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  • Election

    July 2010

    As I write this there are growing predictions that we will have a Federal election in the first half of August this year.  Whenever it is, it will have great significance for Catholic schools.  In this election, it will not just be about the level of funding we receive.  It will also be about our very identity as a Catholic Education system.


    Of course, we must make every effort to retain at least the level of funding we currently have relative to Government schools and hopefully to improve that.  However, the reality seems to be that there are not huge dollars left in the Federal bucket.  The recent Economic Stimulus package (in which education received a very substantial share) combined with the (then) PM Rudd’s commitment to restructuring health, have left a very tight budget, with not a lot of room to be generous. 

    However, (now) PM Gillard’s promise, made when she was Minister for Education, is entirely inadequate.  She promised, on 15 April this year, that “no school will lose a dollar of funding in the sense that their school budget per student will not reduce in dollar terms”. If that frozen amount is what we receive, quite simply it will be insufficient.  The costs of education rise every day.  We are already well behind our Government school colleagues in what we receive from the public purse.  We need assurance that our funding will keep pace, at least, with real costs – and we need future certainty.  It is an unsatisfactory and unhealthy situation for us to have to go cap in hand every time there is an election. 

    Thus we will be seeking from all parties a commitment that Catholic schools and systems from 2013 have, at the very least, access to the same funds indexed to Government school costs, as currently available.  Further, we are asking that this index is transparent, so that we can be confident that when comparing our costs to that of Government schools, we know what is included in the calculation.  We need to be sure that things like superannuation, insurances, capital costs, etc. are included in the calculations.  These costs, and others like them, can sometimes remain hidden in government accounting – but for us, it is critical that we can see what is included so that we can really compare apples with apples.

    Our Identity

    There is another equally important issue at stake in this election.  It involves our very identity as Catholic schools. 

    Our new Prime Minister has made many significant and powerful references to treating all schools the same (other than in funding).  She has indicated that, to her, whether a student is from a Government, an Independent or a Catholic school the Government will intervene equally if they believe the job is not being done. It is hard to believe that a change of Minister will see a change to this approach!

    A further major indicator that this is the direction of the Government’s thinking has been in the recent initiative known as the National Partnerships.  In this initiative, significant funds were given by the Australian Government, not to schools, not to the Victorian Government Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, not to the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria or to Catholic Education Offices - but to State Treasury.  The funds flowed to the State on the condition that State-wide programs be established and implemented by all three sectors in a coordinated way.  The success or otherwise of these programs is to be measured on a State-wide (not school or system) basis and reward payments will be made to the State.  More and more we are being “rolled into” the Government’s seeing education as a single entity, thus reducing the identity and integrity of existing systems and structures. This is not acceptable to Catholic Education but it seems to be a sign of things to come.   

    Yet for decades, Catholic systems throughout Australia have continually demonstrated that the funds we receive are utilised more effectively, more efficiently and more equitably than in other sectors.  With less money, Catholic schools do better across almost every measure. The recent negative publicity around the BER programs (the so-called, “School Halls Rip-off) simply does not apply to Catholic schools.  That program has been implemented smoothly and effectively in our sector.  It is clear evidence that we do things well – that our current system works well It is clear evidence again that Catholic schools give governments more “bang for their buck!” 

    That independence has allowed us, at the same time, to retain our Catholic culture.  It has given us room to develop in our own special way and that is not something to be surrendered.  Therefore, we are also asking the political parties commitment that to the principle that Catholic Schools and systems will have a direct relationship with the Commonwealth Government, underpinned by legislation.  We are also asking that Catholic systems retain the capacity to distribute funds to schools according to need. We do it well - within our Catholic framework.

    These two items may be difficult to “sell” to the Catholic school parent community as they are less visible, especially, perhaps, to those who value the Catholic heritage less than we might consider desirable.  But they are critical.  They go to who we actually are and who we will be as Catholic systems in the future.   

    There are two other matters on which we seek parties’ assurance.  They are somewhat simpler and clearer so they require less explanation but no less emphasis.  These are

    • that funding for students with disabilities must be increased towards parity with Government school funding and
    • that capital funding should be increased for educationally disadvantaged communities and areas of population growth.

    With respect to the first of these two, it should be noted that the number of children with a disability enrolled at Catholic schools is rising substantially.  In fact, on a proportional basis, it matches the number enrolled in Government schools. Increased funding is required to ensure that these students are able to be educated to an excellent standard with appropriate dignity and respect.  

    With respect to the second issue, Catholic schools and systems are committed to serving students from educationally disadvantaged communities and from fast growing communities, and so seek increased capital funding to provide facilities and resources in this area.  This applies particularly to the western end of our own diocese. 

    The Task Ahead

    Catholic Schools do have significant vocal opponents within the community.  These groups are well funded and well organised and will certainly be taking a high profile in the coming election.  They will be exerting real pressure on all participants.  That pressure must be countered by our own.  If parties are hearing only one voice it will not be ours.

    It is my hope that every candidate, in every seat within our diocese, will receive at least one visit from every school community in coming weeks.  I hope, too, that large numbers of our Catholic school communities – staff, parents and, yes, grandparents, will write to all candidates seeking support for Catholic schools within the next election.  Every candidate needs to be asked, firstly, what the position of his or her party is on each of the issues mentioned above.  Then, in order to gain some idea of personal commitment, they need to be asked how they, themselves, will argue in the Party Room if they are elected.  And those responses should be published in school newsletters and parish bulletins. 

    Principals have been, and will continue to be provided with information and documentation.  This needs to be used. 

    The support of every member of our Catholic school communities is critical.  The face of education funding will certainly change after this election.  We want to ensure that it changes in ways that can preserve and strengthen the great tradition of Catholic education that we enjoy in Australia.