The ups and downs of school fees

An endless debate on prices and choice

Chris Bonnor

Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

14 March 2019

The changing nature of school fees and government funding amongst Australia’s Catholic, Independent, and public schools worsen societal gaps in the country, Chris Bonnor writes.

You could create a recurring calendar out of media reports about schools. In late January, there is always news about starting school, then NAPLAN in May, the moral panic in August when results come out, and the various exams and league tables in December. School fees are often in the news, either marveling at how high they are in private schools or questioning why they exist at all in public schools.

As a former public school principal, I found that school fees, along with school uniforms, were the bane of my existence. In most cases, neither uniforms nor fees were or are compulsory – meaning considerable energy went into ensuring that the students were attired appropriately enough and that parents continued to make much-needed financial contributions. It was always easier in the Catholic or Independent school down the road: dress up, pay up, or ship out to the ‘free’ school.

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There is still a need for fees/contributions/levees/costs/charges – choosing the word most likely to keep you within the rules – in public schools. At the very least, some school subjects come at a cost, if only for materials used.

But it is also the case that the level of fees – and the collection rate – varies considerably. The most recent My School figures show that the average fee-income per student in public schools is around $340 each year, rising to well over a $1000 for students in selective schools. The amount seems to be linked to each school community’s capacity to pay.

There has also been a need, at least up until now, for fees in private schools. Historically, their public funding fell well short of providing the dollars needed to properly resource the schools. As a consequence, the charging of fees has long remained part of the operation and culture of Catholic and Independent schools.

However, the last two decades has seen this situation change. In 2015, governments funded most Catholic schools at between 91 and 99 per cent of the level of recurrent funding provided to public schools with students at similar levels of advantage. Most Independent schools in that year were funded at between 81 and 97 per cent. In financial terms, both Catholic and Independent schools are becoming government schools.

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Despite this, non-government school fees have kept increasing to the point where they are starting to resemble icing on the government-funded cake. The total income – from all sources – for private schools outstripped that for government schools several years ago. At the same time, the post-Gonski intention to fund schools on the basis of student need has certainly not been reflected in real dollars going to real schools.

The problems created by fees are deeper and wider. The charging of school fees at various levels is creating a substantial socio-economic status (SES) division between groups of schools, in ways which challenge myths about Australian egalitarianism. Fees have become a mechanism by which school enrolments are sorted along SES lines, in ways readily apparent to anyone logging onto the My School website.

In almost every community in Australia, Independent schools charge the highest fees. Across Australia, their fees average around $4,800 per student. They are followed by Catholic schools, that average around $2,600, and government schools, that average around $340.

The level of advantage of each sector’s enrolment neatly reflects these fee differences: the sector-average socio-educational advantage measures on My School are 1034 for Independent schools, 1017 for Catholic, and 980 for government schools. Given that two-thirds of schools fall between 950 and 1150, the gaps are considerable.

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These developments have been accompanied by endless debates not only about fees, but about school choice as well.

To even question the way choice operates in Australia invites hostile responses accompanied by assertions that choice is almost a moral right – regardless of other impacts – and that it saves public money – though assertions about the latter are becoming increasingly doubtful as well.

Recent reports indicate that choice amongst public schools is quite highly exercised, meaning that the level of fees doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. But the choice of a higher fee-charging school is certainly not available to all. My estimates are that, overall, only half of Australian families can choose such a school. Even then, the choice – for average families – is available for just one child.

While choice enables selection of schools by those with the required resources, the reality is that it is the schools that do the choosing: students are substantially chosen by schools that can employ substantial enrolment discriminators. Higher-demand schools, regardless of their sector, are especially able to decide who walks in through the school gate each day. In more than one way, our schools are increasingly able to be categorised as high-choice, low-choice, and anything in-between.

The results are a disaster, and are easily demonstrated across Australia especially in our most vulnerable communities. Maybe the next big debates about schools in Australia, including the debates excited by our media calendars, will include searches for solutions.

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