Opinion | Mar 14, 2024

No class envy in the classroom

By Dallas McInerney, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Schools NSW

First published in the Financial Review 14/03/2024

Over the summer, a series of reports have argued for greater funding for government schools. Regrettably, many of these arguments have referenced the need to take support away from non-government schools.

This has included emotional overstatements and fantastical references to the value of a Catholic’s or independent school’s real estate (as if all government schools occupy worthless land). It’s an approach that is damaging to the targeted school community and designed for a punchy headline, not policy headway.

Schools are the essential ingredient for our nation’s future, just as they are for the students who are provided opportunities to prepare them for a life of growth, citizenship and human development. On the basic value proposition of school education, we have broad agreement; on the question of school funding, there is no consensus.

Now, the persistent campaign targeting funding for non-government schools risks undermining the stability of Australia’s mixed model in a way that means taxpayers would lose.

What you won’t see in the selective reports from government school advocates is an incontrovertible fact. Australian taxpayers save billions of dollars each year when the government contributes to non-government schools.

In updated research released by Catholic Schools NSW, the means-tested funding for Catholic and Independent schools results in massive savings to taxpayers who are relieved from the full cost of educating Australia’s entire student population.

The targeted support for non-government schools not only allows the resulting savings to go to other essential services; it also underpins school choice, which parents highly value and has been a bipartisan feature of Australian policy for over half a century.

The flurry of envy-tinged attacks belies a lingering unease with the mixed model (government, Catholic, independent) of school provision among public education union leaders; sectarianism was a historical source of animus towards non-government schools given the predominance of the Catholic sector. More recently, there has been a growing panic in response to falling enrolment figures for government schools, particularly in NSW.

Since 2021, more than 24,000 NSW families have taken their children out of state schools and opted for an alternative, Catholic schools in NSW are growing at their fastest rate in a decade. Some of the biggest losses of enrolments in the government sector have been in the key intake years of kindergarten and year seven, meaning these smaller cohorts will move through the year groups in future years.

The overprivileged, elitist narrative pushed by the Australian Education Union and others does not survive impact with the facts. For example, NSW’s Catholic Systemic schools have enrolled a growing percentage of families from the lowest income quartile over the past 10 years, with annual fees averaging $3000 a year per child.

The Catholic sector has too much regard for all schools and students to return fire. Our position is a positive one. All schools should be properly resourced, including government schools funded to their level of need. The national tide rises when all schools are supported and perform strongly. We certainly want success for government schools. Thousands of Catholic families have opted for public education. Our hopes aren’t just for those who wear our uniform.

Ironically, some of the biggest diversity advocates in our community do a backflip when it comes to the rights of minority providers of Catholic and independent education.

For the sake of reasoned debate and insulating students from the collateral damage of hit jobs on their school communities, let’s return the class envy to the bottom drawer of the 1970s.

Instead, let’s celebrate the power of education to promote the common good and agree on a positive way forward for every school, no matter its crest.

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