedication. I taught in a Catholic congregational school for 20 years. Then in several Catholic systemic schools, two congregational schools and the Public system until retirement . I also put my three children through the Catholic system at great economic cost. Net result, I ended up rather disillusioned with the loss of ethos and dedication to the goals set by the founding fathers of Catholic Education. Most teachers see it as a job, not a vocation - I had that ideal knocked out of me within a year of starting teaching in the Catholic system. I am not surprised that Catholic children end up not versed in the Faith, not attending Church, yet sending their children to Catholic Schools, particularly the elite ones for social advantage in careers, rather than Catholic Education. Sadly our Catholic Schools , particularly the so called private elite ones, have lost their way and should not claim to be Catholic in practice. I am sick of the promotion of victories in sport and academic achievement as a measure of catholicity. It is absurd!

Gavin | 09 November 2016  

Hi Gavin, Thanks for responding to my post. Ordinarily I'd have no problem with parents of substantial means availing of school choice in the marketplace(especially in a post-Keynesian era), so long as they use their wherewithal to pay for it. My argument is about the injustice that our preferred school funding model drives in Australia, and which permits even state schools, as the Executive Director of the Victorian Catholic Education Commission, Stephen Elder, has recently publicly remarked, to select their students. Selection, rather than comprehensive education, appears to be a hallmark of all Australian schooling, particularly in light of the clearly socio-economically-stratified aspects of state school provision, which categorically ensure that a state school in a well-heeled area like Ascot in Brisbane, has much better outcomes than another state school in a low-SES zone, say, in Logan City. In other countries, while by no means perfectly countering the principle of selection, the widespread availability of a Catholic alternative to a secular school, WITHIN THE SAME ZONE and drawing for its pupils from the same SES catchment has been shown to generate better results. The challenge I pose is: why can't Catholic Education compete with state schools on the same grounds?

Michael Furtado | 13 November 2016  

There's pure gold to pan in your response, Edward! When I applied for a History position at Aquinas in Perth, the then 'religious' Headmaster ushered me onto the riverside terrace, stating that "CBC Fremantle is for the wogs, Trinity for the meritocracy and Aquinas for the aristocracy", while adding, perceptively in my instance, that UK educators in his experience were too radical and critical. One of his students enrolled at Fettes and later remarked at a school event that Aquinas provided him with something that Fettes didn't. Asked as to what this was, and in my aching hope for a reply exalting Aquinas's Catholic character, he said: "A reliable business network!". Caught, I was, foully, with nowhere to turn in both instances but to employment in a systemic college. As to the Safe Schools program, would that the ecclesiastical authorities ensured that all systemic schools were graced with the attendance of luminaries, such as Michael Kirby, who once fielded questions at Riverview about the sacrosanct nature of human rights in regard to gay and other gender identities. I know that many lay-administered systemic schools sweep such issues under the carpet, rather than risk the inevitable disapproval of some parental thought-police.

Michael Furtado | 13 November 2016  

Maria, a passionate post! It reminded me that all Anglican local authority (or local government, which is charged with school provision in the UK) schools are called St John's, while the equivalent and equally-funded LEA Catholic school around the corner is named after St Joseph. A few years ago the Editor of The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, interviewed me in relation to the differences between Australian and UK Catholic schools which, as explained in the article above, are fee-free and fully publicly funded in the UK, while not in Australia, where they have led to the massive proliferation of publicly-funded private schools that charge fees in contravention of Church teaching, which stresses that the Catholic school is 'not a private school' but is provided 'first and foremost, for the poor'. After The Tablet published the interview, Br Kelvin Canavan of the NSW Catholic Education Commission wrote to that publication denying the validity of my claims and insisting that Australian Catholic schools were funded exactly similarly to their British counterparts. The then Dean of Education at The University of Queensland, Professor Eileen Byrne, formerly a UK Local Education Authority Director-General, wrote to The Tablet authenticating the information I had tendered at interview.

Michael Furtado | 14 November 2016  

"Why cannot similar schools in Australia, Catholic or otherwise, opt to fund themselves entirely from their own lavish available and potential resources, as they already partly do?" 'cos it is not about education Michael. It is about status maintenance and establishment. Parents in these elite schools hold the staff to ransom with their money and their materialistic entitlement desires. How can a religious order founded centuries ago with the highest ideals hold out against the offer of a bit of cash offered, of course, to provide a better learning experience? One of the reasons they cannot is because they are not there any more. Your argument has a dark side i.e. that many Catholics are more concerned with status than the New Testament learned and lived. Many of the injustices of the current conservative governments have been perpetrated by the ex students of Jesuit schools. No, the greatest injustice is the equal treatment of unequal people. The Tories would never stomach it, but I suggest scrapping private schools, putting the money into needy areas and running Sunday schools.

Michael D. Breen | 28 November 2016  

The 'dark side'', to which you allude, is often justified by high-ranking religious educators of the ACU, such as Graeme English, whose written response to my preferred funding model for Catholic schools (which is published in my PhD dissertation) actually endorses the idea of Catholic schools for a non-Catholic political elite, such as the highly prestigious Jesuit college I attended in Calcutta and which Keneally mercilessly pans in his new novel, 'Crimes of the Father' (pp.115-126). To paraphrase: "He passed slums which were too much for the eye and conscience to contend with. These masses would not be the subject his educative endeavours. The school sat in sumptuous grounds; stuccoed classrooms suggested Jesuit ambitions to bring Indians to Christ in the C16th. The children attending the campus were the well-scrubbed and handsomely fed offspring of wealthy Hindus, Muslims and Parsis, as well as some Goan Catholics....The parents of these boys wanted them to straddle cultures and religions with composure and worldliness, and exposing them to (European) Catholic priests helped. The priests argued that they were imbuing humane principles into India's future leaders, which would be itself an expansion of Western Christendom in one way or another. Docherty felt a fraud......"

Michael Furtado | 27 December 2016