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Making life difficult for low-fee schools is no way to govern

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National Catholic Education Commission executive director Christian Zahra.

For 200 years, Catholic schools have been part of the fabric of Australian society.

The commitment of the Catholic Church and the selfless work of generations of religious leaders, parents, teachers and principals has created a high-quality, non-government school choice that is accessible to nearly every Australian family. This is a major societal achievement and something that is highly valued by Australian families right across the country from all walks of life.

It may surprise many people to know that since lay Catholics were running schools in their houses in the early 1800s, Catholic education has been something that has been open to all families who seek it.

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While Catholic schools were established to ensure the Faith could be handed on, they have always been an attractive choice for families for whom that wasn’t necessarily a key motivation.

Today, about 30 per cent of our students come from a background other than Catholic – including many from families that profess no religious faith.

Why do they make that choice? Because they see an opportunity for their children to be nurtured in an environment that takes an interest in the holistic development of each student – intellectually, spiritually, ethically, physically and emotionally.

Even for those who aren’t Catholic, they observe and hear from other families that their local Catholic school produces young women and men who are imbued with an understanding of their role as contributors to a better community and a better world.

National and international studies have shown that students in Catholic schools are less likely to be bullied and more likely to be involved in charitable works. Students from faith-based schools also contribute in a positive way to social cohesion.

Australian Catholic schools provide a high-quality education that compares well with some of the world’s best school systems on international testing.

It is these characteristics that Catholic education leaders were working to maintain and enhance during the recent debate over the future of school funding.

Last year, the NCEC and our colleagues around the country referred to Catholic schools as “Partners in Australia’s Future”. And we firmly believe that.

Catholic schools work with families, the Church, other schools – government and independent – and both state and Commonwealth governments to provide educational choice. That choice is something we know Australians appreciate.

Regrettably, the once-strong relationship between Catholic education and the Government of the day has been significantly undermined over the past several months.

Along with our colleagues in government school systems, state and territory education ministers, and many in the independent school sector, we saw the Federal Government abandon the traditional principles of collaboration and cooperation between the Commonwealth and those charged with providing school education.

The National Catholic Education Commission, which includes the leaders of Catholic education in each state, found out about the Turnbull Government’s 10-year plan for school funding the same day the public found out. In the 43-year history of the NCEC – after working collaboratively with every Federal Government since Gough Whitlam’s – the Catholic schools sector has before never been excluded from contributing to policy development in this way.

State and territory education ministers had similarly been kept in the dark.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said he was seeking to implement the reforms that David Gonski championed in the Review of Funding for Schooling he led in 2010 and 2011, but he failed to heed three important lessons from that process: consult, consult, consult.

The “Gonski Panel”, over an 18-month period, considered the views of more than 7,000 individuals and groups that made submissions to the Review of Funding for Schooling. The panel visited dozens of schools and consulted with more than 70 educational organisations.

Minister Birmingham spoke to his Coalition colleagues and some education bureaucrats in Canberra before announcing his policy. He then spent eight short weeks consulting with other politicians to secure the passage of a $23.5 billion school funding package, including $4.9 billion in 48 hours delivered in a final flurry of deals with Senators to gain their support.

The approach he took led the NCEC chairman to tell the Minister directly, on behalf of the Catholic schools sector, that we had lost confidence in him. That wasn’t a position we took lightly, but the lack of consultation, the fact Catholic schools were (as one expert explained) the “big losers” under the policy and the obvious confusion created by at least three sets of analyses of the effect on Catholic schools left us no choice.

But, regardless of the “how”, the current “what” is that the Government managed to get its changes through the Parliament and Catholic schools will now engage with two important processes that are imminent.

David Gonski, who has again been entrusted by the Government of the day with an important task, is leading a review that will seek to ensure the extra $23.5 billion in funding over the next 10 years is used effectively. Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Dr Lee-Anne Perry, who has a wealth of classroom and leadership experience, will represent Catholic schools on that panel.

The new National School Resourcing Board will also commence a crucial task shortly – reviewing the formula that calculates how much parents of Catholic and independent schools should be expected to pay in fees.

The current methodology, which uses socioeconomic status (SES) scores, is more than 15 years old. The expert who devised the formula said recently it “clearly isn’t working”, and its review has been recommended, and even mandated, for several years.

It was only under pressure from Catholic education and from his Coalition colleagues, who threatened to vote against their own party’s policy, that Minister Birmingham agreed to review the SES methodology.

The SES measure essentially assigns a fee expectation, based on the profile of the family’s neighbourhood, to families who choose a Catholic or independent school. It means a single-income family with four kids that is renting a house is deemed to have the same ability to pay fees as neighbours with one child who own their home and where both parents work.

Those two families are unlikely to have the same capacity to pay fees. But the Minister wanted to continue to use that method until, under considerable pressure from his own party colleagues, he agreed to this long overdue review. We welcome this development and look forward to contributing to this process.

Catholic Education Commission of Victoria analysis suggests that in a particular neighbourhood, of parents who choose a non-government school, low- and middle-income families are more likely to choose a Catholic school.

But because of the failures of the SES methodology, those families are expected by the Federal Government’s model to pay the same as high-income families in their neighbourhood, who are more likely to choose an independent school with higher fees.

The new model places additional pressure on Catholic primary schools in particular, because the SES model creates higher expectations of how much parents in some areas should contribute in school fees. That leads to reduced government funding to these schools over time.

While Catholic school systems may be able to protect families from the full impact of these proposed changes, we are very concerned that this policy approach represents a real threat to the low-fee and almost geographically universal character of Catholic schools in the medium term.

For 200 years, parents of all religious, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have chosen a Catholic education. Our school and system leaders are as committed as ever to ensuring that choice remains within reach for as many Australian families as possible.

Catholic school leaders have been sincerely appreciative of the strong support we have received from so many people – parents, teachers, principals and supporters of Catholic education – as we have put our case strongly to the Federal Government to protect the interests of Catholic schools.

Those who support Catholic schools can be assured we will continue to advocate strongly that the Federal Government protect the contribution the Catholic school sector makes to our nation.

Christian Zahra is executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission.

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