Gonski 2.0 smoke and mirrors: Why a school needs a good accountant

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Billboard seen outside Rosehill Racecourse (Image via Kelly Maree Cheung‏ / @AustralasianEdu)

More than half the schools up for funding cuts are non-systemic Catholic schools, many of which do not appear to be overfunded, writes former schoolteacher Frank O'Shea.

Labor says that the Coalition’s proposal for school funding is a “smoke and mirrors trick” and speak wistfully about a missing $22 billion. When numbers are mentioned, however – $22 billion here, $18.6 billion there, four years here, ten years there – most people turn off. In truth, the endorsement which the Greens have given to the Birmingham proposal, as well as the opposition by Abbott and Bernardi are cogent arguments that there may be value in it. Perhaps, in time, Mr WooTube will explain it to us.

I want to concentrate instead on the widely publicised list of 24 schools that are said to be over-funded and will suffer under the new model. It happens that more than half of those are non-systemic Catholic schools, whose main problem may turn out to be they have not invested heavily enough in clever accountancy tricks. 

I will give just one example and then no more maths. Internet figures show that the 2017 tuition fees at school number 12 in the list is $8,060 at Year 11/12. Victoria has a slew of schools, mostly with the word "Grammar" attached to them, whose corresponding fees are in excess of three times that figure and yet they are not on the list. As Ms Hanson would put it: "Please explain."

Smoke and mirrors, perhaps? More likely, better accountants.

Based on tuition fees alone, Australia has three levels of schools. The public sector charges no fees; the elite schools (many stapling the word Grammar to their title) charge in the region of $30,000 a year; between those two extremes is a group of schools like the one mentioned above whose fees are a small fraction of the Grammar ones. Most of those schools belong to the Catholic system. In round numbers (and he said no more maths!) the ratio would be 0:3:10.

However, there is a small number of Catholic schools who are card-carrying members of the elite group. All the Jesuit schools are in this category, as are a few girls – sorry, ladies – schools such as Loreto Kirribilli and Monte Sant’ Angelo (the top two schools in the list of 24) in inner Sydney. Many people regard these outliers as representative of Catholic schools; in my view, they give Catholic education an undeserved reputation for extravagance. And if you think they provide good value for money, consider the dominance of Jesuit Old Boys in the Tony Abbott cabinet a few years back.

Catholic schools in Australia were originally established as a service to provide bodies in pews in church, a role in which they were strikingly successful. They were run on a shoestring, mostly by nuns and brothers who sometimes had to depend on food handouts from the parish. Their discipline was tight and strict, their form of Catholicism heavily Irish, but they provided a way for a community who often saw themselves as second class to enter the professions.

There was no state support for those schools until the Goulburn strike of 1962, after which the Menzies Government provided limited funding.

It took some time for the country to come to terms with the idea that the state might subsidise a group within society whose schools were open only to members of that group. But by then, the exclusivity of the Catholic schools had disappeared and their importance as pew-fillers was beginning to wane.

Today, it is unlikely that more than one in ten of those who graduate from Catholic schools continue as practising Catholics. At this stage, I should confess that I spent all my teaching life in Catholic schools, more than half in one of the “top 24”, although I admit that, as a maths teacher, my proselytising role was minimal.

A wonderful headmaster at that school answered my peevish query about why we carried the Catholic tag by explaining that we were a service "of the Church" rather than the olden days when we would have been a service "for the church". It was a distinction that school exemplified; though it had a huge reputation in rugged sports, stars were not lionised and there did not seem to be any bullying — an opinion borne out by the large number of teachers who sent their own sons to the school.

Anyway, I query the relevance of that list of 24 on the basis that it is built on what is called the School Resourcing Standard – SRS – something which makes the mathematics behind the missing $22 billion look easy. It is based on a number of criteria, including special pleading by some groups. It seems to be heavily influenced by the postcode of the students, which would certainly explain the presence of schools in the northern and inner suburbs of Sydney, but does nothing to explain the absence of corresponding schools in Melbourne and the other capitals.

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