Why Private Education Shouldn’t Get a Cent from Government

By Catherine Deveny

The public/private schooling debate hit the news again last week, sparking debate over government funding of those schools – and how the Australian government will respond to the Gonski report.

Catherine Deveny, an outspoken advocate of public education, tells us why she’s so passionate on the topic – and where she believes Abbott and Gillard are going wrong.

‘There is no question of injustice to public schools here,’ Tony Abbott told an independent education forum this week. ‘If anything, the injustice is the other way.‘’ Spoken like a true private school boy.

‘Overall, the 66 per cent of Australian school students who attend public schools get 79 per cent of government funding,’ he said. ‘The 34 per cent of Australians who attend independent schools get just 21 per cent of government funding.’

Bless you Tony Abbott. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Only statements like this might stimulate national discussion to a level that might restore some overdue equity in our education system.

Some call Abbott’s comment fudging the facts. I call it bullshit.

‘It’s important to note that Abbott’s statement was made in the context of the imbalance of federal and state funding on education, with the Commonwealth contributing more to private schools and the states stumping up for government schools,’ said Shaun Carney in the Age.

Abbott’s statement reveals the sense of entitlement and lack of insight private schools can fertilise in their students. It also highlights the limited experience (and absence of understanding of inherited privilege and disadvantage) that construct the filters through which right-wing politicians like Tony Abbott see life, develop their policies, and construct truth and values.

People like Abbott assume everyone is rich, white, literate, middle class, straight, fully abled and fully functional, belonging to families with a wife/mother who nurtures and a father/husband who provides. They take for granted the head start provided by those solid foundations, which are not available to all students.

And they assume that those who do benefit from that head start somehow orchestrated the luck of which parents they were born to (and what circumstances they landed in), making them deserving of special treatment, in the form of government subsidies to support a private school education better than the one freely available to everyone.

Anyone who drives past schools occasionally (let alone visits them frequently) would agree with Shaun Carney that the ‘education facilities and learning opportunities at government schools are substandard compared with the elite private schools’.

Two reader comments on this article sum it up.

‘Tony Abbott needs to learn what injustice is. Injustice is families in Frankston North who can’t afford to send their children to school with lunch, who can’t afford uniforms, who can’t afford rent in what is already supposedly a low cost housing area where houses are often shared by multiple families, who can’t afford books, who can’t afford petrol, who suffer from family breakdowns, mental illness and who don’t have networks that middle class people take for granted. His words are some of the most ridiculous and insulting ever to come from a politician’s mouth. There is no injustice in funding public schools properly. Public schools service the most disadvantaged people in our community. Abbott needs a dose of reality.’

‘It will cost the country much more in welfare and health cost than it would to ensure that every single child that moves through any education system has the necessary literacy and numeracy levels and job ready skills. This investment would ensure more people were employed putting back money into the system rather than taking it away.’

Part of Abbott’s damage control is denying state schools will be worse off if he becomes PM. So how does that work? He is adamant the funding is unjust, but he’s not going to do anything about it? (WTF?)

As a representative of the people, wouldn’t you think it would be his job to fix injustice when he sees it?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was no better at Monday’s ‘Suck Up To Independent Schools So We Get More Votes’ conference. Here’s her two cents:

‘I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought, That’s not fair’, she said. ‘’I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think, That’s a great example.’

Yes, Julia. It’s a great example of discrimination, inequality, of a business model that relies on inciting fear. It’s a great example of why I choose public education; a great example of sexism, attempted social engineering, homophobia and intolerance. It’s a great example of how so many are being sucked in and ripped off.

'It’s not fair for some students to run a marathon in state-of-the art Nike running shoes and others in Target sneakers – even if they are getting the same results.'

'It’s not fair for some students to run a marathon in state-of-the art Nike running shoes and others in Target sneakers – even if they are getting the same results.'

The educational negatives and positives of all education models are highly overestimated. The best predictors of a child’s academic outcome are the education level and income of their parents. The achievement gaps are bigger within schools than between schools.

Our government schools are doing great work and getting excellent results, despite huge challenges. So, you may argue: if the government schools are doing so well, why do they need more funding? Because it’s not fair for some students to run a marathon in state-of-the art Nike running shoes and others in Target sneakers – even if they are getting the same results.

This is what you need to know: Two out of three children attend government schools. It’s the job of government schools to provide the best education for all children with all ability levels and needs.

Let’s have a look at who educates the students in lowest socioeconomic brackets. 91.7% attend government schools, 6.3% attend Catholic schools and only 1.9% attend private schools. Government schools educate 83% of indigenous students, 78% of students with disabilities, 72% of English as a second language students and 80% of refugees.

Based on the 2007 NAPLAN results, 64% of students with parents who worked in low-skilled jobs or were unemployed received the lowest-ranked results. The stratification is clear and unfair. Students from those backgrounds, through no fault of their own, need more resources earlier to get the best outcomes. When they are not available, the residue effects are huge and the gaps start to grow.
Perhaps we should grow up, man up and take a leaf out of educational superpower Finland’s book. Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. Finland also has no private schools.

Max Wallace says, ‘Some years ago [Finland was] concerned that it was falling behind in the world educational tables (just like Australia is now). They embarked on major reform. Finland now ranks in the top five countries on just about all standardised international measures.’

  1. The classes are not streamed.
  2. 30% of children receive extra help in their first nine years of school.
  3. All teachers have a Masters degree and their study for that is fully subsidised.
  4. There are 10 applications for each available place and only the top 10% get into teacher training.
  5. The school system is 100% state funded.

Among the results of this system are that 93% of students graduate from high school and 66% go on to tertiary education.

‘The information is known in Australia as to how we can achieve these sorts of results. What is lacking is the political will to overcome the deadening influence of the vested interests and actually implement policies that work.’

What is most astonishing about this? When Finland overhauled its system, its aim was equality. The result was excellence.

I spent three weeks with Peter Reith recently. (I’m not proud of it; it was for work.) Peter has two modes of communication with women. Speaking down to them or shouting at them. This was a typical opening to a conversation (insert frequent snorts and scoffs and interruptions for full effect): ‘So Catherine, I suppose you don’t believe private schools should get government funding.’

‘Yes that’s right,’ I replied.

He then went on (in what I can only assume was an attempt to impress me) to tell me he set up his own private school in Philip Island, ‘nominally Christian’. ‘Why nominally? Why not fundamental?’ I asked, ‘If Christianity is so great, why not the whole hog?’ Reith then went on to infer he really cared about the little people, by bragging that quite a few of the parents were single mums. (Love that working class cred.)

‘Really?’ I said. ‘If you cared at all for those single mums, you would be championing equity – and therefore government schools. Instead of sucking them into thinking that putting themselves under financial pressure and paying for a school with a blazer is the way to get what they are conned to believe is the best education.’

Private schools (no, I will not call them ‘independent’ – they are not independent – if they were, they would not receive funding from the government) should not receive a cent of taxpayer’s money. If you want them, pay for them yourself. Every single cent. We have a police force. If you want private security or a bodyguard, you pay for it. Same thing.

Education is the responsibility of society, because the outcome affects us all.