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Jostling for justice on school funding's contested ground

  • 04 November 2016


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.

Catholic 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