EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Non-government schools give parents better value
, February 21, 2009
Misconceptions abound when it comes to school funding and performance, writes Kevin Donnelly.The public could be forgiven for thinking that non-government schools only serve the wealthy; that they are awash with funds; and that the impending review of Commonwealth funding to non-government schools should conclude that less is best.
Not so. In 2008, the Productivity Commission reported that state and federal governments provide only 57.1 per cent of the money needed to run Catholic and independent schools.
The 2005-06 figures show that, while governments outlay $11,243 to educate a state school student, on average, non-government school students receive $6,268.
With about 33 per cent of Australian students in non-government schools, this saves taxpayers the cost of providing places in state schools - at least $5 billion a year, according to the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria.
Commonwealth funding to non-government schools is also means-tested according to the socio-economic profile of the community from which each school enrols its students.Disadvantaged communities
"Privileged" schools, such as Scotch College, receive no more than 13.7 per cent of the average cost of educating a student in a government school. Non-government schools that serve disadvantaged communities can receive up to 70 per cent.
Funding isn't the only area where misconceptions abound.
While critics are keen to portray non-government schools as serving the top end of town and failing disadvantaged students, reality suggests otherwise.
If disadvantage includes students with an indigenous or non-English speaking background, or a disability, then there are more such students in Victorian Catholic and independent schools than in state schools.
While more poorer families have children in government schools, many wealthy parents choose the state school alternative. Witness the number buying expensive real estate to get into the right enrolment zone.
Research by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria found that, compared to government schools, the socio-economic profile of Catholic schools more closely mirrors the community.
OECD-funded research by Ludger Woessmann confirms that non-government schools, measured by results in international maths and science tests, are better at raising academic standards.
After analysing stronger performing education systems, Woessmann concludes that a key indicator is a well-resourced and autonomous non-government sector.
He states: "Students perform substantially better where private school operation creates choice and competition.
"At the same time, student achievement increases along with government funding of schools.
"A level playing-field in terms of access to government funding for public and private schools proves particularly performance-enhancing."
As noted in one of last year's Australian Budget papers, the autonomy, diversity and competition represented by non-government schools are worthy of support and emulation.
US research, cited in Mark Harrison's book, Education Matters: Governments, Markets and New Zealand Schools
(Wellington, NZ: 2004), also concludes that non-government schools promote social stability and social capital.
Australian education commentator Andrew Norton's analysis of the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (which measures indicators like accepting diversity, tolerance and community involvement) found those who had attended non-government schools rated higher than those from government schools.
From 1997 to 2007, while government school enrolments rose by 1.7 per cent, the figure for non-government schools was 21.9 per cent. Parents (as Kevin Rudd said they had the right to do) are voting with their feet.Financially penalised
Instead of being financially penalised (parents pay taxes for a system they do not use, plus school fees) or vilified, school choice should be properly resourced and supported.
Every Australian student, regardless of where he or she goes to school, has the right to be educated.
The debate, instead of a return to sectarian, divisive arguments over state aid to non-government schools, should focus on strengthening Australia's education system and raising standards by supporting the autonomy and diversity of the non-government sector.Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies. This article first appeared in the Melbourne Age, February 8, 2009.