I am teaching my elder son to drive. So today, for the first time in a long time, I spent an hour driving around our suburb and neighbouring suburbs on a Sunday morning. Because I spend a fair bit of time in taxis I am used to mistake ridden driving and don’t sweat it too much. I just relaxed and looked out the window. It was surprising how many Evangelical churches there are in those suburbs — we passed 6 or 7 at least — and how their large car parks were filled and over-filled with very modest looking vehicles. We also passed four or five Evangelical schools, three of which have been established in the last few years. Two or three large Catholic church congregations were sighted and some Anglican and Methodist church car parks that looked sadly empty. Now that I think of it, I don’t recall passing any mosques, temples or synagogues, which is surprising.
Seeing those Evangelical schools and all that Christian devotional energy made me think about the Gonski report. I don’t think people realise what a boost the Gonski funding reforms will give to Evangelical schooling in Australia. The Gonski reforms have two main aims. First, to ensure a minimum level of funding for all schools in Australia. Second, to direct extra funds to areas of special need; in particular schools with: students from low socio-economic backgrounds; students with disabilities; students with poor English; and indigenous students.
To meet the first aim there is a minimum school resource standard (SRS) of $9,300 for primary school students and $12,200 for high school students. Every school will be raised to this level. That does not mean that government funding will be at this level for every school because the school ‘resource’ includes the resources of the parents of the children of the school (both financial and ‘educational background’ resources of parents). Most schools that don’t currently meet the minimum SRS are either public schools from states which have under-spent on education or are private schools that have very low fees and parents with low incomes.
About 35% of Australian school children attend private schools. About 20% are in Catholic Christian schools and nearly 10% are in low fee paying, Protestant Christian schools. Many Catholic schools have low fees. But many of the very lowest fee paying schools are Evangelical schools. These schools often have terribly ordinary facilities — at least to start with. An Evangelical primary school was started by a church group in our area a few years ago with only a bunch of demountable buildings, such as you might see on a mine site. Then in the ensuring years the energy and commitment of the parent group transformed the facilities of the school into something quite impressive. These very low fee Evangelical schools with parents with low incomes will receive more funding under Gonski. Their resources will be brought up to the SRS level.
To meet the second aim of the Gonski reforms — to provide extra funding for students with special need — loadings will be applied to student funding. For schools with students from low income suburbs, these loadings will be very large. Here is a quote from the ‘Better Schools’ site
A percentage of the per student amount, starting with 15 per cent ($1,391 per primary student and $1,829 per secondary student) for the first student in the lowest SES quartile (Q1) increasing up to 50 per cent for Q1 enrolments over 75 per cent in a single school ($4,635 per primary student and $6,096 per secondary student).
For students in the second lowest quartile (Q2), the loading will start at 7.5 per cent for the first Q2 student ($695 per primary student and $914 per secondary student), increasing up to 37.5 per cent for Q2 enrolments over 75 per cent in a single school ($3,477 per primary student and $4,572 per secondary student).
My understanding is that this means the following. If a church group decided to start a school in a very low income area and charge fees of almost nothing, then they will receive most of the SRS ($9,300 for primary school students and $12,200 for high school students) in government funding plus a big loading for low socio-economic status (SES). That level of funding will be like ‘manna from heaven’ for Evangelical church groups that currently run schools on the smell of an oily rag. They will be able to use church resources, and low interest government loans, to build schools with very modest facilities. Then attract students because they offer the discipline and academic standards that public schools in many low income areas lack. Then, run and build out the school with a level of resources that will be much greater than they currently need.
Once the Gonski funding is in place we will have the perfect conditions for a massive expansion of Evangelical schools in Australia.
1. Evangelical church groups will bring the energy. Evangelical groups are literally on a mission from God. Religion for Evangelicals is not something done on Sundays and forgotten for the rest of week for them — it is the very core of their existence. Education is the single most effective way to spread the word in suburbs of Australia. Of course non-religious groups will have the same opportunity to bring the energy to building new schools — but where do you see that energy now among secular educational groups? There are low fee secular private schools, but they are thin on the ground.
2. Aspirational parents will bring the students. Many parents in low income areas are aspirational and sick of the indiscipline and low standards of the schools their kids attend (even though the indifference to discipline and educational standards of other parents is most of the problem in those schools). They don’t necessarily want a religious education for their kids, but many will jump at the chance to exit the public school system.
3. The Gonski reforms will bring the funding — lots of new funding.
Eventually state education departments will resist the building of new Evangelical schools, but they won’t be able to stop it. Concentrated political pressure can always move the bureaucracy to approve a new school.
This Gonski funding model is so favourable to low fee private education, for families that do not currently have that option, that it might push the share of private education in Australia over 50% in the next two decades. If that comes about it will be by far that main legacy of the Gillard Government, for good or for ill.
Personally I think that will be a good thing. It will put pressure on the public school system to improve and it will give parents with low incomes more options for their kids. But I don’t think it is really what many people in Labour Party are intending. I don’t think they understand what a boost to religious education in Australia this will be. Especially Evangelical education in low income areas.