When the Government announced it would pour $4.5 billion into the Catholic and independent education sectors, it shored up the future of many small private schools that were facing the prospect of steep fee hikes to remain viable.
- Education commentator said keeping private school affordable gave parents a choice and that was “a common good” for Australia
- Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss said subsidising wealthy families’ fees was “middle class welfare”
- Parents call for Government to investment in public education, “but also support private schools”
Parents at those schools breathed a collective sigh of relief, but others asked: If private school is a choice, is it up to government to make sure it is an affordable one?
Jesuit priest and social commentator Father Frank Brennan argued taxpayer subsidies of private schooling were in the public interest.
“I mean we could have gone the American model a century ago and said there’ll just be no government funding available for non-government schools, but we in Australia have found that there is a common good in giving parents a choice,” he said.
“It’s good to have the choice. Even for those parents who send their kids to a state school, having the knowledge that there is indeed an option is a good thing.”
Subsidising school choice becomes an expensive proposition when those schools are small, as is the case with many Catholic parish schools.
Even in wealthy communities, the ability to keep a school afloat without significant taxpayer assistance is limited.
That was the situation for St Bridget’s Primary School in Balwyn North, in north-east Melbourne, which was facing imminent closure.
‘That would have been a devastating blow’
Historically, parish schools have benefited from a funding allocation that was calculated based on an average measure of socio-economic status (SES) right across the Catholic system.
It was based on census data and meant Catholic school administrators were able to keep fees affordable across the board.
Last year, the Federal Government removed that average, putting the funding future of many small parish schools in doubt.
Under changes announced last month, from 2020 the government will access anonymised personal tax data of parents and use it to determine how much funding each non-government school needs.
Fiona and Andrew Sammut send Bianca and Lauren to a Catholic private school and say if it was forced to close the community would be “devastated”. (ABC News: Paige Mackenzie)
Melbourne father Andrew Sammut’s two daughters were educated at St Bridget’s among a community of only 100 students.
“The funding position was gradually changing under Gonski 2.0 and we knew it was getting tougher for the Catholic sector as a whole,” he said.
“They were receiving less government funding and it’s hard to spread that over [all of] the schools, especially a school like ours because it’s a smaller school.
“For a while it was looking like this school was facing closure. That would have been a devastating blow to this community.”
Many other small Catholic schools were in a similar boat, as Father Brennan explained.
“One of the planning problems that confronts government at the moment is if they cut funding too radically to the low-fee paying, non-government schools, then inevitably there will be school closures or there will be a large withdrawal of parents from those schools, that being the case there will be an extra load imposed on the state system,” he said.
“And so the Gonski model, which is aimed at trying to provide additional resources for children in need, will in fact be undermined.”
Subsiding wealthy families ‘is middle class welfare’
The Grattan Institute’s schools policy director Peter Goss is broadly supportive of changes that introduce a form of means testing for government funding of private education.
But additional to the SES changes, the Federal Government created a $1.2 billion 10-year “choice and affordability fund”, saying it was aimed at supporting diversity in the schooling system.
Mr Goss said he believed some of that $1.2 billion may amount to “middle-class welfare”.
He said there were a small number of Catholic primary schools where families were “currently earning $200,000 a year, sometimes even $300,000 a year” and at the moment, their fees were only about $3,500 to $4,000.
“That’s a very low amount for someone on such a huge salary. The reason the schools can offer that is because the Government is picking up the rest of the tab,” Mr Goss said.
“Those families don’t need the same level of subsidy that they’ve had in the past. That’s middle class welfare.”
When the Government announced its $4.5 billion package, the Prime Minister said all parents had a right to an affordable option.
“Our Government believes that parents should have choice in education,” he said.
“This has been a fundamental belief of the Liberal and the National Parties for a very long time.”
About a third of all Australian students are now educated in private schools.
But the steady drift to the private system over the past two decades has halted in several states, and the proportion of students in public schools is beginning to increase.
Some parents choose public schooling for their children because they cannot afford to pay any fees. For others, it is a philosophical decision.
‘In my ideal world there wouldn’t be other schools’
Melanie Stopic lives in Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west and describes herself as middle-class.
“I guess if I decided to change the lifestyle of my family, if I went back to work full-time instead of part-time then I probably could afford to send my children to the local Catholic school,” she said.
“But I want to support and I want to be a part of my community that’s in my local area.
“I believe that education is a right for everyone and so therefore it should be something that the government provides.
“So in my ideal world there wouldn’t really be other schools.
“There would be government schools and everyone would go to their local government school.”
The resources argument
The difficulty government schools have in accessing to funding to repair downgraded buildings and provide new ones concerns Ms Stopic.
“At my children’s school we have really old buildings, we’ve got paint peeling off the roof, the oldest building in the school has a slate roof which leaks all the time so every time it rains we have buckets in the corridors to catch the water,” she said.
“I look at the private schools around us and I see that they’ve got their swimming pools and their technology labs full of computers … and their huge football fields.
“We’re squished into a small amount of space with ever-growing numbers, with buildings that we have to plead with the Department of Education to upgrade so that we can have learning that’s not based in the 19th century.”
Sharon Leifer, who sends her children to an independent private school, said she could understand the frustration of public school families who struggled for resources, but pointed out the facilities in private schools were paid for predominantly by fundraising.
“I agree out of it all that every kid should have a great education and the best facilities, but that’s not a matter of making it unaffordable for parents who choose independent — that’s a matter of giving public schools more money, better facilities and investing more in them.
“I’m not saying don’t invest in public. Invest in public, but also support private schools.
“Because it affects the continuity of education and wellbeing of thousands of children and thousands of families who have made significant sacrifices because they chose to invest in their child’s education.”