Why private schools are ruining Australia

Jun 19, 2023 •

One way that inequality becomes baked into Australian society is through education. For decades, the school system has become increasingly stratified - to the benefit of private schools and detriment of public ones.

Today, Jane Caro on the consequences of this divide and how the past twenty years of education policy will shape the Australia we see tomorrow.



Why private schools are ruining Australia

985 • Jun 19, 2023

Why private schools are ruining Australia

[Theme Music Starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Scott Mitchell, filling in for Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

One way that inequality becomes baked into Australian society is through education.

For decades now, the school system has become increasingly stratified, to the benefit of private schools, and the detriment of public ones.

So what are the consequences of this divide? And how will the past twenty years of education policy shape the Australia we see tomorrow?

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Jane Caro, on why Australia stubbornly clings onto the myth of education equality, and how it’s damaging us.

[Theme Music Ends]


Now, Jane, you've been looking at the state of the Australian school system recently and just how big the divide is between different schools in this country. Tell me a bit about the picture you've been able to build up.


Yeah, well, it's not something I've just started looking at recently. I'd have to say that I've been looking at public school versus private school for a good 20 years. I really got alarmed back in 2000 when John Howard and his then minister, Education Minister David Kemp, really changed the central plank of what our school system was about, to being about parental choice. It went from being about giving every child, regardless of who their parents were, as equal as possible, an opportunity to develop their individual potential, to being about rewarding and punishing those that the state saw as good or bad parents. We've moved away from this idea that every child is entitled to as equal as possible an opportunity, no matter the circumstances into which they are born. And that is what has driven this ever increasing gap, which is now being noted internationally. For example, the OECD did a survey of different school systems and they said that Australia, in Australia, 41% of government schools could be classified as disadvantaged. That basically means the kids they serve come from lower socio economic backgrounds or have particular disadvantages, and they don't have the resources they need to deal with that. Only 3% of Catholic schools and less than 1% of independent schools. So the gap is huge.


And when we talk about that divide, Jane, and just how bad it's gotten and continues to be, can you paint a bit of a picture of just how disadvantaged public schools are in Australia today?


Well, what it means is at the moment, no public school in Australia, bar a handful in the A.C.T., are funded to what is called the SRS. That is the School Resource Standard, their School Resource Standard, which is an agreed standard about the resources each school needs to do its job adequately, for the children that it serves. No public schools. The Commonwealth Government gives 80% of its funding to private schools and 20% of its education funding and 20% of its education funding to public schools. The states are supposed to do the reverse. 80% of their funding is meant to go to their state public schools, 20% to their state private schools. Now the problem with that is, poorer states of Tasmania and the Northern Territory, locking them in to funding from the State Government only, majority funding from the State Government, means that their schools are highly likely to always be underfunded, even though, or perhaps because, they educate the neediest kids. They can't raise the tax base in the Northern Territory, in Tasmania, because poor states are poor because they've got more people who are doing it tougher. And so they’ve got kids with greater needs. So actually, in a fair and reasonable society that puts children's opportunity at the centre of the education system, states like the Northern Territory and Tasmania, and particularly public schools in those states, would be getting much greater resources than fee charging schools in inner city Sydney or Melbourne. And that just ain't true.

Economist Adam Morris says some private schools are resourced up to 200% of their School Resource Standard. So given that most public schools are around about 90% of their School Resource Standard, that might give you some idea of the differential.

Archival tape – News reporter 1:

“Over the past decade, public funding to private schools has risen nearly twice as fast as public funding to public schools.”


I mean, we see it all the time. It's dressage centres and multimedia centres and putting a underground car park in at a huge expanse. It's Olympic swimming pools, rifle ranges, buying new campuses.

Archival tape – News reporter 2:

“New data suggests a private education in Sydney nudging half a million dollars.”


$45-50,000 a year for kids that, realistically, probably cost $10-12,000 a year to educate, whereas the kids who might be going to a majority indigenous school somewhere in the outback, in the Northern Territory or, you know, Bourke, they can cost as much as $30,000 or more a year to educate. And yet we don't provide that kind of funding. That's one of the reasons why they, the schools they attend, don't have the resources they need to be able to do their job adequately.


And Jane, you've mentioned that your, sort of, passion for this area really goes back to the Howard era when this funding architecture was, kind of, put in place. And I just wonder if you could talk about that for a second, and if you could paint a picture for how radical a departure that was at the time, from the way schooling has been funded both here and around the world in other places? You know, why did we move to this model in the first place and what was the purpose, and the stated purpose, of it at the time?


Yeah well, when John Howard came in, he got hold of the education system with David Kemp, and their philosophy was basically parental choice. They saw education as being about offering parents a whole lot of choices for schools. What they missed was that kids deserve opportunities, regardless of who their parents are, and that education is about kids' opportunities. It's not about rewarding or punishing parents you approve or disapprove of. And unfortunately, that's all parental choice can do. It just entrenches generational privilege and underprivilege.

Hawke and Keating had a, sort of, a control over whether a new school could be opened in a certain area. What they looked at was, is there a need for it? If it's going to poach kids from the schools that are there already, private and public, we won't fund it. That was one of the things that John Howard, very quickly, got rid of so that anyone could start a school wherever they liked, which meant we were suddenly in this era of competition.

We have created a situation where there are hierarchies of schools. What happens is a school in an area will be designated the most desirable school and all the most educationally concerned and involved parents will desperately try to get their kids into that school. Most of those schools are private schools, but some of them are public schools, particularly in New South Wales, where there are selective schools. Those are in fact the most desirable schools to get your kid into, a public selective school. Then there’ll be the private school, the top fee private school. Then there'll be the girls' school. Could be Catholic, could be Christian, could be private, could be public. That everyone wants to get their kids into. Then there'll be the private Catholic boys school, that's the next one down the rung. The second to bottom will be the comprehensive public school. And the bottom bottom, in most areas, will be the public boys school. This is because girls do better than boys at school. One of the reasons that most of the private school campuses, you will notice, are now going co-ed is two fold. Boys schools are going out of fashion, so they don't want to lose all their students. So by poaching girls from other private schools, one assumes, bringing them in, not only will they keep their enrolments high, but they will also raise their results.


And as you say, we have this hierarchy. But over a decade ago, we had this Gonski review into the education system that was supposed to reduce this hierarchy, bring schools and students closer together.

Archival tape – News reporter 3:

“The most comprehensive review of school funding in decades has called for a more transparent and open system of education spending.”

Archival tape – News reporter 4:

“The Gonski review finds performance is linked to funding and it's recommending an overhaul.”


So when you talk to people in the sector now, Jane, what do they say about what happened to Gonski and why it, sort of, failed to live up to that promise?


Well, it was kind of hobbled from the beginning. And there was enormous lobbying by the private schools and the churches to hang on to their funding.

Archival tape – News reporter 5:

“Government schools would get the full share, private schools get a percentage.”


So a lot of schools did get some money when the original Gonski came in, disadvantaged schools.

Archival tape – News reporter 6:

“The report recommends introducing a schooling resource standard involving a base dollar amount for every student, in every school.”


But it really hasn't gone much past that.

And now, I mean, it's demonstrable, we have the facts, we have the figures. None of those schools have, basically, the school resources they need to do the job they're being asked to do. They then get kicked for not doing the job they're asked to do.

So the people in the sector are saying something radical has to change. We are going to have to start funding our students more fairly, according to need. Gonski was meant to be a needs based, sector blind, schools funding scheme. Now, personally, I'd like to see private money to private schools and public money to public schools. I think it’s simple, happens in much of the rest of the world, but I'm not sure we're going to get there in my lifetime. Next best thing, sector blind, needs based funding scheme. Now, when you've got an 80/20 split legislated, what you end up with is a sector based, this is 80/20 based on sector, needs blind. So it doesn't matter what the needs of the schools might be. It's 80, 20, it’s 80, 20. And so we ended up with the exact opposite of what we were supposed to get.

66% of Australia's children attend public schools and every last one of them, even those in nice middle class areas, except in the ACT, are not funded to their school resource standard. So we are, deliberately, via public policy, hobbling the opportunity of 66% of our children to advantage the rest.


We’ll be back after this



Jane, when we talk about public education versus private education in this country, beyond the funding model, they’re also perceived differently, aren’t they? By governments, by media, by society.


Parents who choose the public school for their kids have to defend their choice. They are considered to be bad parents. It's that bad. This is partly because public schools have to shoulder the responsibility for the compulsory education of every child. In Australia, it’s in the law. You may not refuse to educate your child. If you want to take them out of the schooling system altogether, you have to register as a homeschooler and you have to be checked out and, you know, you have to do the right thing. So every child has to be in an educational setting of some kind. We have one system that has all the responsibility and one system, both publicly subsidised, that has all the rights. And the teachers, in both systems, are leaving in droves. They're leaving in droves because post-COVID, they've got more choice. We've got full employment. Teachers are highly skilled people. They're not paid very much, private or public. But we're also losing them, I think, particularly from the public system, because a lot of very dedicated, idealistic young people go into teaching. They want to make a difference. It's what they talk about. And they often want to make a difference for kids who really need to have a difference made, you know. But it's soul destroying to go into a school and know what could help a child. But also know that your school doesn't have the resources. And I have to say, I am sure that there are people in private education now who are also uncomfortable with the extraordinary funding divide, and also the extraordinary and growing class divide, which has developed over the last 20 years. Every child should be given the opportunity and the resources they need to develop their potential to the fullest extent. That's the only way to break the poverty cycle. It would actually reduce crime. It would increase prosperity generally. I think if we funded our schools fairly, education funding might actually be lower across the board. And it would certainly mean that the dollars that were invested, were invested to get some kind of return, in terms of making an actual difference in children's lives who need it, rather than funding yet another Olympic swimming pool for already overindulged kids.


A lot of the things you’ve spoken about Jane, the levels of funding, the teacher churn, is sort of out there in the public. Politicians know about these things. So do you think there’s any real chance that we’ll see policymakers address this drift we’ve seen over the last couple of decades?


Yes, I see some hope. Part of it's a bleak hope. We can't keep going as we’re going. There will be a collapse. However, I do get a change of tone of voice from the Federal Labor Government and there was a little bit in the budget which was kind of hopeful. And what they've done in the budget is they brought every school in Central Australia, which is the neediest kids; they're all in remote so they cost a lot of money. They're often indigenous so that is also high needs. They've promised to bring them up to their School Resource Standards. So that's a big change and it's important. It matters. The other hopes, the tone of voice in New South Wales has changed. The New South Wales Department of Education finally has a leader who is an ex public school teacher and principal and student. Prue Carr seems to understand this issue, so that's great.

Archival tape – Prue Carr:

“There's no other more important job for this new government than getting on top of these education outcomes. Everything starts with an education.”


In Victoria, Daniel Andrews does seem to have managed to remove payroll tax exemption from very high fee schools.

Archival tape – News reporter 7:

“More than 100 of Victoria's top schools will have a tax exemption removed as part of the state budget measures to claw back Victoria's debt.”

Archival tape – Daniel Andrews:

“They’re seen as being in an entirely different league to your suburban parish primary school or a low fee secondary school.”


So there have been some moves. So basically, I think we need to see these Labor governments gain in electoral confidence. And one of my few criticisms of the Teals and their fabulous disruption of the main political parties, is they don't talk about public education much at all. Now this is because they're from middle class seats. One of the reasons I decided, forget it, don't even bother to run in your local area is because of my views on public and private education. So everybody’s frightened of speaking the truth.


And finally Jane, how does this system, if it continues, sort of, fundamentally change Australian society and how has it been fundamentally changing Australian society?


Well, basically we will become a class based society. And the problem with that is we know what happens when you increase inequality in a society. Societies become more violent, they become unsafe for everyone. They have higher levels of crime, they have higher levels of mental health issues, they have higher levels of drug abuse. So it'll cost us way more in the long run if we don't do anything about it. And we won't get the right people at the top.

We are ruled by small groups of people, who not only all went to the same schools themselves, their fathers all went to the same schools. Their grandfathers all went to the same schools. So we're not actually utilising all our potential talent. This crushes creativity; we all know diversity increases creativity. And class is a form of diversity we don’t like to talk about in Australia at all. But it is a part of that. We have far too few people of colour at the top and women as well. And if we do get women rising, they tend to be from that same oligarchic group, that same particular group of privileged kids.

This is not good for any of us. It's not good for those privileged kids. One of the few things that is really hopeful is, still to this day, we know from research, that graduates of public schools who go to university outperform both their selective school and their private school peers, by an average of five marks, at university. They do better. They're more likely to stay, they're more likely to graduate, and they're more likely to get the high marks.

We're getting a whole lot of kids from private schools who've been hothouse to get the kinds of marks that private schools need to market their, you know, blah blah, going to universities who actually don't want to be there and don't like it and aren’t suited to it and shouldn't be there in the first place. So again, that costs us a whole lot of money and it costs those poor kids a whole lot of money because if they drop out, they've got a HECS debt that's of no bloody use to them, that they still have to pay off. So honestly, if you asked me what's something good about the way we run our education system, who does it help? I couldn't tell you.


Jane Caro, I've so enjoyed it. Thank you so much for your time.


I'm delighted to do it. So ask me any time.


[Theme Music Starts]


Also in the news today…

Victorian Senator David Van has formally resigned from the Liberal Party in the wake of multiple allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him over the past week.

Three separate allegations against Senator Van have been raised and Peter Dutton barred the senator from the Liberal party room last Thursday.

In his resignation on the weekend, Senator Van denied the allegations and says that he’s not been afforded procedural fairness by the party.


The Greens say they will keep pushing for a rent freeze and rent caps, after the federal government announced a 2 billion dollar fund for social housing.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, announced the two-year $2bn housing accelerator fund on Saturday, to build new social housing stock with money beginning to flow in a fortnight.

The Greens welcomed the announcement, but said it wasn’t enough to secure their support for the government’s Housing Australia Future Fund.

[Theme Music Ends]

One way that inequality becomes baked into Australian society is through education.

For decades, the school system has become increasingly stratified – to the benefit of private schools and detriment of public ones.

So, what are the consequences of this divide, and how will the past twenty years of education policy shape the Australia we see tomorrow?

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Jane Caro on why Australia stubbornly clings onto the myth of education equality and the damage it’s doing.

Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper, Jane Caro.

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso, Cheyne Anderson, Yeo Choong, and Chris Dengate.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Scott Mitchell.

Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

More episodes from Jane Caro

Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

985: Why private schools are ruining Australia