How non-government schools are pulling their weight

How non-government schools are pulling their weight

by Ms Margery Evans

Everyone in education values government-funded public schools. Access to free, quality education is a fundamental right in Australia, as it is in many countries.

But the non-government school sector also plays a crucial role in Australian society and economy. The first schools in Australia were not run by governments. Today, these are the Independent schools and Catholic schools that are diverse in nature, size, location and educational ideals – and they educate one third of all Australian school students.

There are many misconceptions about how non-government schools are funded and these are rarely challenged, mainly because the sector is diverse and doesn’t lend itself to generalisations.  The community deserves a more informed discussion and to understand how the funding allocations really work.

Every year, the Commonwealth Government sets a minimum base funding amount for each student based on the real cost of educating a child: The Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) amount.

In 2022, the SRS is $12,462 per primary student and $15,660 per secondary student. This funding is to cover ‘recurrent’ spending such as salaries, power, water, insurance and general maintenance (not building works). for every school student.

On top of this base SRS amount, additional funding (or a loading) is provided for six types of disadvantage, such as low English proficiency, being a remote school or educating Indigenous students. Loadings are fully funded by State and Commonwealth governments for all school sectors.

State and Commonwealth governments jointly fund the SRS. The difference between government schools and non-government schools is that non-government schools’ base funding is reduced based on parents’ capacity to contribute.  This is calculated according to the median parental income at each non-government school. For every student attending a government school, the SRS base amount is fully funded regardless of the income of parents.

For example, an Independent school with the wealthiest parents attracts only 20 per cent of the government funding that a public school in the same suburb would receive. Non-government schools serving the lowest socio-economic areas only receive 90 per cent of the SRS base funding amount.

Consequently, Independent schools rely primarily on parents for funding, with on average 53 per cent of recurrent income coming from private sources, although the proportions vary between schools.

If parents were to withdraw children from Independent schools and enrol them in government schools, the burden on taxpayers would go up considerably. Independent Schools Australia has estimated that it would cost the combined governments at least an additional $5.5 billion per annum.

Here are some other common misconceptions about funding for Independent schools:

“Funding non-government schools means less government funding for public schools.”

This misconception is based on the mistaken belief that all schools compete for a fixed bucket of money – that is, if funding is increased to one sector, it must go down in another. This is not the case. Funding is based on the SRS calculations and the number of enrolments. As enrolments increase so too does the total amount of government funding. If a sector or school’s enrolments fall, it receives less funding.

State governments are the main funders of government schools, whereas the Commonwealth Government is the main funder of non-government schools. If the Commonwealth Government were to withdraw funding from non-government schools, it does not follow that state government schools would increase funding for government schools. 

“Government funding for private schools increases faster than it does for public schools.”

There are several factors that are frequently omitted when such claims are made.

According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Independent schools had the largest national increase in enrolments of any school sectors over the past five years.  This has resulted in funding growth.

Furthermore, the bulk of growth in Independent school enrolments has been among students from low to middle income families, who attract more government funding. This pushes up the average funding per student for the whole Independent school sector. By contrast, because every government school student is fully funded at the same level, the average for government-funded schools only grows with indexation – regardless of parents’ income.

Finally, state governments are the main funders of government schools, whereas the Commonwealth Government is the main funder of non-government schools. For some years, state funding for government schools has not been increasing at the same pace as Commonwealth funding for either government or non-government schools.

“Governments give rich private schools money for lavish facilities.”

Capital investment funds facilities such as school buildings, grounds and equipment. Only 10 per cent of capital investment by Independent schools is provided by governments and this relatively small amount of funding is primarily directed to Independent schools with the greatest need. These Independent schools are typically low-fee, outer suburban or regional schools and they often need to contribute additional funds to get the job done.

Ninety per cent of the capital costs in Independent schools is provided by parents and donors. Independent schools also finance capital projects by using their reserves, fundraising or borrowing.

“Independent schools are exclusive to the wealthy families.”

The diversity of the Independent school sector is poorly understood by many. The Independent school sector includes 1169 schools of diverse faiths (Anglican, Catholic, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.), those based on educational philosophies such as Montessori, Steiner and International Baccalaureate, schools that focus on disability such as autism, and a group of schools that cater for those disengaged from mainstream schooling.  

There are many Independent schools that operate in areas of great need, and they tailor their programs to suit the communities in which they operate. For example, there are remote Independent schools whose students are almost exclusively Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and which don’t charge fees. Almost half of Independent schools charge fees of $5,000 or less.

Independent schools cater to families of all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. The fact that enrolment numbers are growing faster in the Independent school sector than other school sectors is testament to that diversity in Australian society.

Margery Evans is the CEO of Independent Schools Australia.