Inside Story

What if Goulburn’s Catholic schools were closed again?

By promising special funding deals for Catholic schools, Labor is reviving the earliest deal-making in the “state aid” battle. What did that compromise actually achieve?

Chris Bonnor 28 March 2018 1236 words

Opening old wounds? Opposition leader Bill Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek. David Crosling/AAP Image

In a symbolic way, federal government funding for non-government schools — “state aid” as it was known at the time — began fifty-six years ago, in Goulburn, New South Wales. At the time, Catholic schools were under pressure from uncertain finances and rising enrolments. Other countries faced with similar problems, including New Zealand, set about integrating church schools into their state education systems, but Australia decided to preserve their educational and organisational independence while allowing them to become increasingly reliant on government funds.

The Goulburn dispute began in 1962 when health inspectors insisted that extra toilets be installed in a local Catholic primary school. The schools cried poor, shut their doors and sent their 2000 students off to the local government schools. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t enough room for them. The state government surrendered, handing over funds to help solve the sanitary problem. It was a classic case of successful brinkmanship, and it helped create the funding mess we have today.

Another idea was born at around the same time — the idea that governments were actually saving money by funding private schools. The notion might have made sense in the days when government funding was modest, but these days it’s little more than a stubborn myth, as the latest school funding figures on the My School website make clear. These 2016 figures mean that we have an idea of what would happen if the Catholic schools in Goulburn shut their doors again and sent their flocks off to the local public schools.

My School’s figures show that governments provided $13,117,061 in recurrent funding to Goulburn’s three Catholic schools in 2016:

● Each student attending Goulburn’s Trinity Catholic College during that year was funded at $14,168, which is more than the public funding ($13,830) that went to each student at Goulburn’s Mulwaree High School. (Mulwaree is chosen in this example because, measured by the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, it is the closer of the two government high schools to Trinity.) If the 539 Trinity students had attended Mulwaree High School instead, governments would have spent an extra $7,454,370 at that school, but saved the $7,636,552 they spent to have the students attend the Catholic school.

● Each student attending Saints Peter and Paul’s Primary School in 2016 was funded at $10,549, which is well over the $9284 going to each student at the closest ICSEA local public school, Goulburn West Primary School. If the 241 students had attended Goulburn West instead, governments would have spent $2,237,444 rather than the $2,542,309 they outlaid to have them attend the Catholic school.

● Each student attending St Joseph’s Primary School in 2016 was funded at $9960, which is 7 per cent higher than the $9284 going to each student at Goulburn West Primary School. If the 295 students had instead attended Goulburn West, governments would have spent $2,738,780 rather than the $2,938,200 it cost to have them attend the Catholic school.

Combined, the cost to government of all the students in Goulburn’s Catholic schools in 2016 was $13,117,061. If all these students had attended local government schools the figure would have been $12,430,594, a yearly cost saving to government of $686,467. (None of these figures includes fee income, which was $2,560,245 for Trinity Catholic College in 2016.)

These calculations are conservative. They assume that the recurrent cost of the transferred Catholic school students would be the same as the per student cost of the government school in which they were enrolling. In reality, the cost would be lower for two reasons. First, students in Catholic schools are measurably more advantaged, on average, than the students in the government schools in which they would be enrolling, and so the per-student cost of the combined enrolment would be lower. And, second, the calculations don’t take account of the economies of scale that would come from increased enrolments in Goulburn’s public schools.

Of course, money would need to be spent on expanding accommodation at the public schools. But My School reveals $12.5 million in federal government funding of capital improvements in the three Catholic schools between 2010 and 2016. Along with recurrent funding savings, even a portion of this investment in the area’s public schools would certainly ease the burden of accommodating a larger number of students.

Is Goulburn typical? Anyone can check what My School reveals about his or her local schools, but the most meaningful comparisons are between schools that enrol similar students (as indicated by similar ICSEA values). On this measure, the vast majority of Catholic schools in Australia are publicly funded at between 91 and 99 per cent of the level for similar government schools — but this rises to over 100 per cent in many places, especially in Victoria.

Why might it matter? Catholic and independent schools are recurrently funded as if they are public schools, yet they clearly aren’t. The significant increase in support has been accompanied by only minor increases in accountability, and so they essentially remain as private as they were in 1962.

Goulburn’s Catholic schools — funded at more than 100 per cent of the rate for government schools — have no obligation to serve all the families of Goulburn. Their charging of fees, alone, is enough to ensure that they don’t. At the very best, they are accessible to half of the families living locally. On average, they enrol the more advantaged, Catholic or otherwise. They can use discriminators, mostly illegal in the public system, to deny a request for enrolment, and any student who poses a challenge or is more costly to teach can be shunted off to a public school. And the town’s Catholic schools will rarely be mentioned in reports on incidents in schools, student behaviour problems and suspensions because they aren’t covered by freedom of information legislation and aren’t required to divulge such information.

In their own ways, Goulburn’s Catholic schools probably try to even out this tilted playing field. But Australia’s schooling framework — a patchwork of governance structures and processes, financial incentives, obligations, responsibilities and accountabilities — pulls in the opposite direction. The results are absurd enough when private schools are 90 per cent publicly funded, but they make a mockery of fairness when, as in Goulburn, private schools receive more government money per student than their public counterparts nearby.

This is a sleeper issue in the interminable debate over school funding. The pressure on Catholic school authorities to accept a wider range of obligations in return for public funding can only increase. It’s a good reason for them to be careful in pursuing more funding, even if they try to present it as a restoration of previous funding levels. Leaving aside comparisons within Australia, our Catholic schools are now funded at a similar level to their counterparts in New Zealand — but without anything like the same obligations.

The government’s welcome resolve to introduce “school resource standard” funding is already under pressure and could easily be corrupted by existing or proposed special deals. It was ever thus. In reporting on the actual dollars that end up in real schools — rather than on what was projected to happen after previous changes in funding rules — My School shows how good intentions often dissolve in the face of vested interests. The risk is that it’s about to happen all over again.

The solution needs to include a major review of the extent to which all publicly funded schools — government, Catholic and independent alike — have equal obligations to the taxpayers who fund them. Until this happens, not much else is going to change. ●