Scotch College Property Buying Spree Supported by the Taxpayer

It was reported in The Age this week that the elite Melbourne private school, Scotch College, has been on a $25 million spending spree over the past 20 years buying up surrounding properties to expand the school. It is part of the facilities arms race between wealthy private schools to market the school and lure students.

What The Age report did not mention is that this spending spree was directly and indirectly supported by the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments.

According to the My School website, Scotch received $5 million in Commonwealth recurrent funding in 2015 and $1.2 million from the Victorian Government. Commonwealth Government funding per student was $2,702 and Victorian Government funding per student was $655. Total government funding over 2009-2015 amounted to $39.6 million, comprising $31.3 from the Commonwealth Government and $8.3 million from the Victorian Government. Such government recurrent funding frees up other recurrent funds from fees and other donations to be diverted to the facilities “arms race”. Money is fungible.

Scotch will benefit further from the new Gonski 2.0 funding arrangements. The Commonwealth’s Gonski 2.0 funding estimator shows that funding for Scotch will increase from $5.3 million in 2017 to $7.9 million in 2027, an increase of $2.6 million. Its total funding from the Commonwealth Government for 2018-2027 is estimated at $67 million.

In addition to recurrent funding, Scotch College directly receives capital expenditure grants from the Commonwealth. The My School website shows that it received $4 million in capital grants between 2009 and 2015. The Victorian Government chimed in with $30,000. Total capital expenditure by the school over the period was $55 million.

According to the Good Schools Guide, Scotch College has “some of the most impressive facilities of any school in the country”. Its grounds span 27 hectares on the banks of the Yarra River. Sporting facilities include seven sports fields, an all-weather hockey field, 26 synthetic tennis courts, a Junior School gymnasium, and an indoor Sports Centre featuring a heated swimming and diving pool, basketball courts, a fully equipped gymnasium, three squash courts and a weight-training complex. It has rowing facilities on the banks of the Yarra River within the school grounds and a modern boat shed housing an array of rowing and motor boats and weight-training facilities. It also has 80 hectares of forest with a lodge near Healesville, a lodge near Mansfield and a beach-front residential seaside property at Cowes on Phillip Island for school camps.

Last year, it opened a $32 million state of the art science centre [see photos of the gold-plated facility here]. It was bankrolled by Melbourne’s richest families, with some putting in more than $1 million each. No public school can call on such wealthy support. A new $7 million Design & Technology Cube is due to be completed in October.

The school’s total income from government funding, fees and other private sources in 2015 was $57.6 million, or $30,779 per student. Its average annual fees are nearly $27,000 per student, with Year 10-12 fees over $30,000.

This highlights what is drastically wrong with Australia’s school funding system. Scotch College serves the wealthy. Some 83% of its students are from the top quartile of socio-educationally advantaged (SEA) families and a further 11% are from the 2nd highest quartile. Only 3% are from the lowest SEA quarter. It has an Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) score of 1196, which is amongst the highest in the country.

Government funding for Scotch College compounds its funding advantage over schools serving the poorest families in the state. For example, Northern Bay P-12 College in North Geelong has 78% of its students from the bottom SEA quartile and a further 17% from the 2nd lowest quartile. Its ICSEA score is only 875, one of the lowest in the country. Its total funding in 2015 was $14,551 per student, less than half that of Scotch College.

Chaffey Secondary College in Mildura with an ICSEA score of 873 has 66% of its students from the lowest SEA quartile and a further 20% from the 2nd lowest quartile. Its total funding in 2015 was also less than half that of Scotch College at $14,095 per student. Roxburgh College has an ICSEA score of 911 and 66% of its students are in the lowest SEA quartile and another 20% are in the 2nd lowest quartile. Its total funding per student in 2015 was only $12,989. Laverton P-12 College has an ICSEA score of 921 and 62% of its students are in the bottom SEA quartile and another 24% in the 2nd lowest quartile. Its total funding per student was only $13,208.

There are many other stark differences in the total funding available to schools serving the wealthy and the poor in Victoria and other parts of Australia. Billions in government funding is wasted each year on private schools that largely serve high income families. For example, it is estimated that government funding for Independent schools with around 50% or more their students from the highest SEA quartile amounts to about $4 billion a year. This funding would much better used to support highly disadvantaged schools and improve school outcomes for low SES and Indigenous students.

There is no case for taxpayer funding for wealthy private schools such as Scotch College, especially to extend their gold-plated facilities. It compounds their resource advantages over disadvantaged public and private schools. It diverts scarce resources from supporting students with high learning needs to those with few needs. It enhances advantage and privilege in education outcomes and provides greater opportunities for the privileged to increase their access to economic resources and positions of social status and power in society.

As one of several letters to The Age expressing outrage at Scotch’s spending spree said:

Any school that can buy all these properties – including one just shy of $3.2million (and almost $1million above reserve) does not need, or deserve, public funds. What will it take for the government to wake up to the fact that the public system is dying by a thousand cuts? It is not a level playing field. Providing funding to private schools which already have ample assets is unfair. The rorting, and the lack of equality, in the system must stop.

The Turnbull Government’s new Gonski 2.0 funding plan fails to challenge privilege in education; rather, it will extend it. Wealthy private schools such as Scotch College will receive large increases in government funding to 2027. The vast majority of Independent and Catholic schools will be funded at their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) or more while the vast majority of public schools will be funded at well below their SRS. The fight for an equitable school funding system continues.

Trevor Cobbold

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