Secret Private School Business


At last, the Howard Government’s school funding system is to be investigated via an inquiry set up by Federal Minister for Education Julie Bishop or so it would seem.

Advocates for public schools have been pointing out the appalling inequities of the Socio Economic Status (SES) funding system since its inception under the then Minister Dr David Kemp back in 2001. So have respected economists Ross Gittins and John Quiggin, and internationally respected education expert Barry McGraw.



However, until now, all objections have been deflected with rhetoric and slogans such as ‘the politics of envy’, and the insidious depiction of wealthy schools as victims when there is any suggestion that their public funding be reduced.

Protests have been soothed by the utterly unsubstantiated claim that such generous Government funding is keeping elite private schools accessible a claim that is hard to maintain in the face of yearly increases in fees, no matter how much money these schools receive from the Government. Indeed, as Anna Patty recently pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, there is clear evidence that under the current system the socio-economic status of private school students is actually going up, not down.

There are many problems with the SES funding system.

Firstly, the system is exclusively for private schools, and applies very different rules from the equivalent public school funding systems, which are administered by the State and Territory Governments. To access SES funding from the Federal Government, all a private school needs to provide is the addresses of its students. Their funding is then determined according to the number of students they draw from areas identified by census codes as disadvantaged.

It is important to note here that the students themselves do not have to come from actually disadvantaged families (after all, most such families couldn’t dream of sending their kids to schools charging anything from $8000 to $25,000 a year in up-front fees), they simply have to live in an area where many low income families also live.

A prime example of this inequity is an area like Moree in NSW. As a district Moree has a very low average annual income, but it also has a small number of very wealthy families in profitable cotton farming businesses. The children of those families mostly attend prestigious boarding schools in Sydney – and must be very sought-after students, given how much of a boost their census code must add to the funding entitlements of the schools they attend.

Private schools that enrol students from such disadvantaged, often rural, areas receive extraordinary amounts of money as a result. One expensive, luxuriously appointed church school will receive $25 million between 2001 and 2008 money that is additional to the subsidy they would have already received under the previous funding scheme.

The two public high schools in Moree are made up of predominantly Indigenous students and, as they do not charge up-front fees, obviously enrol the actually disadvantaged students in the area. Being public, these schools do not have access to SES funding but instead must apply to the NSW State Government’s Priority Schools Funding Program (PSFP) for extra support. Like all other public schools, they receive between $8000 and $10,000 a year per student in public subsidy (roughly 90 per cent from State and 10 per cent from Federal sources), and may add to that from payment of voluntary fees and fund raising, both of which yield very little when the families of your students are already impoverished.

To receive PSFP funding, a public school must do a lot more than simply send in its student’s addresses. It must ask its families to fill in forms about their employment and income status. Then, if the school is very lucky and its application is approved, it will get a grand total of $100,000 extra over four years and a couple of extra teachers. Oh, and it must pay back any money it does not use at the end of the four-year period.

MP Julie Bishop

No such strictures apply to SES funding. The schools can do with the money what they like.

Most public schools in disadvantaged areas do not get PSFP funding, even though they service the actual families whose poverty is yielding such bonanzas to the private schools their children do not attend. One deputy principal of a very disadvantaged public school is blunt in her assessment. She calls the SES scheme ‘stealing,’ arguing that it robs the poor to give to the rich.

When challenged about this, the various holders of the Federal Minister for Education title (Kemp, Brendan Nelson, Bishop) have washed their hands of it, claiming that State Governments have responsibility for public schools, while they look after private. If this is so, the title of the Minister should be changed immediately to the Minister for Private Education, to avoid all confusion. I wonder how that would go down with the electorate?

Worse, the private schools only agreed to accept this funding formula as long as there was a ‘no loser’ clause. As the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out in their excellent editorial about the inquiry on Friday, this means the formula may simply reflect the students from a disadvantaged area that a school used to have. Even if all the school’s students now live in Vaucluse or Toorak, their SES ranking cannot go down and no money can be removed.

Indeed, we now have a private school funding system where no school can ever lose not just any public funding but its right to ever-increasing amounts. Even if a school was coated in gold leaf, we could still be giving it millions in public subsidy. No wonder there is going to be an inquiry.

But what kind of an inquiry is Bishop going to run? Despite promises to the contrary as recently as May, the inquiry will be a closed one. There will be no public terms of reference and submissions will only be made by the very organisations being inquired into: private schools themselves. Despite the fact they will cosily be discussing the fate of $28 billion in public money, everyone else will be excluded, including State Governments. To quote Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald again:

The Federal Government had promised to release terms of reference for an external inquiry, but independent school representatives told the Herald it had decided against opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ of criticism from public education advocates.

I suppose it is only to be expected. No government, particularly one that prides itself on its economic know how, would want such a grossly incompetent and inept scheme exposed in all its self-serving stupidity. Particularly, as it is impossible to ignore how closely aligned this Government is with private schools. Most members of the Howard Government attended a private school and most send their children to one.

Interestingly, John Howard himself is a rare exception to the ‘old boy’ Liberal club, having attended Canterbury Boys High. I attended a seminar at the school last year and was told that people often comment on how the current
students must be proud the Prime Minister attended their school. The response from one boy was: ‘Yes, I am, but it’s a pity he doesn’t seem to be very proud of us.’

See New Matilda’s regular columnists Jane Caro and Joanna Mendelssohn talk on the important issues facing our schools and our children. If you enjoyed their articles on education in New Matilda here is your chance to participate in person, at tonight’s Fabian Forum at Gleebooks in Sydney. More details at OPEN New Matilda.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.