Sydney: The lottery that defies logic and confuses experts

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
March 16 2004

The lottery that defies logic and confuses experts
By Kelly Burke, Education Reporter

Geelong Grammar can count Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch, Alexander
Downer and Prince Charles among its famous old boys. By comparison,
its Sydney cousin, Trinity Grammar, has just a smattering of
corporate chief executives and barristers wearing the old school tie.

Yet these schools steeped in the Anglican tradition share many other
common factors, including a high level of boarders, day fees of about
$16,000 a year, and a similar ranking under the system that
determines the level of Commonwealth funding each school gets.

In contrast, the non-government Hamazkaine, Arshak & Sophie Galstaun
school, in the northern Sydney suburb of Ingleside, has been the
beneficiary of little largesse during its 18-year history. The
school’s 322 students all come from non-English speaking backgrounds,
and their parents, primarily Armenian immigrants, pay between $2000
and $3500 in school fees each year.

Yet according to the Federal Government system which measures
parents’ capacity to pay, this school is as affluent as Trinity, with
both schools sharing the same socio-economic status (SES) ranking of
112. Geelong Grammar comes in a point lower, at 111, on a scale which
in NSW ranges from 87 for the poorest schools and 133 for the
wealthiest.

Kaylar Michaelian, the principal of Hamazkaine, Arshak & Sophie
Galstaun School, has appealed against the Federal Government’s ruling
that the parents of his pupils are on a par financially par with
those at Trinity – and marginally better off than those who send
their offspring to Geelong Grammar. The case has yet to be resolved.

“We are a community school – we don’t even see ourselves as a private
school,” Mr Michaelian said. “We’ve asked the department to review
[our SES] because it in no way reflects the make up of our parents
and their capacity to pay any more than what we’re already asking.
It’s unfair.”

The NSW Government sees things differently from the Commonwealth.
Factoring in the school’s assets and income, the state’s education
resource index (ERI) model has deemed it a relatively needy school.
Out of a possible score of 12, it gets a nine, while Trinity is
ranked as one of the wealthiest, as a category 1 school.

The Commonwealth’s SES model is based on measuring the education,
income and employment status of about 250 households in the
census-determined area where each parent of a private school student
lives.

Mark Drummond, a PhD candidate in public sector management at the
University of Canberra and a former teacher of mathematics at the
Australian Defence Force Academy, said this system has turned the
school funding system into little more than a lottery.

“The scores are a basket case,” he said, after having spent nearly 12
months analysing national non-government school funding data.

“In effect, there are many private schools where the rich kids are
getting the benefit from the poorer kids who happen to live in the
same area, and go to the local public school. There is no coherence
to the system. You only have to look at Geelong Grammar’s SES to know
it even fails the commonsense test.”

But Terry Chapman, executive director of the NSW Association of
Independent Schools, says the Commonwealth’s SES model is the best of
an admittedly imperfect lot.

“The SES is better because judgements are made using data gathered
from the census,” he says. “It’s absolutely transparent, does not
require massive details from each school, and it does not create any
serious disincentive to private effort.”

But under the NSW Government’s ERI system, Mr Chapman says, a private
school theoretically loses government money with every private
donation it receives.

A spokesman for the federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, said
the figures merely proved what every parent of every student in a
Catholic or independent school had known for a long time.

“That is that there are parents in this country who make enormous
sacrifices with four jobs between two parents, who live in modest
accommodation, never have a holiday and choose to make great
sacrifices to send their children to non-government schools”.

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