Sydney private school’s $108m expansion plan exposes education funding inequity, advocate says | Australian education

Australia’s most affluent schools are set to rake in more than a billion in commonwealth overfunding, new figures show, with one of them facing controversy over a $108m development proposal.

The “state significant development” lodged with the New South Wales Department of Planning by MLC school in Burwood includes an expansion of its existing aquatic centre and a performing arts and sports centre. The proposal is in its preliminary planning stage.

Experts say the application lays bare the inequity of overfunding the private system, amid figures provided at Senate estimates showing the top 10% of private schools ranked by parent incomes were receiving a quarter of ongoing overfunding.

The 263 private schools, where the median family income is in excess of $209,000, are expected to receive $1.3bn above the the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) to 2029 – the level agreed to by governments to provide a baseline education.

Of those, 92 have a median family income of more than $260,000.

The commonwealth has until 2029 to bring funding levels down to their agreed level 0f 80% for private schools – with many continuing to be funded well in excess of 100%.

In 2024, MLC school received $5.9m in commonwealth funding, the latest data shows, representing 145% of the SRS. In 2022, its funding was at 171% of the SRS.

According to the figures, the private girls’ school was overfunded by the commonwealth government to the tune of $2.7m in 2024, while total overfunding from 2022 to 2028 was estimated at $16.3m.

According to internal Department of Education figures released last year, 1,152 – or 40% – of private schools would continue to be overfunded by billions of dollars to 2029, to an estimated value of $3.2bn.

Three schools with high median family incomes – Penleigh and Essendon grammar, St Augustine’s college and Haileybury college – were expected to be overfunded by more than $20m each.

According to My Schools data, analysed by Guardian Australia, more than 40 of Australia’s 100 most affluent schools had their funding increased – not decreased – from 2021 to 2022, despite some schools seeing a decline in enrolments.

Among them was the Frensham school in NSW, which had its funding increased by $1.4m despite a minor decline in students.

The convener of public education lobby group Save our Schools, Trevor Cobbold, said the development pointed to the “inherent unfairness” of the current school funding model.

“When they’ve got this amount of overfunding from the taxpayer, it frees up their fee income to be used on luxurious facilities,” Cobbold said.

“It’s just ridiculous. It points to the inherent unfairness of the current funding model. It’s heavily biased in favour of private schools.

“No government school is overfunded to this extent … yet taxpayer money goes into this operation for a group of the richest families in the country.”

According to figures provided at Senate estimates, the median family income of students at MLC school was $260,000 in 2022. The school receives tuition fees, in addition to government funding, of up to $40,000 a year from each student.

The school says it prides itself on its “extensive co-curricular program” that includes diving, fencing, multiple types of gymnastics, tennis, skiing and swimming in its physical education offerings.

The architectural plans lodged with the department propose a new two-to-four-storey performing arts centre and sports complex, alongside a two-to-three-storey extension of its existing aquatic centre.

It comes as state and territory education ministers continue talks with the federal government over the next National School Funding Agreement (NSRA).

The NSW state government has joined Victoria and Queensland in pushing the commonwealth to increase its contribution to the public system, now sitting at 20%.

Last month, Western Australia accepted a deal for the federal government to lift its funding level to 22.5%, less than the 25% pushed for by states and education unions.

A spokesperson for the NSW education minister, Prue Car, said the state government “strongly believes” the commonwealth should put more money on the table so all NSW public schools are fully funded to the SRS by 2025.

“Securing this agreement with the commonwealth will ensure public schools can continue to provide world-class services to the state’s growing cohort of students,” they said.

Asked whether it was equitable that MLC received $5,873 a student from the commonwealth in 2024, the federal education minister, Jason Clare, said the government was “focused” on making sure public schools were funded properly, adding the agreement with WA was an “example of that”.

“That’s just the first step,” he said. “We need to fully fund public school across the country.”

The Australia Education Union president, Correna Haythorpe, said overfunding by governments was allowing private schools to divert income into “luxury facilities and vanity projects”.

She pointed to the fact only 1.3% of public schools were fully funded, none of which were in NSW. The state government has pledged to reach 75% of the SRS by 2025.

“It is a never-ending battle to see who can build the most ostentatious facilities whether it is pools or performing arts centres or libraries that look like Scottish castles,” Haythorpe said.

“The Minns and Albanese governments need to strike a deal this year than ends the underfunding of public schools.

“We are not asking for Olympic pools and polo fields – just modern, safe classrooms, libraries and learning spaces where teachers can give every child the support they need to succeed.”

The Greens spokesperson for schools, Senator Penny Allman-Payne, said it was “patently unfair” Australia’s wealthiest schools were able to use public money towards “gleaming monuments to their privilege”.

MLC school was approached for comment.

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