Catholic Education NSW responds: Government funding announcement ‘unprecedented and insulting’

Jackson Mason, 14, celebrates the official opening and blessing of Eileen O’Connor Catholic College in Lewisham on 9 December 2016, with Sydney Catholic Schools Director Dr Dan White and Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. Photo: Therese Spruhan

There has been a lot said and written about school funding since Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced a new 10-year funding plan on Tuesday 2 May.

It’s hard to make sense of all the dollar amounts and percentages being thrown around; everyone seems to have a figure that proves one thing or another, so here are some points that are indisputable.

1. The Federal Government did not consult the Catholic schools sector on the detail of the new funding scheme before its announcement
The Federal Government failed to deliver on its commitment to meaningful consultation on its proposed changes to school funding arrangements. All schooling sectors, including Catholic education, found out about the changes on the day they were announced. It is not ‘consultation’ to inform the second biggest schools provider of significant school funding changes on the day those changes are announced. The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) was given no data that would allow it to calculate the impact on our schools – only broad figures and vague assurances. The Government’s lack of detailed consultation is both unprecedented and insulting. Had the Government taken more time to talk through the changes and understand the impact, we would not be in this position today.

2. The devil is always in the detail – and the Government is still keeping much of the detail to itself
More than a week after it announced its new funding plan, the Government has still not revealed to the NCEC the basis for its funding calculations. Why is the Government refusing to provide this detail? What does it have to hide? Is the Government still working on its own calculations?

3. The Government’s claim that funding to Catholic schools will grow by 3.7% each year is misleading
The 3.7% is an average for the entire Catholic sector in every state and territory. It is not a meaningful reflection of funding growth in each state and territory because it is distorted by, for example, a 5.8% rise in the Northern Territory which has only 17 Catholic schools. In the ACT, funding will actually fall by 0.2% over four years, and then be frozen. In any case, the 3.7% ‘average’ growth is the lowest of all school sectors.

Then there is the annual indexation rate of 3.56% applied to Commonwealth base funding for all school sectors. This rate will be slashed after 2020 because the Government will use a new formula based on two measures (the wage price index and the consumer price index) that we believe do not reflect actual growth in school costs. Analysis by the Catholic Education Commission Victoria estimates the new indexation rate will be 1.95% while school costs will be 3-3.5%.

4. From the few details we do know, Catholic schools will be worse off in most states and territories
We know the ACT will be the worst hit because Federal funding for its 29 diocesan schools will be frozen for 10 years, while teacher salaries and other costs continue to rise every year. This will mean higher school fees, staff cuts or a combination of both.

Independent education analyst Peter Goss of the Grattan Institute wrote on The Conversation that Catholic schools are ‘big losers’ under the changes, although he too notes further analysis is needed to determine the extent. He also says the changes “… will have the effect of expecting parents to contribute more, especially in Catholic primary schools.”

5. Funding will fall in most states and territories because the Government has changed how it assesses ‘need’ in Catholic schools
The Federal Government has redefined without consultation the way it measures ‘need’ by phasing out something called the System Weighted Average (SWA). The SWA calculates government funding need across all diocesan Catholic schools in each state and territory by taking into account parents’ wealth or their ‘capacity to contribute’ as measured by the socio-economic status (SES) level of each school community. These individual SES levels are then averaged for each state or territory. The average SES is then used to set fees that are affordable for all families at their local diocesan Catholic school, regardless of where they live.

The Federal Government wants to instead base its contribution on each school’s individual SES, rather than on an across the state average. This seemingly minor change would have cost NSW Catholic diocesan schools $19 million if it was in place this year.

The SWA is not a ‘special deal’ for the Catholic sector, as the Government claims. The Minister has said he wants consistency across all sectors; well, the SWA approach is available to all non-government school systems including, for example, the Lutheran school system. It is supported by the Gonski Review (p177). Government school systems are also treated similarly, so that their schools can be fee-free regardless of the wealth of the local school community.

The non-government school system SWA approach must therefore be maintained because it:

* allows Catholic school authorities to implement a truly needs-based funding model across all their schools
* allows Catholic systems to meet needs not covered by the funding model (such as newly-arrived students, special programs for student behavioural issues, programs to assist advanced learners, etc)
* enables Catholic systems to sustain schools in regional/remote areas or for Aboriginal students or for other special needs that would otherwise be financially unviable
* allows Catholic systems the autonomy to set affordable fees for families and provide fee assistance to families in financial difficulty, and
* supports a centralised and streamlined bureaucracy that provides administrative assistance, policy advice, legal support and other resources to all schools in the system.

6. The Government seems determined to control how much funding the Catholic sector gives each school

The Government plans to launch a website to show how much it ‘provides’ to each school. This will only mislead and frustrate parents because Catholic education systems (and other school systems) can redistribute government funds according to the needs of individual students or schools. All funding sources for each school are already publicly available on the MySchool website, so this new website is not about accountability. Catholic education fears it is an attempt by the Government to limit the sector’s autonomy (our ability to distribute funds according to our assessment of local need) and to regulate fees for our schools.

7. There are many questions left unanswered
What happens to funding for students with a disability? How will the Government ensure funding grows in line with rising school costs after 2020?
How will government schools cope with the influx of students if higher fees force parents to remove their children from Catholic schools?

Catholic schools are concerned the Government’s insistence on a ‘one size fits all’ approach simply ignores the reality of how low-fee Catholic schools provide a quality education to around one in six NSW students. Our aim is to ensure these schools are affordable and accessible to every family that wants a Catholic education for their child, including in the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities (we have more than 300 refugee students from war-torn Syria and Iraq in our Sydney schools, and the number is growing each week).

The Government must meet the NCEC to demonstrate how the new funding model will affect Catholic school systems and schools. We are committed to ensuring that fundamental aspects of the new funding arrangements do not unfairly or disproportionately affect Catholic school students and their families, as well as Catholic school teachers and staff.

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