Farrah Tomazin of the Sunday Age has reported that the Victorian Auditor General will investigate the finances of non government schools.
Non government schools are incredibly diverse but publicly most will welcome this news. For every Mowbray there are hundreds of well run independent and Catholic schools where community governance and financial controls coincide with sound school management and leadership. Privately, these same schools should be concerned. Here’s why.
As the Auditor General points out there is relatively little public accountability for public funds provided to these schools. Presumably there is financial reporting on a range of levels. But this is unlikely to provide any indication of the specific purposes to which public funds are put.
If public funds are isolated in the budgets of non government schools and targeted for specific purposes then the VAGO report will show exactly what these funds are being spent on. At present no-one knows, despite Stephen Elder’s protestations. It’s one thing to meet the requirements of public funding, whatever they may be, but another altogether to open your spending to public scrutiny.
If public funds are not treated in isolation and they are rolled into the broader budget of non government schools then the VAGO investigation will inevitably have to consider the general expenditure of those schools. This is where things could get tricky. VAGO knows exactly what happens in government schools. Comparisons will be inevitable and central to this may be consideration of ‘value for money’ to the public. The Auditor General may not go there but others will, particularly given the recent VAGO report that highlighted the increasing pressure on public school parents.
The Auditor General’s decision to probe the finances of non government schools is notable for another reason. Earlier this year the Victorian government legislated to enshrine funding for non government schools at 25% of that provided to government schools. The calculations sitting behind that must be something to behold given the combination of funding received by non government schools from the federal and state governments – presumably federal funding was taken into account – and the services provided to non government schools through the education department. But it’s surprising that the state would provide a blanket guarantee of funding without any idea of how much that funding is needed or what it’s spent on – and the Auditor General has confirmed the government does not have this data. This confirms what most people already understand: the 25% was a political decision, not an educational one.
In the very unlikely event that someone from the office of the Auditor General reads this post, I would urge them to consider the scholarship schemes run by many non government schools. These are reserved for students of high academic or sporting ability (tell me the last time one was awarded to a low ability student with challenging behaviours). In a good many schools I know these funds are derived from special fundraising or donations to scholarship schemes. But if they are not, and if they are coming out of general revenue then the question is this: are public funds being used to recruit students from public schools? If so then public funding of non government schools is being used to undermine the viability of the public education system. And that would make no sense in terms of public policy.