Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) is regularly contacted by journalists seeking comment, information, and answers to questions. We start from a position of engagement – we think it’s in the interests of Independent education. We engage even if the questions – and experience – tell us that the resulting news item will be negative.
This was the case last week when an Age reporter contacted my office with questions about capital spending by Independent schools.
The reporter said she had data – she initially described it as ‘my data’ – on the level of this spending.
Pressed for the source of the data, she said it was compiled by Bernie Shepherd. He is a long-standing critic of government funding for non-government schools.
My office asked for the data and any accompanying commentary or report relating to it. Without knowing the context, ISV would be unlikely to be able to provide a considered response. The reporter provided us with a one-page table, which gave no context or explanation of how it had been compiled.
The reporter said she was giving us the data, even though she was not ‘required’ to do so. And she asked ISV to keep the data confidential. This was curious, given the media’s commitment to disclosure and transparency.
I sent the reporter a detailed response to her questions, which you can read below.
The Age subsequently published an online news item, with a slightly amended version in print.
The story highlighted a colourful quote from an academic, stating that Independent schools were engaged in an ‘arms race’ to build new facilities.
While perfect for a headline, the selection of this quote, and the prominence it was given, was also curious.
Firstly, a variation of the same quote from the same academic has been used in a series of media articles in recent years. It appeared in The Agein 2014, and in the Sydney Daily Telegraphin 2013, not long after it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Secondly, the quote was paraphrased in the latest Age article to assert, without attribution, that spending by Independent schools on new facilities was designed to ‘lure students’.
It wasn’t until the 25th and 26th paragraphs of the article that readers came to the fact, attributed to surveys conducted by ISV, that school facilities are hardly a ‘lure’ for parents seeking a school that best meets the needs of their children.
Facilities, in fact, rated ninth among the factors cited by parents.
In this instance, I engaged with The Age even though I feared that my comments would not feature prominently, compared to the comments of our critics. So, for instance, the fact that government funds for capital works in Independent schools go to schools with students who are educationally disadvantaged and can prove financial need didn’t rate a mention.
For the record, following are the questions put to ISV by The Age, and my response. Readers can decide for themselves what’s old and what’s news.
How much do independent schools spend on capital projects every year?
How do they generate this income?
What role do these capital projects play in attracting students?
Do you have any examples of independent schools sharing their facilities with state schools?
An Auditor-General’s report tabled earlier this year found that there was little evidence that private schools were using government grants appropriately. What have you done to address this issue?
Do you use government funding on capital works?
It is unreasonable and unfair to expect an informed response to questions that are based on a one-page statistical table when the source, context and method of compiling that table are not provided.
It’s false to suggest such a table amounts to analysis.
The fact is that parents and donors raise almost all of the funds for capital projects at Independent schools – they are not provided by governments.
This reflects the commitment to Independent education of parents, wider school communities and other donors.
Nationally, parents and donors on average contributed about 86 per cent of the cost of capital projects, such as buildings, at Independent schools in 2014.
The balance came from Australian Government grants (8 per cent) and State Government grants (6 per cent).
In Victoria, Independent schools receive a relatively small amount of government funding for capital works.
The Australian Government’s capital grants program provides approximately $12 million a year for new construction and refurbishment at Victorian Independent schools. This program is designed to assist the most educationally disadvantaged students in schools that have to prove a financial need.
A new capital funding program introduced by the Victorian Government will provide $36 million to Independent schools over three years. Starting this year, the funds are provided on a dollar for dollar basis – for every dollar of government funding, the school has to raise a similar amount. The program is largely designed to meet enrolment demand in areas of population growth. Again, schools are required to prove financial need.
The amount spent by individual Independent schools on capital projects is publicly reported on the My School website.
These projects are designed to meet the needs of students already enrolled, to respond to enrolment pressure, and to improve facilities.
In surveys conducted by ISV over the last four years, 9183 parents have given an indication of why they chose an Independent school for their children, selecting from 22 options.
The school’s facilities and resources ranked ninth.
Parents placed a higher priority on other factors, including the school’s emphasis on the development of sound values and beliefs, an assessment that the school best met the needs of their child, and the reputation of the school.
Questions about Independent schools sharing facilities with government schools – and vice versa – should be directed to individual schools.
The Victorian Auditor General’s report found no evidence that Independent schools have been using Victorian Government grants for anything other than intended purposes – to enhance the education of students.
Victorian Government recurrent grants to meet the day-to-day running costs of Independent schools cannot be used for capital purposes.
The Auditor General recommended that the Department of Education and Training improve its administration of grants to non-government schools.
ISV is cooperating with the department on measures to achieve this, working though the School Policy and Funding Advisory Council, in which ISV is represented.
The public has a right to know how taxpayers’ money is spent and ISV is committed to ensuring that all schools comply with all government reporting requirements