Victorian audit of private schools misses the big picture

Mar 17, 2016 by

By Stephen Elder –

The Victorian Auditor General has accused Catholic education of ‘unworthy’ behaviour in its response to an audit of non-government Victorian school grants.

After wrestling with the dilemma of whether to justify his comment with a response I have, perhaps against my better judgement, decided to do so. Why? Because recent activity has led me to question the very integrity of the Auditor General’s investigation.

I would like to remind VAGO of what ‘unworthy’ behaviour actually looks like.

Just days after he announced this investigation in June last year, the then-Auditor-General John Doyle said in an interview with The Age that there is ‘limited accountability’ in non-government schools. One could conclude that anyone making such an utterance before they have visited a Catholic school or discussed Catholic education’s financial models in any detail is unlikely to have a totally open mind when working through the audit process.

With this apparent eye for headlines rather than the full story, it came as no surprise when, some nine months later, VAGO this week provided a report that did back-up these pre-emptive assertions.

This matter goes to the heart of VAGO’s capacity to undertake independent, clinical investigations. In other words, to do its job, without bias!

Catholic Education Commission Victoria’s initial concern with the Grants to Non-Government Schools audit was an unfair, narrow scope.

Catholic education in Victoria receives 62% of its funding from the Commonwealth, 20% via parental contributions and only 18% from the Victorian Government. The VAGO report only investigated requirements relating to the state government component, the 18%.

Don’t get me wrong, the Catholic school sector has no fear of scrutiny of its operations, but such an audit can only prove meaningful when consideration is given to the full range of ways organisations are held accountable to governments and the wider community.

I say to the Auditor-General again, how this report can give anyone the full picture is inconceivable. It’s a bit like a motor mechanic assessing the safety of a car without looking at its engine. A flawed and dangerous exercise.

I also find it rather ironic that on the very day that new MySchool NAPLAN data on school performance was released, VAGO presents an audit into our reporting requirements that for some reason excluded the MySchool and ACARA requirements for individual schools to publically report on where its funds are allocated and the results that follow.

VAGO also appears ignorant of our substantial reporting and accountability requirements to our major funder, the Commonwealth Government, which shares these reports with the state government. Not to mention compliance requirements of Victoria’s own school regulator, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority.

Acting Auditor-General Peter Frost told the media of ‘limited assurance that (Victorian government) grants are used for their intended purpose’.

Let me assure both Mr Frost, and the now departed Mr Doyle, that they have nothing to fear. A proper investigation would have told them that.

Our funding models conform and are highly transparent and accountable to government, and our commitment to disadvantaged students and schools is second to none.
Catholic schools allocate money over and above the state school system to disadvantaged students by directly funding needs including students with disabilities, small schools, regional schools, refugee students, new arrivals, VET and VCAL. And our disadvantaged students return better results.

The flexibility to redistribute funds and the amazing capacity of our school principals to provide for the greater needs of others is what makes Catholic education great. A point endorsed in the Gonski review.

Our funding redistribution model ensures the small number of high-fee Catholic schools receive much less total-government-funds per student than similar state government operated schools that, by design, enrol only high achieving students from well off families.

I feel I must also stand up for all schools by explaining that VAGO recommendations for even closer financial scrutiny are without justification, or a basic understanding of the education system.

VAGO expects our schools to separately record how they spend the funding received from each of their income sources. Nowhere in Australia, including in Victorian state schools, is there a requirement to do this.

It is inconceivable that there could be such differentiation in reporting between the schooling sectors, so to ask all schools to meet this sort of onerous financial reporting would simply burden principals with more red tape and divert even more of their resources away from classrooms.

We want to spend more money on students, not accountants.

In the interest of those students, Catholic Education Commission Victoria will work with the Victorian Education Department to review the VAGO report and identify any constructive recommendations that can be of actual benefit.

In the meantime, I continue to wonder if VAGO will soon launch an audit into the use of Commonwealth funds in state schools. Just like Victorian government money in Catholic education, the percentage of federal government funds in the overall state government school pool is low so the scope would probably be too narrow.

Source: Victorian audit of private schools misses the big picture – On Line Opinion – 17/3/2016

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