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National Commission of Audit raises concerns for independent schools

By Stephen O'Doherty - posted Friday, 9 May 2014

What is the Government’s vision for the future funding of schools, and for that matter, the structure of government in our Federation?

We should know more in just a week, but if it is along the lines of the approach that underlies the National Commission of Audit Report, Australian education is in for one of the biggest turnovers for decades.

Independent schools should particularly be concerned.


The model of government of the NCOA, its worldview if you like, is simple enough. Small federal government and the elimination of duplication between the commonwealth and the states.

The NCOA’s big goal is to reform the Federation. It wants to reassess the current ‘split of roles’; to hand spending and policy in areas like health and education back to the states. Federal taxation could be reduced. State revenue on the other hand would need to increase. The ‘vertical fiscal imbalance’ between the levels of government would be somewhat flattened out. Hence the discussion this week about state income tax (which would require Constitutional reform, unless you call it a state income tax ‘surcharge’, which is what the NCOA recommends).

Education was a natural target for the NCOA, and not just because it represents a big component of the federal budget.

The worldview of the Commission, its approach to federalism, demands that the Commonwealth, which does not run schools, should leave this area of policy to the states. The problem with such a doctrinaire approach is however that it lacks a national vision.

If the NCOA’s proposals were adopted as is, all hope of an equitable, national, needs-based and sector-blind funding system would be dashed. Funding would be different from state to state, and from sector to sector. Different not just in quantum, but in the means of calculation and distribution.

The Commission’s proposal is for three pools of education funds to be made available to each state – one each for government, catholic and independent schools. The Catholic Education Commission would allocate funds within their systems, while for government and independent schools the allocation would be left to the relevant state government on a ‘needs-based formula’. Each state government would have its own formula, not necessarily bearing any relationship to other jurisdictions.
Leaving decisions about the allocation of independent school funds to state government is highly problematic. It would certainly lead to the perception, if not the reality, of a massive conflict of interest on the part of state ministers and departments of education. Such a conflict might be avoided by the strict separation of state funding bodies from state school education departments, but this would surely defeat the purpose of minimising bureaucracy.


In addition, a proportionately smaller, but nonetheless important percentage of funds for Catholic and Independent schools currently comes from state budgets. What would prevent a state from reducing this component to zero, choosing only to pass on the ‘commonwealth pool’ funds?

Undoubtedly policies and protocols would attempt to prevent such perverse outcomes. However the mere fact that these questions arise is evidence that any move to embrace the NCOA’s approach would only serve to reopen divisions which many of us – across all sectors – hoped would not arise again.

Despite the suggestion of the NCOA that the Better School Plan (based on the Gonski methodology) is complex, there remains much that is compelling about its needs based approach that provides base funding for all students according to a common resourcing standard, and loadings to address specific needs.

One of the most compelling arguments for the Gonski methodology is that its vision for education attempts to embrace the needs of all students equitably. It shares the responsibility across states, across sectors and within sectors, based on objectives that are about achievement for every student, redressing barriers of disadvantage in order to give every student their best chance. And it does so in a way that allows for choice and diversity to be respected, including the choice of faith based education for those who seek it.

In other words, it flows from a vision that is national. It is the idea that greatness in education can be better achieved, for more people, when we work together as a nation, than is possible by each state going it alone. Is that not the point of being a Commonwealth?

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About the Author

Stephen O'Doherty is the inaugural CEO of Christian Schools Australia, Australia’s largest association of Christian schools. He took up this position in 2002, after careers in both broadcast journalism and politics.

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