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The myths of school funding



Most of what you have read about school funding is wrong. Firstly, the notion that Australia uniquely funds non-government schools is a myth. This practice is standard across OECD countries, where, on average, non-government schools receive about 73 per cent of the funding allocated to government schools. In the broader context of the OECD, funding non-government schools is a norm, not an exception. On average, OECD countries allocate around $US10,949 per student in government schools and $7,958 in non-government schools. Contrary to popular belief, Australia is not the top spender in this category. Eleven countries spend more in absolute terms per student in a non-government school than Australia does.

Consider Finland, often lauded for its educational system, where non-government schools are fully funded but prohibited from charging fees. England and New Zealand also have similar models of funding non-government institutions, each with its unique conditions regarding fees and student admissions.

The argument against public funding for ‘private’ entities misses a broader societal practice. Everyone understands that non-government entities can meet public purposes, and we regularly fund non-government entities in various sectors – hospitals, medical practitioners through Medicare, pharmacists via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and public transport services, to name a few.

This principle extends to education as well. In Hurstbridge, for example, two non-government-run kindergartens received government funding without any public outcry or debate, and the incomes of the families that used them were irrelevant to the amount of public funding they received.

The discussion around the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) is rife with misunderstandings. It’s often said that many non-government schools receive more than 100 per cent of the SRS, which is a misleading claim. The SRS is essentially an estimate of the cost to educate a mainstream student. The SRS is a set amount: $13,060 for every primary school student and $16,413 for every secondary school student before loadings for disadvantage. Non-government schools receive a portion of this, ranging from 20 to 90 percent (which can be as little as $2,612 per student) based on the median income of the families within the school – a method that can sometimes lead to absurd results. For example, a primary school receiving just a dollar more than what the government deems appropriate is labelled ‘over-funded,’ even though it gets only a fraction of the SRS. The reality is that non-government schools are funded at a percentage of the SRS, based on the median income of the families in the school.

This approach, while well-intentioned, can sometimes lead to absurd outcomes, akin to adjusting a pension based on the incomes of all pensioners in a local club rather than on individual needs. The schools that are granted a higher percentage of the SRS than the Australian Education Act says they should be granted are so funded because they are still on the Hawke government’s needs-based educational resource index model.  In other words, they are being criticised for receiving the funding that a needs-based model says they should receive instead of the funding that a non-needs-based model says they should receive.


'The real challenge lies beyond the complexities of the funding models and in the narrative that surrounds them. The media coverage, often abysmal in its inaccuracies, not only misleads public opinion but also influences policy decisions. Creating a rational, just, and effective school funding model requires cutting through these inaccuracies to understand the real needs of Australian students and schools.'


There’s also a common misinterpretation of the Gonski model. Touted as needs-based and sector-blind, it nonetheless applies different rules for government and non-government schools, and ignores crucial factors like school fees and other incomes.

The narrative that poorer schools get more funding than their wealthier counterparts is oversimplified. The current funding model is entirely based on the median income of the parents, not on the school’s fees or assets. This leads to a paradox where schools refusing admission to wealthier families could receive more funding, an approach that is irrational as it is an unjust way to allocate public money.

Moreover, the perception that non-government school funding has increased disproportionately compared to government school funding needs context. The non-government sector did indeed see a higher percentage increase, but it started from a much lower base. Even after these increases, there remains a notable funding gap, with non-government schools receiving significantly less per student compared to government schools. (According to the 2023 Productivity Commission Report on Government Services, non-government schools receive public funding of $12,442 per student compared with $20,940 for a government school student.) This gap is even more pronounced when compared to the OECD average.

The public’s stance on school funding models has shifted over time, often influenced by political branding rather than the models’ merits. The SES model’s reception varied dramatically depending on who was proposing it. When it had John Howard’s name on it, the  public education lobby was vehemently opposed. When it had David Gonski’s name in front of it,  it was zealous in its advocacy.  This fickleness extended to the National School Resourcing Board model, which shifted the funding determination criteria from the neighbours’ socio-economic status to the parents’ income.

The debate on school funding in Australia is not just about numbers and percentages. It’s about understanding the broader context, the nuances of different funding models, and the realities of educational needs across various sectors.

Ultimately, the real challenge lies beyond the complexities of the funding models and in the narrative that surrounds them. The media coverage, often abysmal in its inaccuracies, not only misleads public opinion but also influences policy decisions. Creating a rational, just, and effective school funding model requires cutting through these inaccuracies to understand the real needs of Australian students and schools. As we seek solutions, our focus should be on establishing a system that is equitable, rational, and, most importantly, conducive to the educational development of every Australian student.




Chris Curtis is a former teacher and university tutor who has retained an interest in education and the only person in the country who put a funding model to the Gonski panel, which ignored it.

Main image: Melbourne Grammar School Witherby Tower (Wikipedia).


Topic tags: Chris Curtis, Schools, Funding, Gonski, Education



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Existing comments

Chris Curtis' comprehensive explanation of the logistical complexities of our funding model is invaluable. But ignored in his comparative education model is an understanding of history & the role that compulsory school education plays as a public good & not a commodity.

This poses a challenge for Australian Catholic education, not simply in terms of Catholic Social Teaching, which Curtis doesn't mention, but also in view of the relentlessness of the Left about the highly ideologised partisanship that infects school-funding public discourse.

While Adam Rorris, Chris Bonnor & others from the AEU are implicitly criticised for using AEU-sponsored data to construct a picture that Chris has made it his forte to challenge, one has to wonder where Chris' loyalties lie. A state-school teacher of Catholic background but self-avowed non-practice, his admirable truth-telling contributions over the years, while standing aloof from the complex debates that inform this discussion, have palpably not won him many friends or even enemies. This observation may offer a sufficiency of explanation about why his work has been ignored.

Chris' impact would grow, were he to extend himself to discussing the social impacts and inconsistencies of the current funding model. This would get him a better hearing.

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2023  
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I accept the validity of the points that you make, but, if I had taken that approach, I would have written a different article, one of a more philosophical tenor rather than one that focused on the inaccurate and misleading claims that dominate public discussion of school funding.

I accept that my work has little impact in the wider world, which fascinates me because no one ever says I am wrong on any particular point I make it. I think the biggest reason for the lack of impact is the overwhelming number of inaccurate claims repeated in the media and by those who simply absorb what the media says but do no investigation of their own

You are far better qualified than I to write on Catholic social teaching and its implications for education. There are two more articles in my mind, one detailing the submission I put to the Gonski panel, the only one, as I never tire of reminding the world, it got, and another one on where to go next. A more philosophical piece would nicely follow my last article.

Chris Curtis | 02 December 2023  

I say “little” rather than “no” because I opposed the Gonski recommendation to adjust loadings for disadvantage other than that for disability in accordance with each school’s SES level, which would have produced the absurd effect of pushing low-SES students, Indigenous students and students with non-English-speaking backgrounds into low-SES schools, when good policy would do the reverse, and the government rejected that recommendation, so that all loadings are paid in full to all students, irrespective of the school they attend.

Chris Curtis | 02 December 2023  

Regarding gov funding of private schools, a huge difference of our funding compared with Finland and other OECD countries is that in Aust private schools are allowed to charge fees. Obviously this has big implications for the equity of our education system/s (ie. access to the same quality of education regardless of financial circumstance), and is the reason why the government adjusts the amount of funding it gives to private schools (based on parents' capacity to contribute).
I'd have liked to hear more about equity and how you think this might be achieved.

Rose | 04 December 2023  
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The picture is actually mixed. Finland does not allow the charging of fees, but New Zealand does, though they are in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.

The fact that Australian non-government schools charge fees is not reason that government funding is adjusted according to parents’ capacity to pay. If fees were the reason, government funding would be adjusted according to the level of the fees. The Gonski panel explicitly rejected using fees as a criterion for government funding:
“The panel considers that basing public funding on the level of private resources a school is likely to be capable of raising for itself is preferable to relying on the private income that it actually receives. As argued in Chapter 2.3, linking public funding directly to a non-government school’s private income, expenditure or assets would be inherently complex and difficult to implement equitably given that different schools finance their recurrent and capital needs in very different ways. It would also accentuate disincentives for parents to invest in their children’s education.” (p177, Gonski report)

I hope to have two more articles published and will deal with equity in them.

Chris Curtis | 05 December 2023  

Good to see you back, Rose; and Chris has yet to answer your question.

As a young man I bumped into Sir Zelman Cowan. The occasion was a conference commemorating the historic event that dramatically changed the landscape of Australian School Funding. The job had been handed by Whitlam to Peter Karmel, a close friend of Sir Zelman's.

Labor had been excluded from federal office because the DLP was so vituperatively committed to using its second preferences to punish Labor. A brilliant strategist, Whitlam engineered the ALP conference vote to ensure that Senator John Wheeldon had left the chamber.

Wheeldon, from the Labor Left, had been an ardent opponent of state-aid for religious schools (which constitutional provision had been employed to defund denominational schools).

The vote was carried in Whitlam's favour and the rest is history. Catholic schools could now be funded through Commonwealth provision. Wheeldon & his camp were outraged, but the tactical loss was to Labor's gain & finished off the DLP.

Sir Zelman reminded me that he was a Jew, who had experienced the Holocaust. 'Catholics surely remember the yoke of English oppression,' he reminded me.

Whitlam understood and was prepared to sacrifice equity for strategic victory.

Michael Furtado | 06 December 2023