While the nation’s elite schools outspend one another building new facilities, experts question why public schools have effectively had their funding cut. By Max Opray.

Private schools’ spending arms race heats up

In the well-to-do eastern suburbs that flank Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, a new performing arts facility, inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is rising up above the Brighton campus of St Leonard’s College. The 600-seat Leonardian auditorium – its walls adorned with 3D elements of the school’s crest that are specially designed to optimise the hall’s acoustics – will cost an estimated $40 million to $50 million. Once complete, the building will connect to a new learning centre via a plaza, the Agora, where a big screen is to telecast performances taking place within the theatre, just in case the school recital is a sellout event.

While a modern homage to the Globe Theatre may sound exorbitant, the investment by St Leonard’s is merely an attempt to keep pace with the spending boom that’s playing out in the elite world of Australia’s top private schools.

In the nearby suburb of Glen Iris, the Catholic girls’ school Sacré Cœur, which charges year 12 students $26,974 a year, is investing $15 million to $20 million in the early stages of a resource, science, technology and creative arts building. Across the other side of the country, in Perth, Guildford Grammar School, which charges year 12 boarders $55,651, is building a new $30 million boarding house, perched over tranquil wetlands.

Recent analysis by The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that among Sydney’s elite private schools, a billion dollars’ worth of projects are in the pipeline, including Sydney Grammar’s plans for a $55 million sports and wellbeing complex at Kambala. Not content with just one new sports facility, though, the school is also considering a $47.8 million complex at Rushcutters Bay.

“My first response,” says Grattan Institute school education program director Peter Goss, “is, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money!’ ” His second response goes back to the intense competition between high-fee private schools. “It is hard for parents to understand which offer the best academic experience, so they are likely to choose based on what they can see, contributing to an arms race among the wealthiest schools,” he says.

But Australian Education Union president Correna Haythorpe sees an additional factor fuelling the private school construction boom: public money. “What sits behind this expenditure is vast inequality for school capital works funding at the Commonwealth level,” she says. “[Scott] Morrison has provided $1.9 billion in capital funding over 10 years to private schools while systematically dismantling any Commonwealth commitment to public school capital works altogether.”

Haythorpe cites the 2020 Report on Government Services (RoGS), which found non-government school funding per student grew at an average rate of 3.4 per cent a year, compared with 1.3 per cent for government students. She says, “The question must be asked: Why does the Morrison government persist in funnelling millions of Commonwealth dollars into Australia’s richest elite private schools when they clearly do not need it?”

Education Minister Dan Tehan says the government’s Quality Schools package will provide $314.2 billion to all schools through to 2029, an increase in funding of 63.2 per cent per student. “The federal government is putting more money into schools and we are asking the states and territories to also put more into their schools,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Of course, not every private education facility is a high-fee enclave for the rich. The National Catholic Education Commission’s executive director, Jacinta Collins, notes that “low-fee” Catholic schools funded 89 per cent of their capital works in 2017, with governments contributing $152 million across that year. Catholic schools can only receive a maximum of 80 per cent of the funding of a government school, so Collins argues that private educators, in effect, save the public money. “Parents have a right to choose the education they want for their children, including a faith-based education,” she says. “As taxpayers, Catholic school parents are entitled to some level of government funding for their child.”

In a move Collins supports, the government is seeking to change the way funding is allocated so that it is based on the income of parents rather than the average income and education level of the community.

The bill, which requires an amendment to the Australian Education Act, is under consideration by a senate committee. The move to parent-based funding would see public funding growth reduced for 20 per cent of wealthier and high-fee private schools. Still, they will have access to the $1.3 billion Choice and Affordability Fund to ease the pain. Tehan advised this fund could not be used for capital works spending; however, that doesn’t make it irrelevant to private school construction plans.

As Peter Goss notes, “Money coming [in] from one side frees up the other side. [High-fee private schools] don’t have to raise as much for the operational side, so it frees up capital spending.” He is concerned the fund “treats some schools as more equal than others” in benefiting the richest schools, and that it is indexed every year, allowing for money to be squirrelled away as an investment until 2029. The $3.4 billion in extra funding for all private schools during the transition to a new allocation methodology is “generous”, but gets to the right place in the end, he says.

Even with these concessions, the changes haven’t completely won over the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA), which argues the new income-measuring methodology could affect schools in regional and remote Australia. The chief executive of ISCA, Dr David Mulford, noted Tehan has committed to investigating the impact of the methodology, as well as letting schools apply to have their assessments reviewed to address “unexpected or unique circumstances affecting their community’s financial capacity.”

Whether or not the Morrison government provides more concessions to placate ISCA, ultimately the changes will only make funding allocations fairer within the private sector – they won’t address the growing disparity between students in public and private education, as noted by Goss. “We have a model locked in where private school targets will get fully funded by government, and virtually no public school targets will, so it’s a big backwards step to lock in that disparity,” he says.

An education research paper published in February by Save Our Schools calculates that, adjusted for inflation, state and federal government funding for private schools increased by $1779 a student over the past decade, while funding for public schools was effectively cut by $49 a student. This has implications not only for the quality of facilities, but also for hiring teachers, determining class sizes and purchasing teaching materials.

On last Monday’s episode of Q&A, Labor’s Education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, criticised the Morrison government’s Schooling Resource Standard, saying it would see non-government schools reach 100 per cent or more of their fair funding level by 2023, while only allowing public schools to get to 95 per cent at most. “That inequality is baked in based on the arrangements that the Commonwealth government has made with the states and territories,” she said. “That’s at the heart of the unfairness.”

It’s a point not lost on the students themselves.

Ruby, a year 7 student from Randwick Girls High School in Sydney’s east, prefaced her question to the Q&A panel by outlining the issues at her public school. “The whole school is made of concrete and it’s just bare exposed concrete,” she said. “A lot of the classrooms are ill-equipped for modern learning and barely any of them have aircon.”

On a visit to SCEGGS Darlinghurst, a private girls’ school in inner Sydney, Ruby couldn’t believe the difference. “It was incredible … the grounds were huge and it was so beautiful, and everything was shiny,” she said. “And I couldn’t understand why schools like that are getting funding over schools like mine.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Private schools’ spending arms race heats up".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.