Australia: Regional, rural schools seek funding sweetener

By Madeleine Heffernan

About 50 independent schools, including more than a dozen from Victoria, say the new needs-based school funding regime threatens the future of many regional and remote non-government schools.

Margery Evans, chief executive officer of Independent Schools Australia, said it had been “advocating on behalf of schools negatively impacted” by the new formula and would continue to do so.

Ms Evans said she hoped the National School Resourcing Board, which provides oversight over Commonwealth school funding arrangements, “recognise[d] the unique challenges faced by regional and remote independent schools”.

Following lengthy and complex discussions, the federal government has rewritten the funding rules for Catholic and independent schools. From 2022, funding for all schools will be based on parents’ or guardians’ taxable incomes, rather than the average incomes and education levels of the community the school is in.

The Coalition of Regional Independent Schools Australia said many regional schools would lose substantial amounts of Commonwealth funding under the changes. It said these schools would be forced to hike fees, might lose enrolments, and ultimately have to close.

The coalition represents 52 regional, rural and outer-metropolitan schools. Victorian members include Ballarat Clarendon College, Gippsland Grammar, The Geelong College, Hamilton and Alexandra College, and Goulburn Valley Grammar.

Under the changes, about 810 independent schools will have their annual recurrent funding increased by 2.5 per cent or more, 133 schools will experience little or no change, and 59 schools will lose funding.

But Independent Schools Australia said the new methodology will increase funding per students for about 42 per cent of the independent sector, decrease funding per student for 35 per cent, and leave no change for 23 per cent.

In response to the concerns, the Morrison government has established a working group comprising a range of government department and school education bodies to assess the new national formula.

The federal government has also allocated $1.2 billion to Catholic and independent schools to ease the transition, a portion of which must be spent on supporting country schools. The Grattan Institute has labelled the “Choice and Affordability Fund” a slush fund.

Education expert Dr Peter Goss said the regional schools’ push was not a surprise for two reasons.

“Many of the regional boarding schools had the best deal when the SES [socio-economic status] scores were based on where families lived, which is why they have some of the biggest adjustments now the model is based on estimates of families’ actual income,” Dr Goss said.

In addition, Dr Goss said the federal government had “brought back special deals” by developing the $1.2 billion Choice and Affordability Fund and allowing state governments to wind back their funding to state schools.

“Having seen that pattern, why wouldn’t a group of independent schools have a crack at seeing if they can get themselves a special deal?” he said.

Dr Goss said a solution was to use the Choice and Affordability Fund to help non-government schools deal with the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19.

“There is $1.2 billion notionally to support choice and affordability. If they’re under threat for COVID reasons bring it in,” he said.

School funding expert Barry Wallett said schools hurt by the changes in 2022 “need to take great care in how they manage the decisions about whether or not they put fees up”.

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Australia: Regional, rural schools seek funding sweetener – Sarraute Educación María Magdalena

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