Productivity Commission Questioned on School Funding Figures

Dr. Michael Kirby, Head of Office of the Productivity Commission, was questioned at Senate Estimates on disparities between school funding figures published in the Report on Government Services and the National Report on Schooling. The following is a transcript of the questions and answers.

The issue at stake is that the two data sets show different trends in government funding of government and private schools in current dollars by financial year. The figures in the Report on Government Services (RGS) show a much lower increase in government funding for private schools than for government schools in recent years while the figures in the National Report on Schooling (NRS) show that government funding for private schools has increased by much more than for government schools.

The disparity is not explained by the fact that the NRS figures include capital and recurrent grants while the GSR only includes recurrent grants as the NRS figures are lower than the RGS figures for much of the period considered.

The increase in Commonwealth Government expenditure on private schools in the RGS is also much less than the increase in the annual supplementation provided to private schools by the Commonwealth according to increases in average government school recurrent costs under the SES funding model.

Dr. Kirby could not account for the disparities. The Estimates Committee requested the Productivity Commission to investigate the disparities and advise the Committee on the results of the investigation.

Senator CAMERON—In the Report on government services that you mentioned there is a chapter on school education. Does the Productivity Commission use the same data sets as those used for the National report on schooling?

Dr Kirby—I do not know about that but I can tell you the data set we do use, and I think it is important to understand the process. There is a subtle difference here in that the report on government service delivery is not a Productivity Commission report. We act as a secretariat for a COAG steering committee, so it is a subtle difference. What it means in practice is that all the information which goes into that RoGS report is provided to us by state and Commonwealth governments. The quality and the accuracy of all that information is checked quite thoroughly by Commonwealth and state governments so there quite an intense quality control process there. The data is one of the best data sets in terms of comparability and analysis of those sorts of issues.

Senator CAMERON—Given that checking that you do, what is the explanation for the much lower increase in government funding for private schools in the Report on government services than that which is showing in the National report on schooling?

Dr Kirby—I am aware of the issue and I understand it is largely a question of apples and oranges, making sure that the data that you are talking about is actually comparable. There are several things that one needs to be aware of to ensure that the comparisons are legitimate. One is the issue of capital versus recurrent expenditure. As I understand it, our report concentrates on recurrent expenditure. Some people throw capital into the mix as well. There are differences from time to time in terms of whether you are talking about calendar years or financial years—

Ms Gropp—And whether it is real or whether it is current.

Dr Kirby—Yes. We stand by the quality of the data in the RoGS reports but some people use different data.

Senator CAMERON—The private school funding figures in the Report on government services include only recurrent funding and exclude capital grants. How can the figures for the period 2001-02 to 2005-06 in the RoGS be higher than the funding figures in the successive issues of the National report on schooling when the NRS figures include capital grants?

Dr Kirby—I think we would have to take that on notice to look at the data in detail.

Senator CAMERON—How does the Productivity Commission explain the difference between the increase reported in the Report on government services and that being provided in annual supplementation under the SES funding model in line with increases in average government school recurrent costs?

Dr Kirby—We will take that on notice.

Senator CAMERON—Can the Productivity Commission investigate the apparent disparities between the figures in the Report on government services chapter on school education and the percentage increases in average government school recurrent costs and the disparities between the RoGS figures and those in the National report on schooling, and advise the committee on the results of these investigations?

Dr Kirby—Will do.

Senator CAMERON—Can you understand why there is some confusion out there on this issue?

Dr Kirby—I guess in the minds of the Productivity Commission and all the state governments and Commonwealth government there is not confusion in terms of the data that are provided in the RoGS report.

Senator CAMERON—Even though it is showing different outcomes for different government analysis?

Dr Kirby—That data is accurate.

Senator CAMERON—Your data is accurate?

Dr Kirby—Yes.

Senator CAMERON—How can you be so sure when you cannot explain it to me tonight? Is that just a statement from you? Is that a defensive statement?

Dr Kirby—That is a statement from all of the Australian Commonwealth, state and territory governments because they are the ones who have vetted the data and basically ticked it off.

Senator CAMERON—What if they made a mistake; how do you check that?

Dr Kirby—They are human beings so mistakes could be made—

Senator CAMERON—So there could be mistakes in there?

Dr Kirby—There is a very extensive quality control process which has been in place for more than a decade, so the chances of a really fundamental error are pretty minuscule, I would suggest.

Senator CAMERON—Can you provide the methodology of those fundamental checks?

Dr Kirby—Yes, I think we could. We could provide a description of the processes by which the RoGS is put together.

Senator CAMERON—If people are looking for the accurate spending on schools they should not look at the government’s figures, they should look to yours; is that what you are saying?

Dr Kirby—I would suggest that would be a first port of call.

Senator CAMERON—Even though the inputs are from a wide range of states and you are relying on their accuracy for the input?

Dr Kirby—That is right. Remember also that the individual states are also keeping the layout on their fellow states in the accuracy of that data as well. If you actually look at the report you will see that the data in the report are very, very thoroughly described, including the caveats on the data and any data differences between states et cetera.

Senator CAMERON—Have you done an analysis on the National report on schooling?

Dr Kirby—No.

Senator CAMERON—Could you take on notice to have a look at the National report on schooling and the outcomes there, and compare them to what you are saying are the accurate figures?

Dr Kirby—As I indicated before, we will provide some advice on the data differences.

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