Federal MP Tony Abbott has reiterated his party’s tradition of championing school choice during a visit to a Catholic primary school in Manly, noting the importance of consultation between the Government and educators before new funding arrangements are finalised.
St Mary’s Catholic School Principal Paul McGuire and a bevy of nervous but plucky students welcomed Mr Abbott to their school on 8 May before giving him an extensive tour of their classrooms and facilities.
Mr Abbott seemed in his element as he spoke to children in a range of classes – from Kindergarten to Year 6 – fielding impromptu questions such as, “How do you become Prime Minister?” and “What did you think about the election of Donald Trump?”
He then joined parents, school staff and representatives from Catholic education – including the acting Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Ian Baker – for a morning tea discussion.
Several parents voiced concerns about the funding reforms – dubbed “Gonski 2.0” – that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced to media last week.
If passed, the reforms would see a needs-based funding model imposed on Catholic schools throughout the country, replacing the current method – the System Weighted Average (SWA) – of delivering funding to State-based Catholic education offices.
Catholic leaders, including the acting Executive Director of the National Catholic Education Commission, Danielle Cronin, and Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, railed against the proposal last week, saying the move would compromise the Catholic sector’s ability to redistribute funding to areas of need, resulting in higher fees and decreased provision.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly at the conclusion of his visit, Mr Abbott said he was certain his colleagues were familiar with the diversity of families and needs in their local Catholic school communities.
“What none of us are all that familiar with, given the complexity, are the intricacies of government funding arrangements,” Mr Abbott said.
“And that’s why it’s important that there be consultation before deals are finalised.”
He said his party, the Liberal Party of Australia, had a long tradition of trying to ensure that parents had real choice in where their children were educated.
“Traditionally, we’ve been all about empowering parents – facilitating choice – by making Independent and Catholic schools, as well as government schools, affordable and accessible.
“That’s been our traditional approach from the days of the Menzies announcement back in the 1963 election campaign.”
Catholic schools had played a major role, not only in his own upbringing, but in the education of his now-adult children – Bridget, Louise and Frances.
“But it’s been important to many of my colleagues as well; it’s been important to many people on both sides of the parliament,” he said.
“Something like a fifth of Australian kids go through Catholic schools; something like a third of Australian kids go through non-government schools. So it’s very important we have an education system overall that respects choice, that respects parental freedom and which realises that every parent makes a contribution to society, therefore every parent should have his or her educational choice respected.”
Principal Paul McGuire was clearly buoyed by the visit but was less enthused by last week’s funding announcement, which came as something of a surprise.
The school was forced to lift fees by 18 per cent last year as a result of the first round of Gonski reforms. Enrolments have since decreased by around 10 per cent.
Mr McGuire said that some families had availed themselves of the Catholic education promise that fees would never be a barrier to entry, but others would have found that to be too taxing on their sense of pride.
“I was pretty devastated (by the funding announcement), really, in terms of the impact it would have here. Enrolments are extremely important for the viability of this school, because of the budgets and especially because of the age of this place, and because the parents absolutely love this school.”
He said area real estate prices did not accurately reflect the make-up of the school community, with around 10 per cent of families being low income or non-fee paying.
Although overall numbers are down, the school is regularly approached by parents who are attracted to its Catholic sensibility, Mr McGuire said, with one family recently rejoining the school after a trial at a more expensive school didn’t work out.
“Whether it’s our behaviour management policy, whether it’s our rewards system or whatever, it’s all related back to our Catholic values. Our motto – ‘We listen, we love, we learn’ – is very easy … It makes sense to the kids and it becomes part of their lives. And the parents love it, too.”