Can your canteen make money? Depends where you live

Parent and Citizen Associations are traditionally linked to school fundraising  through cake stalls, fetes and trivia nights. Now their emphasis has shifted to commercial ventures run at scale. That’s led to new tensions, roles, and relationships. Here’s what we found.

The issue of school funding in Australia remains controversial. The Review of Funding for Schooling, known as the Gonski report, found that school funding mechanisms are complex, lack coherence, transparency, and contribute to inequitable student outcomes. The report recommended a sector-blind, needs-based model of school funding to improve student outcomes. The report also suggested that philanthropic giving could be one avenue for improved funding for schools in disadvantaged contexts. This advocacy for philanthropy is often forgotten when discussing the Gonski report, but we think it is timely to consider the role of philanthropy in Australian school funding. 

In the US, philanthropy tends to be dominated by venture capital consortia and billionaires. However, in Australia the common type of philanthropy is more grassroots and centres on the roles of parent groups such as Parent and Citizen Associations (P&Cs). 

P&Cs are school-based organisations that work in partnership with schools and the community to enhance outcomes for students. The fundraising now include running profitable school-based businesses including canteens, uniform shops and Outside Hours School Care services that generate large-scale funding that can be reinvested in essential education services that is not captured in official funding data. 

Re-prioritising P&Cs as philanthropic organisations

This reconfiguration to commercial ventures in Queensland emerges from both the systemic restructuring of Australian education privileging school autonomy, between-school competition, and performative metrics and the struggle to fund core educational services in public schools. The mobilisation, and reconfiguration of philanthropy is a pillar of systemic marketisation, yet it rarely receives as much scrutiny as autonomy, performativity and competition.

Research into philanthropy has tended to focus on either the ideological work of billionaires and venture capital consortia and their ability to influence systemic public school policy and practice (see Scott, 2009) or the strategic alliances between P&Cs and philanthropic donors (see Yoon et al., 2020). This research into philanthropy has tended to focus on North America, and fails to speak to concerns emerging in Australia. 

Tax law regulations in Australia prevent philanthropists from donating directly to state education departments or to public schools, meaning there is less evidence of philanthropic influence over public schooling policy and practice. However, in Queensland alone in the 2021/22 financial year, P&Cs generated more than $83 million in contributions to public schools. Put simply, venture philanthropy appears less significant in Australian schools than in contexts such as the U.S. 

From community building to commercial fundraising

In our paper, we argue that there are new tensions, roles, and relationships emerging in Queensland state school P&Cs as they strive to overcome limited government resourcing. The logics of marketisation have shifted responsibility for discretionary school funding to parent consumers, setting up an equity challenge as not every school has the same community resources, socioeconomic advantages, or economies of scale to leverage this philanthropic behaviour.

We draw three significant conclusions from this research.

First is the differentiated capacity of P&Cs to engage in profitable school services leading to a two-tiered public school system. One P&C representative, from an advantaged metropolitan school, spoke of how low student enrollments had forced them to close their canteen as it was continuing to make significant losses year on year. This evidences a relationship between student enrolment and profitability. Indeed, it is difficult to mount a case that schools with smaller enrolments, in rural and remote locations, or those that service communities with complex needs will generate the same benefits as large, metropolitan schools in leafy green suburbs. 

Second is that makingpublic school communities responsible for funding that governments should provide is not a good idea. We argue that when parents and P&Cs accept responsibility for fundraising to meet the gap in government funding shortfalls, they stop asking or agitating the government to provide adequate resourcing for their school. 

Third is that this shift from community building to resource extraction produces a different set of community relations. While some P&Cs reported that the community and commercial forms of fundraising co-exist, the emphasis continues to shift towards profitable commercial ventures. The argument made by the P&C representatives interviewed is that the financial needs of many public schools is greater than support for excursions or replacing a class set of textbooks. Larger infrastructure projects such as equipping schools with air conditioning or building science labs necessitate more commercially minded fundraising.  

Moreover, P&C representatives reported that many parents no longer had the time or energy to engage in community building. The traditional approach of appealing to parent volunteers to run fetes, cake stalls and trivia nights was falling flat even as the need for fundraising became more urgent. The view of those participants involved with P&Cs was that engaging in commercial fundraising both lightened the load on parents and generated funding at a scale to enable larger projects. Participants reported that, given the scale of what schools needed, bake sales were never going to be enough.

What we have found through this exploratory study is that philanthropy is different in Australia than what we might expect given the international literature. P&Cs can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a public school’s budget, yet it is unlikely that these same schools are accessing philanthropy from venture capital or billionaires. 

Understanding the work that P&Cs are doing, and their justifications for that work, is important because of what it tells us about public school funding and the challenges that schools are facing.

Anna Hogan is senior research fellow in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on education privatisation and commercialisation. She currently works on a number of research projects, including investigating philanthropy in Australian public schooling, the privatisation of global school provision, and the intensification of teachers’ work.

Greg Thompson is a professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education & Social Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. His research focuses on the philosophy of education and educational theory. He is also interested in education policy, and the philosophy/sociology of education assessment and measurement with a focus on large-scale testing and learning analytics/big data.