Push to lift scrutiny of Catholic school spending

| 13 Oct 2019

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JORDAN BAKER for the Sydney Morning Herald

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Catholic schools in NSW receive $300 million in taxpayer funding every six months but face far less scrutiny from the state government over outcomes and performance than public schools, prompting calls for greater transparency.

While NSW Treasury officials pored over NSW Department of Education (DOE) budgets this year, the NSW government's only budgetary oversight of the Catholic sector's annual funding was a one-page document stating how much money it would be paid.

Former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the document, obtained by Greens MP David Shoebridge under freedom of information, showed that schools receiving large amounts of public money were not subject to enough scrutiny.

"They get more public money than quite a few government agencies," Mr Piccoli said. "I'm not suggesting they are doing anything wrong. But the public has a right to know what's happening inside the schools that are getting that money."

Catholic Schools NSW said the document was a payment notice, not an accountability document, and did not reflect its reporting requirements to the state government, which were set out elsewhere, such as the education act and regulations set out by the NSW Education Standards Authority.


But the sector "acknowledges the responsibilities that comes with public funding for our schools and is open to considering improvements to state based oversight," a spokesman said.

Non-government schools must comply with financial rules relating to non-profit organisations, federal government reporting requirements, such as those used for NAPLAN and My School, as well as bi-lateral agreements, state acts and NSW Education Standards Authority regulations.

Unlike the DOE, they cannot be investigated by the state Auditor-General, their chiefs do not have to appear before NSW budget estimates committees and they are not subject to freedom of information legislation.

The state government has also told the DOE to produce an outcome and business plan showing how taxpayer money will achieve concrete outcomes in public schools, a requirement that has not yet been extended to private schools.

Catholic Schools NSW indicated in its submission to a parliamentary inquiry it was willing to discuss outcomes-based budgeting but noted that the definition of this was still in its early phase.


"If there is a discussion to be had around a different or modified approach to funding for non-government schools with a potential for it to improve learning outcomes, that is a discussion we are willing to have with you," chief executive Dallas McInerney told the inquiry last week.

The money deposited by the DOE to Catholic Schools NSW twice a year comprises both state and federal funding. The Commonwealth provides about 60 per cent of Catholic schools’ money and the state and parents pay about 20 per cent each.

A spokesman for Catholic Schools NSW told The Sun-Herald  that most of the organisation's reporting responsibilities were to the federal government, because it was the majority funder of private schools.

Using NSW freedom of information, Mr Shoebridge asked the DOE for all documents establishing the basis for provision of state funding to Catholic schools in NSW.

His request was granted in full but consisted only of biannual one-page notifications to Catholic Schools NSW about how much money would be deposited in its bank account. He was also given the tax invoice from Catholic Schools NSW acknowledging receipt of the money.


"We sought this information because we had heard whispers that there was no formal arrangement in place that required Catholic [Schools] NSW to account for the almost $600 million in public money they receive each year," he said.

"However we were astounded to find that the paperwork is as barren as it is."

Mr Shoebridge said the state school system had a minister who was accountable to Parliament, a budget estimates process and an Auditor-General. Treasury this year also worked through public schools' budget line by line to check the money was well spent.

"Meanwhile there's a complete veil of secrecy that protects the 600-odd million dollars of funding going to the Catholic education system," he said. "That can't be good for students and it's certainly not good for the public interest."

When Mr Shoebridge raised the document during last week's inquiry, Mr McInerney said there were many reporting requirements. "If only it was one page," Mr McInerney said.


But Mr Shoebridge said the regulations referred to by Mr McInerney only governed financial management, not education outcomes. "Not one of those measures that the Catholic system points to is about accounting for the expenditure of the money," he said.

An Auditor-General's report last year recommended more stringent accountability measures for grants to private schools. Catholic Schools is a member of a committee set up in response, which is due to negotiate a memorandum of understanding by the end of the year.

Catholic schools represent the second-biggest sector in NSW after the public system. Taxpayer money is given in a lump sum to the governing body, Catholic Schools NSW, which it distributes to hundreds of schools across eight diocesan systems.

Independent Schools, represented by the Association of Independent Schools, are individual or small groups of schools.