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  • Significant Shift in Funding Debate 

    For those of us who have been involved in Catholic education for 40 or so years, the current situation existing in Australia in relation to the funding of education is not only worrying but somewhat unique from a historical perspective. I was still at primary school at the time of the Goulburn School Strike and blissfully unaware of the situation, when the Catholic schools in Goulburn NSW closed down and the students marched on the local government schools demanding admission. Funding of Catholic schools was at the heart of that – or rather the lack of capacity of Catholic communities to adequately fund their schools, triggered in this particular instance by a requirement for toilets! 

    I commenced teaching in 1971 in a Catholic primary school and I was aware, at that time, that friends of mine who worked in government schools were paid more than me. This was not a significant issue back then as those of us who had chosen to train at a Catholic Teachers’ College and work in Catholic schools had a strong sense of vocation. It is difficult to explain to anyone not educated or working under the auspices of the Catholic education system back then, quite what it was like. Older colleagues would tell stories about not knowing whether or not they would even be paid from one week to the next. One teacher told us “young ones” of having to go and knock on the parish priest’s door and ask for the pay for the week; on more than one occasion being scolded for being so mercenary and not infrequently going away empty handed! We considered ourselves very fortunate that our salaries, smaller though they were than our government school counterparts’, at least went into our bank accounts regularly.  

    In 1972 Gough Whitlam led the ALP into office for the first time in 23 years and the next year set up a Federal Schools Commission which tripled federal funds for all schools – government and non-government. The inner suburban Catholic school I was teaching in at the time was surrounded by Housing Commission flats from which the majority of our students came. All of a sudden we had money to fund camps and excursions and buy spirit duplicators and cameras. It was a heady time. 

    The Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) lobbied through several election campaigns and finally took their case to the High Court to argue against State Aid to non government schools. The matter was decided in February 1981 and State aid to non government schools was assured. It was a momentous decision and one upon which hung the survival of the Catholic system as we know it today.  

    What is particularly concerning about this particular time in our history is that right now confusion reigns supreme as we all try to grapple with the lack of definitive information about how much or how little is to be funded; what impact the funding agreement will have on school fees for non government schools; when and how the funding will flow and what specifically will be the changes to the accountability framework for the funding once it is agreed. 

    At a recent meeting of Catholic Education Commission of Victoria Directors the comment was made that never in the history of our struggle to maintain fair and equitable funding for children in Catholic schools, have we been in the situation where education was a political rather than a policy issue. This is a serious and significant shift.  Principals in non government schools received a “personal” email from the Prime Minister last week urging them to exert their influence in support of the federal government’s education proposal. This email bypassed the very body through which the government distributes the funding – no Director of Catholic Education in Victoria was copied into the email or alerted to it being sent. At best this was a breach of established protocol and etiquette. 

    As a result, principals and school communities are being urged to contact their local members of parliament and seek answers to the questions that have been put to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education without response (as at the date of writing this article). Any supporter of Catholic education should consider doing the same. 

    Some focus questions could be: 

    • How will schools be affected? 
    • How much of the new funding will be allocated to future increases to teacher and staff salaries? 
    • What red tape will the new funding arrangements impose on schools and schools systems? Has this been costed by the Australian Government and what will it cost?