As part of her research into the educational backgrounds of Australia’s politicians, Jen Featch looked at the number of current federal politicians who had attended elite private schools. She was surprised at what she found: less than half of the Albanese cabinet went to a public school.
Across the parliament, Featch’s unpublished research found only about one in three members and senators graduated from state schools. In Labor, less than half went to public schools. In the Coalition, it is well under a third.
Put another way, Australian politicians are privately educated at a rate almost double that of the general populace, now about 35 per cent, which is itself extraordinarily high by world standards. When these politicians went to school several decades ago, they were even more atypical, given only about 20 per cent of children attended private schools at the time.
Featch, an associate lecturer with the School of Education at Murdoch University, is now tallying where politicians choose to educate their children. Anecdotal evidence suggests an even larger proportion of their offspring are in the non-government sector, although this data is hard to gather.
The fact two-thirds of our federal politicians lack personal experience of public schools is worth bearing in mind when considering the inequities of the Australian school sector.
According to a report by education economist Adam Rorris, commissioned by the Australian Education Union and released last weekend, public schools are currently underfunded by more than $6 billion a year. Private schools, in contrast, are overfunded, and will continue to be overfunded by almost $3 billion over the next five years. Those inequities are not hard to see.
To cite just one: The Scots College in Sydney – the nation’s fourth-most expensive school – where shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie was a student and his father served on the school council. Four years ago, the school decided to knock down its library and build a new $29 million student centre, described in The Sydney Morning Herald as being “modelled on an extravagant Scottish baronial castle”.
The project remains incomplete, however. According to the Herald, one cause of the delay was difficulty “acquiring sandstone and slates from Scotland”.
Meanwhile, says Dr Emma Rowe, senior lecturer in education at Deakin University, state schools struggle to provide the most basic amenities.
Rowe is engaged in a project talking to state school principals in various Australian jurisdictions – Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales –about the difficulties they face and the reasons more and more of them are quitting.
“We spoke to principals from low SES [socio-economic status] schools, high SES schools, very remote schools, metropolitan schools. Every single principal I spoke to said that schools are underfunded to quite a critical, serious extent,” she says.
“This is not underfunding for luxury items or things that you might think would be nice. These are things such as a functioning roof that keeps the water out, windows that open, toilets that work. Or even a playground in a primary school – which I would think is kind of a fundamental. Outdoor dry space, so kids have somewhere to sit when it gets wet. Or functioning heaters – that was a common one.
“Principals are spending a lot of time writing competitive applications for funding. So this always happens in the weekends or in the evenings. One that took me by surprise – they actually have to apply for additional funding for students who have a diagnosed disability.”
Rowe says well-resourced schools typically produce good academic results but there is a point beyond which extra resources do not improve educational outcomes. “Having a library in a castle,” she says, “that’s not going to actually make any difference to those kids’ outcomes.”
Penny Allman-Payne, a Greens senator for Queensland, worked almost her entire career, apart from a few years as a lawyer, in the state school system. She is also one of the few parliamentarians who was educated in a state school.
She recites a long list of symptoms of a failing system: students being sent home at lunchtime on Friday afternoons due to lack of teacher capacity; the 50-hour weeks she and other teachers, including her husband and daughter, put in, “plus weekends”; burnt-out teachers applying to go part-time or quitting; vital technology simply not available for students.
“When we had Covid and the shutdown, in the school that I was at, over half the kids either didn’t have an iPad or a laptop, or they didn’t have an internet connection,” she says. “Private schools were totally fine – just went online. We had to go to paper packs for those kids.
“I’ve taught in a demountable classroom in Queensland in summer. Try teaching a class of Year 8 maths on an afternoon when the temperatures hit 33, 34 degrees, and you’re in a non-insulated demountable, and see how much learning you get out of those kids.”
It is not just the overwork that leads many teachers to quit, she says, but the frustration of standing in front of classes knowing they can’t deliver all the students need.
“What does under-resourcing look like? It looks like me, being a head of department, spending $3000 a year out of my own pocket on resources for my kids in my classes, for buying teacher editions of textbooks for teachers in my staff room because we couldn’t afford it in our budget. It means teachers – I kid you not – having to work out down to the page how many pieces of paper they think they’re going to need to give their kids in their classes next year,” she says.
“This is systemic and persistent underfunding and under-resourcing, over a decade or more, and it’s teachers and kids who pay the price for that. And it’s brutal.”
The story of how Australia got to this point began with religious sectarianism about 60 years ago. The Catholics wanted their own schools, but state governments, which were responsible for all education funding, were reluctant to fund them. The Commonwealth eventually stepped in, first with some one-off grants and then with recurrent funding. This grew into an odd system whereby the states mostly fund public schools and the federal government mostly funds private schools.
The seeds of inequity were there from the start because the system allowed schools to both receive government money and charge students. Over time some, but not all, non-government schools became extraordinarily wealthy, tapping money from both sources.
As of 2021, total government spending on schools was $61.26 billion. About 61 per cent of the money, or $37.4 billion, came from the states, and $23.8 billion from the federal government. On top of this, private schools raise an extra $11.6 billion from fees, charges and parent contributions, and almost $1.7 billion from other private sources.
In that year, the 100 richest non-government schools alone recorded $4.8 billion in revenue. Data supplied by the federal Department of Education in response to questions from the Greens showed $776 million of that money came in the form of funding from the Commonwealth and state governments – enough, according to Allman-Payne, to make up the annual funding shortfall in the public school systems of Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
The existing regime is not remotely fair. Taxes paid by people on lower incomes go to subsidising schools to which they could never afford to send their own children. However, changing the system is politically dangerous. The last politician to seriously attempt reform was Mark Latham, when he was opposition leader almost 20 years ago.
He proposed to cut $520 million of federal government funding to 67 of the nation’s richest private schools over five years, and to freeze funding at existing levels for 111 others. The savings from this were to be redistributed among the most needy government and non-government schools.
Then prime minister John Howard, whose funding model served to widen the divide between rich and poor, called Latham’s proposal “class warfare”. The wealthy private schools warned of fee hikes and a flight by students to the government system, which would not be able to cope. The plan was savaged in the conservative tabloid media, which called it a “hit list”. Latham lost the 2004 election.
Ever since, politicians have devoted a great deal of energy to studying the problem and doing little to address it.
In 2010, the Gillard Labor government commissioned a major review led by businessman David Gonski. It recommended all government funding be “sector-blind” and “needs-based”. It stated all schools should have the same base funding, plus extra loadings according to the relative disadvantage of their students.
On the basis of Gonski, something called the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) was established. It is an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs, made up of a base amount and up to six needs-based loadings.
The Commonwealth funds 20 per cent of each government school’s SRS and 80 per cent of each non-government school’s SRS. The big flaw, which makes the whole thing vastly more expensive, is that Gillard, frightened of the consequences of taking money from wealthy schools, promised “no school would lose a dollar”.
More than a decade later, Australia has made negligible progress towards the more equitable funding model proposed by Gonski. As Correna Haythorpe, federal president of the Australian Education Union, noted when the Rorris report was released last Sunday: only 1.3 per cent of public schools are resourced according to the SRS, compared with 98 per cent of private schools.
“If governments can afford to overfund private schools by hundreds of millions [of dollars] each year, they can afford to fund every public school to their own minimum standard,” she said.
While rich schools are building heated pools for their athletes and concert halls for their music students, Australia’s overall educational performance continues to slide.
The government has commissioned yet another expert committee to examine the issue, ahead of the renegotiation of funding arrangements, which will be on the agenda when federal and state education ministers meet next month.
The final report is not yet public, but a consultation paper is, and it shows a rapidly widening education gap between students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds.
In 2008, there was a “learning gap” of 1.4 years between high and low SES students at Year 3, increasing to 4.4 years at Year 9. By 2022, the gap had grown to 2.3 years for Year 3, and 5.1 at Year 9.
The consultation paper notes 51 per cent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attend schools with students from similar backgrounds. That is, poverty is clustered in certain schools. “This is one of the highest concentrations in the OECD, and disadvantage is rapidly becoming more concentrated,” the paper states.
Indeed, an OECD comparison from 2018 showed the concentration of disadvantaged students was growing faster in Australia than in any other of the then 36 OECD countries, except the Czech Republic.
The consultation paper said students “from priority equity cohorts – such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students living in regional, rural and remote locations, students with disability and students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds – are three times more likely to fall below minimum standards”.
According to the paper, in 2022 almost a quarter of Australia’s four million students (22.5 per cent) had a disability. More than a quarter were enrolled in regional or remote areas. Another 6.3 per cent were Indigenous. This represents an enormous number of children “likely to fall below minimum standards”.
In 2017, the paper said, “83 per cent of students from high socio-economic backgrounds completed high school; by 2021 this had risen to 84.8 per cent. However, for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, the rate was 76 per cent in 2017 and fell to 74 per cent by 2021.”
Laura Perry, a professor at the School of Education at Murdoch University, notes supporters of the status quo often argue it is all about choice.
But what she calls “the neoliberal market model” of school education actually serves to limit the choice of most parents, which ultimately works to the detriment of all.
“When you make schools very unequal, very different, you’re basically forcing parents into a decision,” she says.
“In terms of fee-charging private schools, Australia has one of the largest proportions, if not the largest proportion, of students in the OECD.”
Many parents, she argues, would rather not be paying private school fees but feel they have no choice.
Recent polling commissioned by the Greens underlines the point. A survey of more than 1000 parents found 48 per cent would look to move their child out of the private system if government schools were better funded.
The corollary of more relatively well-off students leaving the government sector, says Perry, is that there is a large and growing number of schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.
“And the difference in resources between those schools that have a high SES profile and those that have a low SES profile is greater in Australia than any other OECD country other than Turkey and Mexico,” she says.
“Concentrating these students, segregating them or clustering them, is going to dampen their achievement. If they were mixed in other schools, their achievement would be higher. Lots of research has shown that. It’s a very robust finding.”
Perry is currently finalising work comparing outcomes in Canada and Australia. “Australia and Canada have very similar immigrant profiles, similar rates of urbanisation, similar rates of poverty, similar rates of income inequality, et cetera,” she says.
Yet Canada performs significantly better on international measures of student achievement. Perry blames segregation. “The data show that high SES students in both countries perform the same, but low SES students in Canada perform substantially better than in Australia. The higher achievement of the lower SES students in Canada is what then lifts up their national average, which is why they outperform Australia,” she says.
“If Australia wants to be the top-performing country, which governments have said for the last 10 years we want to be, what they need to do is reduce the achievement gap.
“The more segregated schooling is, the worse the underachievement of low SES kids is going to be. So to the extent that private schooling is growing, then that’s driving segregation even more. Whether that’s the only factor that’s accounting for our lowering scores… I doubt it.”
It is, however, a significant factor and one that needs a systemic response. One solution would be to do as numerous other countries do and simply give schools a choice: they can charge fees, in which case they don’t get government money; or they can be government funded, in which case they can’t charge fees.
Perry thinks that wouldn’t fly in Australia, given our history and the size of the private sector, not to mention the lobbying power of the sector and the significant over-representation of old boys and girls in the country’s parliaments.
If she were running education policy, Perry says, she would do something more pragmatic.
First, she would give the state schools more money to get them up to a reasonable resourcing standard. In this model, private schools would continue to charge fees but those fees would influence government funding.
“If the fees a school charged were less than that school resourcing standard, then it would be eligible for public funding to meet the gap. And for private schools that charge in excess of that school resource standard, they would receive no public funds.”
This seems eminently fair, although it might lead to the construction of fewer baronial castles and other such monuments to privilege.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Exclusive: Less than half Albanese’s cabinet went to state schools".
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