Search the site

News categories

News archives

RSS feeds

Public or Private: Schools in Australia

Australia and government funding of independent schools after 1996

Australia has a history of involvement in government support for schools outside the government system going back to early days when denominational schools, principally run by the Catholic Church were established. From the early 1970s these schools received increased government funding. Major increases to independent schools were provided from the mid 1990s.

In Australia government support was initiated in response to claims by sections of the Labor Party, following the Labor Party split in the 1950s and the emergence of the Democratic Labor Party: provision of state aid for Catholic schools was believed likely to gain the Catholic vote in elections at federal level vote and thereby secure government for the Labor Party.  However, a number of different religions now run schools.

Initially, in the 1960s, the support was for science laboratories and libraries. However, a more general scheme was introduced at the end of the decade. Recent decades has seen needs-based funding, the exercise of choice and the changing nature of education which together have driven the increase in government support for private schools. “There now seems to be, however, broad acceptance of the view that all those who choose a non-government school should receive some financial assistance by way of government grants. Nevertheless, the issue is the extent to which the exercise of choice in favour of a non-government school should result in the allocation of public funds, particularly if the non-government school that is chosen charges high fees and is resource rich.”

Most of the funding for non-government schools in Australia comes from the Commonwealth government and most of the funding for government schools is from state governments: it is state governments which have the constitutional obligation to fund education. But, as Wilkinson says, “What has unfolded in Australia over the years differs in quite profound ways to what has occurred in other countries … With the exception of the United States, issues that divided Australia for so long, well into the twentieth century, were resolved in these other countries in the early twentieth century.” Though sectarianism lost its capacity to influence policy the dual system had become so entrenched that the issue became trying to ensure that it worked rather than trying to eliminate fee charging by schools or differentiate between the two sectors in allocating funds. Thus needs-based funding and choice can be seen as the basis of the funding but implicit in that is that the private revenue independent schools raise on their own behalf is ignored.

In Australia from 1997 on the Howard Government allocated substantial funds to private schools, much to the annoyance of advocates for public schools. One could ask why this was so and most particularly whether it has made a difference to the educational attainment of Australian students. After all, as reported by Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Expert warns of colonial divide in education’, September 22 2006) Canadian writer and public intellectual John Ralston Saul has pointed out “with a third of high school students in private schools, Australia was in danger of returning to a colonial-style education model, in which the elite are primarily buying social class, as opposed to a better education… There was no evidence that the public school system had failed…” An extreme of the situation alluded to by Ralston Saul can be found in the UK, as we shall see later.

With an appeal familiar to Australians, Prime Minister Howard asserted that one of the reasons for the “drift” from public to private schools was that public schools “were both values-free and too politically correct”, a juxtaposition which, as Professor Lynn Yates of Melbourne University said in her Inaugural Professorial Lecture in June 2005, is a strange coincidence. Yates and colleagues found in their studies of children in four public schools that, “[the] schools did have some impact on the way those who went to them saw themselves and saw the social world. In one school, young people valued diversity and would speak out about racism even when they left school but were not highly on track with either courses or work in their first post-school year  [and] they were still dwelling a lot on who they were and what they should be doing in life….”

Certain mythologies pervade the assault upon public education. People’s perceptions are shaped on a daily basis by media like the Sydney Morning Herald and even by authorities who pretend to be concerned to preserve a strong public sector. Labour historian Anthony Ashbolt of the University of Wollongong pointed out some years ago (in ‘The myths we are taught about schools’, New Matilda 21 July 2006)  that “analysis of a Nielsen survey by an ACER senior research fellow Dr Adrian Beavis discovered a widespread perception, again unsurprising even if false, that public schools just do not embrace “values” in the way that private schools do. This, then, was a justification for parents wanting to go private. Still, only 34% would choose to do so even if there were no additional cost. Think about that – not if they could afford the often exorbitant fees but if there, in effect, were no fees. And think again about the 54% who said no.”

Ashbolt went on to point out, “Democracy is based upon the public good and public choices, not the private good and private choices. The public good should not be regarded as merely an aggregation of private interests and individual desires. Rather, it is something greater than the sum of its parts… Once education, however, becomes essentially a private choice it loses its democratic function. Parental choice of school tends to privilege private, individual desires over the common good. Such choice should not be prevented, but it should also not be subsidised where it dilutes or even undermines the public system.”

A study (‘Why parents choose public or private schools’, Research Developments 12, 3, 2004) which investigated family background, economic factors and perceptions of public and private schools held by parents found parents with high occupational status are more likely to choose an independent school than do those parents with low occupational status. Laura B. Perry of Murdoch University (in ‘School Composition and Student Outcomes: A Review of Emerging Areas of Research’, Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, 2007) reported similar findings.

Affordability, meaning level of fees charged by the school, influences the choice. Parents choosing a public school do so because of experience with the quality of education and belief about the importance of public education. Parents choosing independent schools refer to their belief that they offer a better education, better teachers, smaller classes and so on. The strongest reason for choosing a private school was the importance attached to the perception that the school had traditional values, factors of less importance to those choosing a public school. Most parents “expressed high levels of satisfaction with the school they had selected, and had high expectations that their children would successfully complete their schooling at Year 12”.

Lyndsay Connors, onetime member of the former Commonwealth Schools Commission and chair of the former NSW Public Education Council, observed at the 2006 Cornerstones Conference organised by the NSW Teachers Federation, that part of the answer to the question why Australian governments have devoted so much money to  independent schools is the change in the “shared understanding of the role of government” in the late 1970s as a result of the influence of neoliberal policies. Australia is the only country to have split the responsibility for public funding of public and private schools unevenly between the federal and state levels of government.

Recurrent payments to independent schools by the Commonwealth Government, as shown by Andrew Dowling (‘Australia’s School Funding System’, Figure 3), showed a sharp rise from 1970 through 1982 and again from 1993 through 1999, increasing more rapidly to 2001 and then steadily increasing. By early 2005 the Government was spending more on private schools than it was on universities, as reported by Debra Jopson and Kelly Burke (Sydney Morning Herald May 7, 2005).

The Government’s funding cuts to universities since the Whitlam government of 1972-75, averaged 7 per cent per student for every year between 1995 and 2001, according to the Productivity Commission. The result as reported by Linda Doherty (‘Parent tip: pay fees for uni, not school’, Sydney Morning Herald 1 January 2004) was greater dependence by universities on fee paying students, especially students from overseas. One commentator suggested it would be better for parents to save the $100,000 it costs for secondary education at expensive private schools and use it to buy their child’s way into university.

A review of school funding systems in Australia by Dr Andrew Dowling of ACER  commences, “Accountability, comparability and transparency are challenging school systems in a wide range of areas. Collecting data on school attendance and making it comparable across states; establishing a national curriculum; creating a national testing regime; evaluating teachers against nationally agreed standards – all vary in their complexity but all are motivated by a single philosophy; namely, that education should be made more transparent in order to hold those responsible for it accountable thereby ultimately improving the service. A belief that underpins each of these proposals is that the central planks of education can be measured and quantified in a clear and logical fashion.”

The result is that there are questions as to whether the information allegedly needed by parents so they can choose, can in fact be supplied by now more complex systems. The well known effects of socio-economic factors and remoteness are frequently ignored and politicians frequently overreact. Reportage, as usual, also usually ignores the variation within schools which should have required assertions about ranking to be made very cautiously. (It is reasonable to ask whether the journalists and editors as well as many of the politicians commenting on these matters are themselves numerate!)

Attempts by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to deliver a reliable metric of socioeconomic status has been heavily criticised. Attempts to reduce the presentation of financial resources available to government and independent schools in the same framework face severe problems, the same kinds of problems that face all such exercises across different domains. In the end more time is spend trying to remove inconsistencies than in making basic decisions about funding. Those schools with substantial financial resources in the form of capital seek to remove those from scrutiny and argument then centres on how to treat recurrent grants intended to be spent over more than one financial year. The entire area is plagued by inconsistency, not least between different tiers of government: thus it is only theoretically possible to measure and report resourcing in a clear and logical fashion. National and international accounting standards as applied by government agencies, including auditors-general, are seldom helpful.

In Australia by 2004-05 government schools with 2.26 million students (67% of the total) in were receiving $24.2 billion  in government funding (79% of all government funding) of which $22.1 billion (91%) came from the states whilst non-government schools with 1.1 million students benefitted from $6.6 billion of which $4.4 billion (or 67% of Commonwealth funds) came from the Commonwealth government. There have been assertions that special conditions have been sought by more private school students than would seem credible based on averages across government schools. The extra funds obtained by independent schools have not been applied to improving access for students disadvantaged by family income but have gone to reducing class sizes. This is hardly productive! Reducing class sizes in secondary schools is of far less importance than at primary school level and is of most benefit to those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, as Monash University’s David Zyngier has pointed out!

The Federal Government’s support for private schools has ended up giving a level of funding to private schools never envisaged when government support of private schools was first introduced by the federal Labor Government in 1974 (see below). As Lyndsay Connors observed (in the Centre for Policy Development’s document, “CPD Road Test: schools funding”, 22 November 2007) when writing of the intention of the incoming Rudd Labor Government to continue the Howard Government’s scheme through 2012,

“Prior to 2001, the Commonwealth measured the relative need of private schools for public funding by comparing their private incomes – mainly derived from fees charged to parents – against a funding standard. This reflected the original rationale for the introduction of significant ‘state aid’ to private schools: that all children were entitled to a decent standard of resources for learning; and that public funding should be provided according to ‘need’ to assist all schools to reach that standard and to bring about greater equality of educational opportunity.

“In 2001 the Howard Government made a subtle but significant change to the rationale for Commonwealth funding to private schools. It broke the link between the level of private resources available to students in these schools and the level of their entitlement to public funding. From 2001 on, parents at each private school were given a score according to a measure of the socio-economic status (SES) of the area in which they live. Scores are averaged and schools ranked according to these averages for funding purposes.”

Connors noted that schools could increase their fees without any change to their level of public funding: some of Melbourne’s top independent schools had, according to The Age, received increases of up to 500% in Commonwealth funding and increased their fees well above the inflation rate. Moreover since independent schools draw their students from a wide area, SES formulae based on the local area of the school are not really relevant.

“… the fact is that the SES formula has never been applied to more than half of the schools in the private sector. The Howard Government decided that there should be ‘no losers’ when the scheme was introduced. It applied the formula to schools so that the result was either financially neutral or advantageous. As a result, half of all private schools continue to receive the level of grant to which they were entitled under the previous Labor scheme, at an estimated cost of over $2 billion for the current four year period. This means that schools with the same SES score (which should in theory be entitled to identical grants under the formula) now receive vastly different levels of Commonwealth grants.”

Noting that the policy had failed to lower fees and had increased the burden on public schools, Connors concluded that the policy lacked educational integrity.

“[It] produces financial anomalies and leaves a large number of private schools with no credible justification for the amount of funding they receive from the public purse.

“The public interest and voice in schooling is being steadily eroded under the current system. This is an ongoing structural problem which will not be solved by funding programs, however worthy, for computers and broadband. An education revolution towards waste and inequality is well underway.”

The impact of government funding for Independent schools in Australia: Student socio-economic background and school socio-economic environment

Social commentator Jane Caro and former Secondary School Principal Chris Bonner attacked the policies of the Howard government and support of independent schools in their book, The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education. In an interview about the book Bonner said, “the federal Government’s focus on issues such as performance pay for teachers indirectly blames schools and teachers for problems in student performance. Rather than tackling the real educational problems linked to economic disadvantage, the book says the Government is suggesting there must be something wrong with schools, creating ‘an easy and populist agenda for politicians’… What passes for educational policy then degenerates into competing plans for more testing, accountability, standards and anything else that addresses community anxiety, real or otherwise,’ the book claims. ‘It all sits easily with calls for more police, longer jail terms… (and diverts attention from) problems that can’t be boiled down into simple policies or blamed on teachers.’

Important studies of public and private schools in Australia published in 2010,   Louise Watson & Chris Ryan’s ‘Choosers and Losers: The Impact of Government Subsidies on Australian Secondary Schools’ (Australian Journal of Education, 54 (1): 86-107) have substantial policy implications bearing on these arguments. Independent schools in Australia enrol more than one-third of all students, enrolment having increased steadily since 1974 when there was a major injection of Commonwealth government funding as already mentioned; private secondary schools receive almost 40% of total enrolment. The funding system effectively creates a school education market where private schools in receipt of government funding compete with public schools for students.

Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools quotes: “Government recurrent funding for private schools increased in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation) from about $500 per Catholic secondary school student in the early 1970s to over $6,000 in 2007 and from less than $1,000 per Independent secondary student to about $5,000 in 2007. At the same time, Catholic school fees increased by 160% from the early 1970s to 2002 in real terms while Independent school fees increased by 70%. These increases far exceeded increases in real income over the same period: per capital real household disposable income increased by 46% between 1972 and 2002 while real male average weekly earnings increased by 26%.”

In the early 1970s, there were about 23-24 students to every teacher in Catholic secondary schools; by 2007, it was less than 13 per teacher. The ratio for Independent secondary schools fell from over 14 to 10.5 students per teacher. The student/teacher ratio in government schools fell from 15 to just over 12 over the same period. It should be noted that whereas between 1974 and 1999 government funding of private schools was based on the declared level of the school’s private income, after 2000 the funding was linked to the financial means of the students’ families.

Increased Commonwealth government support for private schools, together with higher fees charged by those schools, has led to drastic reductions in teacher:student ratios, especially in independent (non-Catholic) secondary schools. The ratio has remained roughly unchanged in government schools since the late 1970s but declined steadily in non-government schools from the early 1970s; enrolments were in decline during the 1960s. The improvements in student/teacher ratios in independent schools relative to government schools appear to have had a positive impact on demand for private schooling irrespective of increases in the cost of tuition. The result is increased pressure on government schools to have their students reach the same educational outcomes as those of private schools.

Parents who send their children to private schools argue that they are being taxed twice because some of their taxes go to support public schools which their children do not attend. The argument is of course spurious! Taxation is not based on whether or not the taxpayer individually uses the services funded by government: one may as well argue that the taxes of an individual whose mother does not require a wheelchair should pay less tax than someone whose mother does! (This was made clear in the US when singer Joan Baez sought to pay less tax because she did not support the Vietnam war!)

“The students who transferred from government to private schools between 1975 and 2006 tended to be from the middle to the top SES families. About 60% of the decline in government school enrolments over the period was from the top half of the SES distribution… The transfer of higher SES students to private schools has significantly changed the socio-economic composition of government secondary schools. In contrast to 1975, the majority of students in government secondary schools in 2006 attended schools whose SES is below average. Moreover, the proportion of government secondary schools with concentrations of low SES students increased between 1975 and 2006.”

The impact on students of attending schools with high aggregate SES levels is substantial. Laura Perry and Andrew McConney of Murdoch University, in their important studies (‘School socio-economic composition and student outcomes in Australia: Implications for educational policy’, Australian Journal of Education 54 (1), p 72-85, 2010 and ‘Science And Mathematics Achievement In Australia: The Role Of School Socioeconomic Composition In Educational Equity And Effectiveness’, International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 8, p 429-452, 2010) compared the SES levels of 15 year old students and their achievement in PISA tests and the SES levels of schools they attended. They used secondary analysis of the 2003 and 2006 PISA data set for Australia and within this secondary analysis, they drew on disaggregated descriptive statistics and graphical representations to compare the literacy performance of secondary students in reading and mathematics (using PISA data for 2003) and achievement in science and mathematics (2006 PISA data) across various student SES backgrounds, and across a range of school SES profiles.

(Perry & McConney explain that “PISA’s measure of student-level SES is a composite index of the following variables: highest parental occupational status, highest parental educational attainment (years of education), and economic and cultural resources in the home. PISA has named this variable ESC^,S (economic, social and cultural status), and each participating student completes a questionnaire that allows an individual BSC^S score to be assigned. To calculate aggregated school-level SES, we averaged the ESCS scores of every student who participated in PISA from a given school.”)

Achievement is higher for students from higher SES backgrounds. But what is important to note is the substantial difference contributed by the school’s SES, the average of the SES score of all students attending that school.

The average high SES student in a high SES school scored 143 PISA scale points higher in reading than a low SES student in a low SES school, 142 points higher in mathematics (128 points in 2006) and 142 points higher in science, equal to nearly four years of schooling. In reading the difference between the average low SES student in a low SES school and the same student in a high SES school is 57 points in reading, 57 points in mathematics (75 points in 2006) and 75 points in science. The differences for a high SES student in a low SES class and a high SES class are very similar. The average gain (across all SES levels) within the same SES level is 58 points in reading, 59 points in mathematics (64 points in 2006) and 65 points in science.

Perry and McConney noted, “the association between school SES and student achievement is lower in Canada and Finland than in Australia; both countries outperform Australia on PISA. As those countries show, reducing socio-economic school segregation and differences among schools promotes higher overall achievement for all students without decreasing the achievement of high-performing students. Reducing school socio-economic segregation does not mean that other foundational objectives, such as diversity and choice, should be ignored. Rather, they should be pursued in ways that do not reduce the educational opportunities and outcomes of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Though the Australian educational system has been rated by the OECD as having high levels of equity and quality – high average performance and weaker association between socioeconomic status and achievement than many other countries – “where one goes to school makes a significant difference for all students’ mathematics and science performance” (and literacy performance as shown by the 2003 data). A student’s achievement is heavily influenced by the family’s ability to afford a good school (original emphasis): “achievement gains are sharpest in middle-high and high SES schools. Yet access to these schools in Australia is restricted. Either they are oversubscribed public schools in high SES communities that are thus limited to students who have the financial resources to reside in the community or they are high status private schools whose fees are out of reach for the majority of Australian families. This restricted access is what allows these schools to maintain high concentrations of privileged students.”

Stephen Lamb of Melbourne University (in ‘School Reform and Inequality in Urban Australia: A Case of Residualising the Poor’, International Studies In Educational Inequality, Theory And Policy 10, 1-38, 2007) considers that market reforms over the past 25 years have led to the gradual erosion of the size and efficiency of schools serving poorer communities. “Schools in such areas have indeed become ‘sink’ schools drained of students in absolute terms, including high-achieving students, and also of resources.” Research examined the impact over the past 25 years of government policies on school sizes and the relationship with student achievement.

“The three significant changes in education in that period — competition (giving schools more autonomy to be more competitive), privatisation (more public money to private schools), and rationalisation (school closures and mergers) — ultimately widened the gap between rich and poor schools. Those in low socio-economic areas lost students, including their best and brightest and, as a result of falling enrolments, received less government funding than bigger schools. Unless governments acted to rectify the inequality, many poorer schools could soon become defunct.”

According to Lamb the granting of more autonomy to schools in the 1990s came at a “huge cost” to poorer schools, which were “left behind, drained of students and resources, exposed to greater gaps in academic achievement and confronted with closures or consolidation”.

As Professor Margaret Vickers of the University of Western Sydney put it (in Education for all Australians: Comprehensiveness, segregation, and social responsibility’, the keynote speech at the UWS Annual Education Conference, Parramatta, October 9-10, 2004),

“self-reliant parents are encouraged to buy their children places in private schools. Student segregation and the residualization of public schools may be a side effect of this assertion of individual interest, but this negative outcome is then excused by deeming it to be a result of market forces. In effect, the argument runs, this outcome is nothing more that the cumulative effect of the innumerable private choices of parents who are seeking to do the best they can for their children. This argument involves a sleight of hand, in which student segregation is represented as the result of individuals’ choices, when in fact the contexts in which parents make these choices have been shaped by deliberate government policies. Thus, educational segregation is represented as nothing more than the collateral damage of the individual’s freedom to choose. This argument allows governments to absent themselves of their public responsibility, it allows them to excuse themselves for what is in fact a failure of public administration… Yet while we may be able to sustain a dual system, we may not be able to sustain the high degree of unregulated choice that appears to have swept away systemic planning and is leading to the segregation of many of our public schools.”

The Rudd & Gillard Australian Governments and Independent Schools

The Rudd Government’s pledged to continue support of private schools until 2012, described by some as a $26b “funding gift” to private schools. The pledge was made despite a Department of Education review uncovered entrenched ”inequities” in the system. Continuing the support was part of the program introduced by the Rudd government along with the establishment of regular standardised testing for all students in alternate years of school through the NAPLAN program and the reporting of those results on a special website MySchool. Substantial debate about the impact of the policies centred around issues of social segregation and inequity. Trevor Cobbold, on his site Save Our Schools, was particularly vocal. These inequities will probably increase, in the view of former Productivity Commission economist and campaigner Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools, following the agreement to introduce national reporting of individual school results.

The finding of independent schools did not address some important issues. Infrastructure maintenance at public schools has been neglected. An audit undertaken in 2005 by Tony Vinson (as reported by Linda Doherty, Sydney Morning Herald May 19, 2005) of the University of Sydney’s faculty of Education and Social Work found that an urgent injection of $180 million was needed to fix the shoddy state of public schools – from leaking roofs to overflowing toilets.

Vinson found the physical condition of many public schools to have fallen “well below an acceptable standard”, a factor contributing to the exodus of students to private schools. State schools struggle to maintain infrastructure. Or they would have were it not for the extra infrastructure funding as part of the Rudd government’s stimulus package in response to the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ of 2008-09.

The Commonwealth Government’s program “Building the Education Revolution”, launched later, provided funds for buildings at many schools around Australia; the program was heavily criticised in some quarters but the Australian National Audit Office which conducted a two year investigation reported that the program was good value for money.

Funding of independent schools, so as to provide choice and accountability is often seen as part of the same agenda as standardised testing and league tables. However, happiness, safety and social development of the children is ranked by parents way ahead of student results in public tests. ”Schools and teachers do need to be accountable for their performance in respect to supporting parents. From our point of view, governments and parents are looking at this from a different point of view.” Parents of children attending independent schools, when surveyed (as reported by the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria), stated that they expect the school to “nurture their child with care, allow their child to develop as a well-rounded human being and imbue their child with, and reinforce, the values and culture of the home, instil in their child self-discipline and respect for  others; “teach their child how to learn” was  fifth on the list.

These views expressed by parents can be compared with views of school principals as to the main purpose of schools. Student love of learning and developing responsible citizens for democracy and common good are seen as the most important outcomes of schooling and as well encouraging community development and resource social justice are also seen as very important. Fostering professional and student trust and collaboration, valuing resourcing difference and disadvantage are seen as important strategies to achieve these goals. These issues were explored by Neil Cranston and colleagues in and article, ‘Primary school principals and the purposes of education in Australia Results of a national survey’ (Journal of Educational Administration 48(4), 517-539, 2010).

The inequalities deriving from social and economic disadvantage in early years carry through to school and are exacerbated by a number of factors including classroom and school factors. They may also include factors concerning the teacher depending on level of experience and expertise. Though the impact of the teacher on individual student performance gains much prominence, studies of the impact of socioeconomic background on achievement, reported by Stephen Lamb & Sue Fullerton (‘Classroom and school factors affecting mathematics achievement: a comparative study of Australia and the United States using TIMSS’, Australian Journal of Education 46 (2), 154-171, 2002) demonstrate that classroom variation can also be due principally to differences in the student composition of the class.

Gary Marks of ACER (’Accounting for school-sector differences in tertiary entrance performance’, Australian Journal of Education 53, p 19–38, 2009) examined data concerning tertiary performance (ENTER) scores for students participating in the 2003 PISA study. He examined the influence of socioeconomic background, prior achievement and various aspects of student learning. He found that independent schools “promote a more academic environment that lifts student performance”. Socioeconomic effects were small and student learning had important effects but did not account for differences in type of school. Independent schools add value between 5 and 11 per cent, Catholic schools being at the lower end of the range. “School sector differences cannot be easily attributed to differences in the provision of teaching and learning.”

In a more recent study, of school sector and socioeconomic inequalities in university entrance in Australia (‘School sector and socioeconomic inequalities in university entrance in Australia: the role of the stratified curriculum’, Educational Research and Evaluation 16, 23-37, 2010), Marks found that the academic courses taken at school strongly influence university entrance and participation but that is not related to socioeconomic background of the student. Indeed, Marks found socioeconomic background accounted for less than a tenth of the variation in both entrance score and university participation. Marks concluded, “analyses and explanations of educational outcomes need to consider the important role of student ability, which is largely independent of socioeconomic background.” He admits that this flies in the face of prevailing orthodoxies in the sociology of education. But it is hardly prevailing orthodoxies. Marks’ conclusions are inconsistent with the longitudinal study conducted by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, the Life Chances Study conducted by Janet Taylor and Nina Gee.

Looked at another way, if the independent school system is supposed to improve the opportunity for parents to ensure their children receive a quality education, then children at private schools should be achieving better results. However, the most significant characteristic of those selective schools achieving the highest scores in HSC (Higher School Certificate) or VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) examinations is the aggregate score required for entry. There is little overlap between [or correlation with] the schools ranked on the basis of number of its alumni mentioned in the Who’s Who in Australia and the rank according to HSC or VCE score. This situation resembles that in the UK as we will see, though it is probably not as extreme.

Writers such as Trevor Cobbold (in several articles including ‘The Free Market and the Social Divide in Education’, a paper for the National Public Education Forum March 27-28, 2009 and, ‘Privilege and disadvantage’, Dissent Autumn/Winter 2011) condemn the recent developments in government support for private schools: “the right to a successful education for all is being undermined by subjecting schooling to the market forces of competition, choice and privatisation, even though markets are under question now as never before in the last 30 years”.

In an extremely comprehensive and carefully documented survey reviewing school funding (‘Closing the Gaps. An Analysis of Government and Private School Expenditure and the Challenge of Education Disadvantage in Australia’) Trevor Cobbold pointed to some profound differences in funding between government public schools and independent schools and the relationship to students of different socio-economic level, remoteness and indigeneity.

The gap in total expenditure between government schools and Independent schools has more than doubled since 1998-99 while the gap between government and Catholic school expenditure decreased by more than half. Government funding for independent schools increased by more than 100% from 1998-99 through 2007-2008 and by more than 200% for some elite private schools in New South Wales and Victoria since 2001; in the same period the increase in government funding to government schools in those two states has been no more than 70%. Commonwealth Government funding for the wealthiest schools in Australia is 4 to 8 times more than the additional funding it provides to low SES schools. Total expenditure per student in government schools increased by 1.85% a year compared to 3.12% a year for independent schools between 1998-99 and 2007-08. It increased by 3.07% a year in Catholic schools and 2.63% a year in Independent schools.

More than 70% of Indigenous students, students from low income families, from remote areas or with a disability are enrolled in government schools but at most 28% of such students are enrolled in independent schools. Low income students comprise between 35 and (in South Australia and Tasmania) over 40% of students in government schools (though only 25% in the ACT) but around 20% of enrolments in independent schools. In the Northern Territory Indigenous students make up nearly 45% of the government school enrolment and 25% of the Independent school enrolment; enrolment from remote or very remote areas are similar.

As Cobbold points out, “Government funding for private [sic] schools is linked to government school costs so that increases in funding for government schools automatically flow on to private schools. Government school costs are increased by the costs of a much higher proportion of enrolments of low SES, Indigenous, disability and remote area students than in private schools and private schools receive a portion of this higher expenditure even though their ratio of these students to total enrolments is much lower. Effectively private schools receive a windfall gain in funding by virtue of the link with government school costs.”

Low SES students are about one year’s learning behind the average in mathematics and literacy and the funding currently provided through special programs such as SES and literacy and numeracy partnerships of the Commonwealth Government is less than one twentieth of what is needed, according to Cobbold’s report.

It is an extraordinary fact that advocates for government funding of independent schools can acknowledge the importance of socioeconomic status on educational achievement and yet still assert that parental choice is important.

In Australia in late 2010, the Minister for Education announced a review of the funding arrangements for all schools throughout Australia. Advocates for ongoing funding for independent schools proclaimed loudly the appropriateness of continuing the arrangements which had been put in place by the Howard Government. In early 2011 however, a number of capital city daily newspapers called for an end to the arrangements which gave undue preference to independent schools. Comments ranged from “Elite private schools do not deserve to continue to receive generous federal taxpayer handouts. It’s time to fund need rather than greed” (Herald Sun, Melbourne), to [the present system is] “a brazen case of resources greed, not education need – evidence that the education class divide is widening, with the help of governments” (Daily Telegraph, Sydney) to “The great divide between what Australia’s richest and poorest schools spend on educating their students has now been revealed” (Courier Mail, Brisbane).  The Age of Melbourne criticised public subsidies for schools as constituting, “chauffeur-driven limousine standards”.

Trevor Cobbold of ‘Save Our Schools’ reported the claims by spokespersons for continuing funding of independent schools as wanting “another arrangement to guarantee their privileged funding”. The Age newspaper of Melbourne reported (25 March 2011) the executive director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Bill Daniels, as saying that that “the current over-funding is a ‘sitting duck’ in the current review of school funding and conceding that “funding maintenance as we know it will not survive this review”. A spokesman for the National Catholic Education Commission, Tim Smith, was also reported as saying that he expected the funding maintained provisions to be abolished.

The review of school funding initiated in 2010 was conducted by a panel chaired by prominent businessman David Gonski. It concluded that there were substantial discrepancies in the financial support for government and independent schools provided by governments and made recommendations to overcome those. After consideration by the government legislation was passed by the Australian Parliament to provide funding generally reflecting the Gonski Panel’s views though not in the amount recommended by the Panel. The legislation provided that the bulk of the funding was to be allocated in the last two years of the seven year time frame.

The Abbott government, elected September 2013, noting amongst other things the fact that several states had not signed the agreements with the Commonwealth before the election, eventually allocated funds to for the first four years of the program to Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory without requiring that they pass that money on to schools or that they match the funding as had been agreed to by the states and the Australian Capital Territory prior to September 2013. The Abbott government also refused to undertake to fund the last years of the Gonski scheme. Substantial protest greeted the Govenrment’s decisions.