Government Funding of Elite Private Schools is an Upper Class Welfare Policy

A new round of fee increases in private schools in 2010 points to the need for an overhaul of Commonwealth Government funding of private schools. Australia’s wealthiest families are being subsidised under private school funding arrangements without regard to need. The Socio-Economic Status (SES) funding model is an upper class welfare policy.

Many elite schools in Sydney and Melbourne now charge fees in excess of $20 000 per year and many have increased their fees by over $10 000 since 2001. Yet these schools continue to receive increasing funding from the Commonwealth Government while levying higher and higher fees. Many get over $4 million a year, with two receiving $12 million and $9 million a year. Geelong Grammar, the most expensive school in Australia, gets nearly $4.5 million. Several get over $3000 a student, despite fees of over $20000.

These elite private schools have received a massive boost in funding from the SES funding model introduced by the Howard Government in 2001 and continued under the Rudd Government. Government funding for many elite schools has increased by two to three times. The average funding increase for several NSW high fee schools from 2001 to 2010 was 113% per student and 190% per student for several Victorian schools. For three schools the increase was 300% or more.

The percentage increases Commonwealth funding per student in these schools has far outstripped increases in total funding per student in government schools. It was about double the increase in NSW government schools and about four times the increase for Victorian government schools. Fee increases in these private schools since 2001 were almost equivalent to the total funding per student in government schools in NSW and Victoria.

Schools charging $20 000 and more per student are the preserve of the wealthiest families in Australia. The large fee increases have put elite private schools further beyond the reach of most families, despite claims that the SES funding scheme would put downward pressure on fees. Affordability of these schools has declined significantly for all other households. On average, it declined by 30% in NSW and by 17% in Victoria between 2001 and 2009.

These huge fee and government funding increases have delivered a massive resource advantage over government schools. Funding per student available to elite private schools is generally at least double government school expenditure. In the case of Geelong Grammar it is three times as high.

The resources available to elite private schools appear to be about double those available to government schools. In NSW, many elite private schools had total funding of $24 000 to over $26 000 per Year 12 student compared in 2009 to $12 035 for government secondary students in 2007-08. In Victoria, many had total funding of between about $22 000 and $24 000 per Year 12 student compared to $10 817 for government secondary students. Geelong Grammar with total funding of $29 993 per Year 12 student had nearly three times the resources of Victorian government schools.

Government schools are further disadvantaged because they enrol higher proportions of students with complex learning needs that incur higher costs. Students from low SES families, Indigenous students and students with disabilities comprise a much higher proportion of government school enrolments than they do in elite private schools. As a result, government schools face much higher costs than the elite private schools in meeting student needs. They have far more to do with fewer resources.

It was claimed that the SES funding model would direct government funding according to need. However, it has conspicuously failed in this regard. Rather than being a “needs-based‟ scheme, it is an upper class welfare scheme.

There can be no justification for providing government funding to schools that are the preserve of the wealthy. It means that less funding is available for schools serving the most disadvantaged students, Indigenous students and students with disabilities. The diversion of millions of dollars a year to schools least in need while those most in need are denied the full funding they require is an indictment of the SES funding scheme.

The Prime Minister and the Federal Minister for Education cogently argued the flaws in the SES funding scheme back in 2000. They both stated that the scheme is unfair in providing windfall gains to the wealthiest schools in Australia.

The Prime Minister said that the SES funding scheme does not “….reflect a fair outcome for this nation‟s future funding of the school system and need[s] to be redressed”.

Julia Gillard said that “…there is a flaw in the methodology” of the scheme and that “….this SES model is not the powerful tool we need”.

Their analyses remain as cogent today. They should replace the SES scheme with a new funding scheme which better links funding to need and takes account of the different social purposes of government and private schools.

Trevor Cobbold

Government Funding of Elite Private Schools is an Upper Class Welfare Policy

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