A reluctant response to an unseemly assault
In recent months, I have watched with a degree of disappointment as Independent schools have been used as a whipping boy in a political campaign by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) against changes to the Australian Government’s school funding system.
This is not to say that the CECV, like any body representing a school sector, doesn’t have the right to engage in positive advocacy for its Member Schools. Advocacy, after all, is part of the work of Independent Schools Victoria (ISV).
But this campaign goes beyond robust advocacy. In seeking to win a better deal for Catholic schools, CECV Chief Executive Stephen Elder has found it convenient to drag Independent schools into an unseemly assault on the new funding model.
This has involved the use of intemperate language that impugns the integrity of Independent schools and those who work in them. The ill-considered words being flung about wouldn’t be out of place in a rowdy question time after a long lunch on a bad day in an unruly provincial parliament.
While the targets of this attack are government and politicians, Independent schools are denigrated. Mr Elder accuses them of being parties to corrupt behaviour, of ‘gaming’ disability funding with ‘dodgy’ data, and of engaging in a ‘rort’.
It’s the kind of language we hear from ideological critics who would deny any government funding to non-government schools – Independent and Catholic.
Reading this increasingly strident language, my disappointment turns to dismay. I’ve been reluctantly compelled to respond, even at the risk of adding to an undignified debate, because Independent schools are not to blame for the woes of another school sector.
I’ve also been reluctant because I recognise that Catholic schools have a long and respected record of educational achievement that has benefitted generations of young Australians and enriched our society.
Advocates of Catholic education, often in the face of sectarian bigotry, played a pioneering role in ensuring governments of all persuasions embrace the principle that’s now an entrenched part of our school funding system – that all students in all schools, regardless of sector, should receive a degree of government support.
The language used by the CECV contrasts with the forceful but respectful advocacy of the National Catholic Education Commission which, in seeking to advance the interests of its sector, doesn’t descend to denigrating another sector.
I’m not alone in recognising that the community is repelled by abusive point-scoring in public debates.
Informed and senior figures in Catholic education are troubled by the direction this campaign has taken. They are perturbed that the reluctant closure of some small Catholic schools, for reasons totally unrelated to the funding reforms, is being exploited for political purposes. They are troubled when school staff and students are conscripted as props for media stories.
They know from experience that those who manage Catholic school systems receive government funding in a block and then decide how to spend it. In some cases, they re-allocate funding to subsidise small schools which, due to demographic shifts and changes in parental preferences, are sadly struggling to maintain enrolments – despite the best efforts of committed teachers. They know that this means some schools that are otherwise unsustainable are kept afloat by artificially depressed fees.
For our part, ISV has conditionally welcomed the government’s reforms to education funding as an attempt to ensure consistency, fairness and predictability.
At long last we have the prospect of a sector-blind funding model that should end the tedious funding wars.
The funding changes are not perfect: some Independent schools will lose; some will gain, based on the needs of the students they enroll.
It’s understandable if Mr Elder is upset that his office has lost the special deals it once enjoyed. But this is no excuse for vitriol; nor is it acceptable for Mr Elder to make the strange claim that he’s standing up for low-fee schools, including low-fee Independent schools. I wouldn’t presume to tell him how to run his office, but when confronted by a challenge, it might be best to look for solutions, not scapegoats.