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National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, on why the gap between public and private schools in Australia is widening.

Why private school kids run the country

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In Australia, where a person went to school increasingly tells a story about their privilege, class and academic opportunity. 

While the majority of Australians go through the public school system, pending research reveals that the majority of our politicians did not.

So, which politicians went to private schools, and is their lack of lived experience in public education holding back reforms to the sector?

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, on why the gap between public and private schools in Australia is widening.

 

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Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
 
In Australia, where you went to school increasingly tells a story about your privilege, class, and academic opportunity. 
 
While the majority of Australians go through the public school system, new research has revealed that the majority of our politicians did not. 
 
So which politicians went to private schools, and is their lack of lived experience in public education holding back overdue reforms to this sector? 
 
Today, national correspondent for *The Saturday Paper*, Mike Seccombe, on why the gap between public and private schools in Australia is getting worse.
 
It’s Tuesday, December 5th. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##ANGE: 
Mike, we've been hearing a lot lately about how the gap between public schools and private schools is widening. But I want to ask about the people who make those decisions, our politicians. You've been reporting on where they went to school. What do we know about the kind of schools our politicians are from?
 
##MIKE:
Well, it's quite interesting, I think. I was pointed to a researcher called Jen Featch, who's been collating the information on on where our politicians were schooled. And she was surprised too at what she found. 
 
It turns out that less than half of Anthony Albanese's cabinet went to a public school. And when she looked at the parliament overall, only about 1 in 3 members and senators graduated from state schools. In Labor, less than half went to public schools. In the Coalition it was well under a third. 
 
And, you know, we're not talking just about any private schools either. You know, a lot went to quite elite schools and in fact ten members of the current Parliament are alumni of Australia's ten most expensive schools. That is, you know, the most elite schools in the country. 
 
Five of those parliamentarians are members of the Liberal National Coalition, which, as Featch said, you know, fits the cliche. But the other five were from Labor. So to an increasing extent, the sort of educational profile of both major parties is looking similar. 
 
So in the current Albanese cabinet, only nine of 23 members came from standard government schools, according to Featch's research, and the rest, including the Prime Minister himself, went to either Catholic or independent schools.
 
##ANGE: 
Hmm. So let's get into who we're talking about exactly and where they were educated. Which of our politicians went to these elite private schools?
 
##MIKE:
Well, the most outstanding example, I suppose, in the Albanese Cabinet is the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, who has the most elite possible educational pedigree.
 
His father was a principal of an elite private school and he himself graduated from Geelong Grammar, the most expensive school in the country.
 
##Audio excerpt – Geelong Grammar promotion video: 
“Geelong Grammar School has a worldwide reputation for providing exceptional education with innovative programs...”
 
##MIKE:
And as you look across the Parliament, you know, in the Opposition, the Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie, went to The Scots College in Sydney, which was the fourth most expensive school.
 
##Audio excerpt – The Scots College promotion video: 
“Our founders aimed to help each boy discover his strengths, develop his character and pursue his God given calling in the world.”
 
##MIKE:
To name just a few others.
 
Penny Wong, Scotch College Adelaide. Mark Dreyfus, Scotch College, Melbourne. Dreyfus, of course, is the Attorney-General. And if you look at who preceded him, that was Michaelia Cash for the Coalition. She went to Iona Presentation College, a very expensive Catholic school in WA, before her was Christian Porter, who went to the Hale School in Perth.
 
##Audio excerpt – Speaker in Hale School: 
“And as we finish up this term, we always say to the boys finish off well, finish with excellence and I hope all the families have a fantastic break and hopefully your football team goes very well in the end of September!” 
 
##MIKE:
So there's a lot of it about.
 
On the other side of the coin. The Education Minister, Jason Clare went to public school and is sending his own son to a public school. Likewise, Tanya Plibersek and of course Anthony Albanese himself went to a Catholic school, St Mary's Cathedral School in central Sydney. So overall you'd have to say our politicians, privately school educated at a rate almost double that of the general populace. 
 
And I think all of this is important to know. You know, apart from allowing us to judge our politicians according to their privilege, I would argue the fact that two thirds of our federal politicians lack personal experience of public schools is worth bearing in mind when we consider the inequities of the Australian school system.
 
##ANGE: 
Yeah, let's talk about those inequities. I think most people know generally that rich private school kids have these flashy facilities and, you know, public schools don't. But how much of a gap is there in our schools?
 
##MIKE:
There's a big funding gap. A new report on how public and private schools are funded came out just the other week. And it found that public schools are currently underfunded by more than $6 billion a year. 
 
And when we talk about underfunding, I might add, we're not just talking about public schools not having money for, you know, nice facilities. We're talking about underfunding to an extent that means that they they don't have basic stuff. You know, they don't have roofs that don't leak, they don't have windows that open, they don't have toilets that work. 
 
I spoke to Emma Rowe, who's an academic at Deakin University, and she's working on a project speaking with principals for public schools across the country. And she said that those were very common complaints and those principals are particularly common one was no heaters that function in winter, and the burden of getting these things is on the principals themselves, to a large extent. 
 
So in Australia we've got principals in public schools begging for the essentials on one hand and of course on the other hand you have private schools, with water polo stadiums, state of the art drama theatres. 
 
Or in the case of Scots College in Sydney, a development currently underway in which they knocked down a perfectly good library so they could build a $29 million quite student centre unquote, which has been described as being modelled on an extravagant Scottish baronial castle. The project, I might add, has been delayed by the fact that they had trouble getting the slates for the roof from Scotland. So, you know, Emma Rowe stated the obvious, which is that, you know, having a library in a castle is not actually going to make any difference to those kids educational outcomes. Right. 
 
But what it does do is illustrate the issue of wealth inequality in this country and that the gap between the haves and have nots is wide. And our schools are really a microcosm of that growing inequality. 
 
Schools that are right next to each other, you know, in the same suburb, one school living lavishly, the other barely scraping by. What these new funding figures show is how quickly the problem is is getting worse and and the extent to which it will continue to get worse unless we have reforms. Because while, well, public schools are critically underfunded, private schools, according to the report, will continue to be overfunded by almost $3 billion over the next five years.
 
##ANGE: 
Coming up after the break… the reason why Australia’s education system has become so unequal.
 
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##ANGE: 
Mike, We're talking about the widening divide between public and private schools that's going to continue to deepen over time. So how did this happen? When did this divide all begin?
 
##MIKE:
The story of how we got to this point, I guess, began with religious sectarianism. I suppose you'd say about 60 years ago, the Catholics wanted their own school system, but state governments, which were then responsible for all education funding, were reluctant to to ante up. So the Commonwealth eventually stepped in, first of all, with some one off grants and then with some recurrent funding. And so this grew into a very odd system, I would think, almost unique in the world, whereby the states mostly fund public schools and the federal government mostly funds private schools. 
 
So, you know, really the seeds of inequity were there from the start because the system allowed schools to both receive government money and to charge students. You know, most other countries say one or the other folks. And over time, this meant that some not all, but some non-government schools became extraordinarily wealthy by tapping money from both sources. You know, you could call it double dipping, I guess. 
 
And so as of 2021, total government spending on schools was 61.26 billion and about a bit over 60% of that money came from the states and the rest came from the federal government. 
 
But on top of this, the private schools were able to raise many billions of extra in fees, charges, parent contributions, as well as more than $1 billion collectively from other private sources. But in that year that I mentioned, 2021, the 100 richest non-government schools alone recorded some $4.8 billion in in revenue.
 
##ANGE: 
Hmm. And it seems like for the first time in a while, we have some politicians who do say this really big gap in funding is a problem. But is there any real appetite to change the fundamental unfairness we're talking about here of, you know, taxpayer money going towards the most expensive private schools?
 
##MIKE:
You're right. There's been talk about doing something about it, but then there's been talk about doing something about it for a long time. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Latham: 
“There’s another area where the Howard Government has followed a user pays approach. It’s in the education of our children.” 
 
##MIKE:
You know, there've been a few attempts in the past to redress the balance. If you go back just before the 2004 election, I think that was the last serious attempt. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Latham: 
“We believe in the next generation of young Australians and a Labor government will invest in their future.”
 
##MIKE:
And that was when Mark Latham was leading the Labor Party and he proposed to cut $520 million from federal funding to 67 of the richest private schools over five years, and to freeze funding at existing levels for 111 others. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Latham: 
“Needy Catholic and Independent schools will receive an extra 520 million dollars at the expense of wealthy schools like Kings and Geelong Grammar.”
 
##MIKE:
The idea was that the savings from this would be then redistributed to the most needy government and non-government schools. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Latham:  
“Labor will also provide an extra $1.9 billion for government schools, lifting them up to our national standard.”
 
##MIKE:
But bottom line, Latham lost the election - although I would argue for other reasons other than that…Ever since then, Labor has been scared to propose serious change, I think you'd say. And the Coalition parties, of course, you know, being the parties of the well-to-do, have never had any real interest in fostering educational equality. 
 
Back in 2010, the Gillard Labor government made some noises about doing something and they commissioned an expert panel to review funding under the businessman David Gonski. And the Gonski review came out with an idea that there should be a minimum funding standard set called the Schooling Resource Standard. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Julia Gillard: 
“We believe schools should be funded on the basis of need, we believe every child’s education should be supported through a school resourcing standard that is the amount of money that we can show by pointing at what is happening in schools today.”  
 
##MIKE:
That was a good idea and the Gillard government said they're adopting it. But there was one big flaw which made the whole thing vastly more expensive and less equitable, and that is Gillard still frightened, obviously of the consequences of taking money from the wealthy schools promised, and I quote, No school will lose a dollar.
 
##Audio excerpt – Leigh Sales: 
“And who would be putting that money forward?”
 
##Audio excerpt – Julia Gillard: 
“Well that money will be put forward collaboratively by federal and state governments…”
 
##MIKE:
In other words, the whole thing was kind of, you know, dead on arrival, want of a better term. And more than a decade later, we've made negligible progress. So that's the history. 
 
And now we have under consideration yet another expert committee review. Now the results of that aren't public yet, let alone any government response. The state and federal education ministers are due to consider it before the end of the year. 
 
So we don't know exactly what solutions are proposed, but we certainly know that how serious the problem is, because ahead of this report, a consultation paper was released and it is public and it shows a rapidly widening, widening education gap between students from wealthy backgrounds and less wealthy backgrounds, as they put it, high and low socioeconomic standards, status backgrounds. And they said, disadvantage is rapidly becoming more concentrated. 
 
So there's a huge public interest in fixing these problems and equalising the divide because, you know, if we do, we will have smarter, higher performing cohorts of kids when they leave school and enter the workforce, you know, which benefits us all.
 
##ANGE: 
And Mike, to equalise the system that does need to be some political action. But as we talked about before, the majority of politicians might not fully understand the problem because they're not from public schools themselves. How important is real diversity in Parliament to address these kinds of issues?
 
##MIKE:
I think it is very important and I think the fact that our Parliament is awash with these private school alumni is both a symptom and a cause of the problem. I mean, it's a symptom because students who are educated in the higher SCS schools perform better at school, which leads to better outcomes, easier entry into university, etc. and to jobs like politics. 
 
You could argue that it's a cause as well because you need political will to change these things. And if these people come themselves out of the non-government sector and more importantly are sending, as the overwhelming majority of our politicians are sending their children to these elite institutions. Well, that would seem to mitigate against change, I think you would say. 
 
So, you know, if you look at the last election, for example, there was a lot of talk about how this Parliament was the most diverse ever, and rightly so, it is. You know, there's more women than ever before, a lot more cultural and ethnic variety. 
 
But in terms of life experience that our politicians have in their schooling and therefore wealth privilege. We have a long way to go. You know, the gap is widening, not closing as our society becomes less equal and more stratified. 
 
And we know how important lived experience is in the Parliament you know, that's the reason why we have a woman as the Minister for Women, an Indigenous MP, as the Minister for Indigenous Australians. So, you know, good thing. Jason Clare is a publicly educated Education Minister, but a more representative Parliament across the board that actually reflected society would be something worth aiming for.
 
So it would make a lot of sense, in my view, and in the view of those people that I spoke to, to not go on overfunding these very wealthy private schools and actually do a bit of redistribution and put the money to where it can really do some good, which is to particularly public schools, but also some of the some of the non-government schools that are not rolling in money that would be good for them, would be good for the kids, and it would help make Australia a smarter and more competitive country.
 
##ANGE: 
Mike, thanks so much for your time today.
 
##MIKE:
Thanks for your Ange. 
 
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[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE: 
Also in the news today, 
 
Federal Labor MP Peta Murphy has died aged 50 from breast cancer. 
 
Peta Murphy had been the member for Dunkley in Victoria since 2019. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remembered Murphy as the “strongest of local members, the most inspiring of colleagues and the very best kind of friend.”
 
​​And,
 
Former US Vice President Al Gore has spoken out against COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber, calling his position an “abuse of public trust”.
 
Al-Jaber, who is also head of the UAE’s national oil company, told the climate summit that phasing out fossil fuels would quote “take the world back into caves”. More than 100 countries back a phase out of fossil fuels.
 
I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*. We’ll be back again tomorrow. 
 
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Background Reading

news
November 25, 2023
Exclusive: Less than half Albanese’s cabinet went to state schools

As figures reveal public schools are underfunded by more than $6 billion a year, unpublished research shows politicians are twice as likely as the general public to be privately educated.