Class warfare

Julia Gillard (Unley High School) was at The Sydney Institute when she said the words that would help destroy the Australian education system: “no school will lose a dollar of funding”. The institute is a confection of Gerard Henderson’s (Xavier College), a shrine to hectoring and pedantry, where the world is held in harping stasis by a series of filing cabinets.

Gillard spoke before David Gonski (Sydney Grammar) had conducted his review of school funding. Her words ensured his scheme to address inequality in education could never be properly realised.

More than a decade on, funding to schools has never been so unequal. Government spending on private schools has grown at twice the rate of spending on public schools. In some states, funding has gone backwards. Billions of dollars in overfunding is being given to the schools that need it least.

Malcolm Turnbull (Sydney Grammar) helped this division. He capped federal government contributions, leaving public schools to slip further and further behind. He defends this, saying it stops the states from sneaking money out of the system. Scott Morrison (Sydney Boys High School) added his own perversity, topping up funding for Catholic schools and ensuring another wedge was forced into the system.

Almost every public school is now funded below the minimum set by Gonski. Almost every private school is funded above it. Teachers are leaving the public system, forced out by Dickensian conditions. In some places, where they can, students are following them.

Australia has one of the most segregated education systems in the developed world. The outcomes on literacy and numeracy are embarrassing, sitting at the bottom of global tables. All of this is by design. The numbers are right there on the funding charts.

Private education serves no purpose but to sustain inequality, to pass it on between generations. Parents pay to divide children and the state pays to help further this division. The promise at the end is networks and connections and more division. Nowhere else is taxpayer money used so lavishly or destructively.

When Gillard said no school would lose a dollar she was acknowledging a crooked truth of Australian politics: the unfair money given to the rich in private schools is sacrosanct. It is given without regard to logic or need. It is a kickback, paid to avoid charges of envy.

It is a lie to say private schools take pressure off the public system. In fact, it is the opposite. Private schools take money out of public classrooms. They entrench inequality. They create and maintain privilege.

The government is conducting a review intended to bring every student to the minimum funding level proposed by Gonski. Its target for this is the end of the decade. In the meantime, state school teachers pay for their own teaching materials. Classrooms fall into disrepair. Children are offered substandard education while others are treated as princelings.

The answer to this is simple but it would require the government to confront one of the persistent myths about Australia: that this is a classless society. The country’s notion of fairness is confounded by one of the least fair education systems in the world. It is like this because it serves the interests of a small group of people in whose hands the majority of wealth lies. For others, it creates lifelong disadvantage. It divides the country in two.

Gonski laid out a solution more than a decade ago. It was hardly radical. He is a man known for his circumspection. Yet it cannot be implemented while governments pretend they cannot take money back from the richest schools and give just a little more to the poorest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Class warfare".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription