Yes, it was Sunday and the news is usually more sensational than during the week. But the extravagant building plans of some ‘elite’ schools, revealed in the Sun Herald, were certainly eye-opening. According to the report, two of these schools are already funded by governments well above their Schooling Resource Standard. The combined cost ($365m) of the planned capital projects at the seven named schools is close to the amount allocated to address the maintenance backlog across all public schools in NSW.
If the time-honoured ritual plays out as in the past there will be various denials and a resurrection of previous explanations. The principal of one of the schools is reported as saying that “government funding goes directly to the educational needs of our students alone”. We can also expect to be told that the schools still save governments mega-bucks and regardless, student outcomes justify the huge expenditure. The embellishments will apparently include an outdoor rooftop learning terrace, aquatic centres, an orchestra pit and a bush chapel. One school is going to have two vertical connection pods. I’m not sure what they are, but they are surely an essential weapon in any elite school arms race.
The claim that government funding goes directly to educational needs in these schools is probably true, but misleading. Anyone remotely connected with schools knows that targeted funding enables other funding to be diverted to other purposes, including grand capital projects. According to My School, state and federal governments paid $44 million in recurrent grants to these seven schools in 2015, a substantial addition to each school’s coffers. The seven schools between them also allocated $25m of recurrent income to capital projects. While details of where this money comes from are not available, it suggests that the schools receive more than they seem to need to meet recurrent costs.
In turn, this suggests that the students are already achieving at high levels and extra funding isn’t needed for things like teachers and learning resources. But if NAPLAN data on My School is any guide, the students are achieving at much the same level as similar students in NSW comprehensive – not even selective – schools. Yet the students in the seven schools are recurrently funded, in total, at double the amounts of the approximately $12 500 going into the education of similar students in public schools.
Of course there is much more to student outcomes than NAPLAN, but comparison of HSC results also shows little difference between the sectors. And yes, it is almost certain that wonderful outcomes which can’t be measured will feature among the claimed advantages of schools such as these. Now that we know that school sector makes little difference to measurable outcomes it is remarkable how some schools prattle on about the education of the ‘whole child’ – the implication being that some schools do it and others don’t.
So what about the claimed saving to government? It could be argued, for example, that the $6 861 which governments pay to educate each student at St Aloysius’ College is a mere fraction (around a quarter) of the $25 000 spent in total on each student at that school. The Independent school peak groups mount this argument all the time. But it is 65% of what governments spend on similar students in public schools. Students at Loretto Kirribilli receive 77%. An increasing number of non-government schools receive over 100%.
It still may amount to a saving of sorts, but it raises many questions about priorities. Student achievement is the ‘bottom-line’ business of schools and a primary purpose of government funding. Do these schools need large additional amounts of recurrent funding from government, as well as from parents? In total, the additional recurrent funding of non-government schools over government schools was around $5 billion in 2015, around $3 billion of which was provided by governments.
If reallocated, even a portion of this $3 billion would provide extra for schools where the investment would make a measurable difference. There is an abundance of research which shows that, subject to targeting and strict accountability, additional investment in disadvantaged schools is an investment with real achievement dividends.
There are a host of questions arising as a consequence of overspend on so many of Australia’s school students. If a ‘black hole’ is a place where things disappear without leaving much of a known trace, then it seems an apt description of these schools and the money they receive. To what extent should public funding be allowed to contribute to this problem? Many politicians and commentators wring their hands over the amounts going into schools for little apparent return. In this context the questionable priorities of government have created a big part of the problem.
In the past such concern about elite schools was written off by some as ‘the politics of envy’. The unearned status of these schools and the funding they receive is really the politics of absurdity.
Chris Bonnor is an author and retired school principal.