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Funding 21st century schools - the case for private investment

By Bill Daniels - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

Education received concentrated media attention in the lead up to the Federal election. The ALP promoted education as one of its major campaign planks and a pillar of the Knowledge Nation. At the same time, there were reports released from the Australian Council of Deans of Education and the Australian Primary Principals’ Association, and speeches and announcements by business and community leaders, for example Rupert Murdoch and the president of the Business Council of Australia.

All of these and more contributed to the clamour for a new vision for educating Australia in the 21st century.

Post-election, we now have the opportunity to properly debate just how we can realise this vision and, in particular, how we are to pay for it.


In Australia we have a robust, fully-funded government schools sector educating about 70% of students. The non-government sector – also robust and not-for-profit – is only partially government-funded, yet is still accountable to government and must meet the nationally agreed goals of schooling.

This arrangement – supported by successive Coalition and Labor governments since the 1970s – successfully harnesses a high level of private contribution for schooling. Currently that contribution stands at around $2.6 billion a year. (In other words, if the one million students now enrolled in non-government schools were to join the two million or so students already in government schools, governments would need to find another $2.6 billion to educate them.)

It is an arrangement that most would see as an enviable model of how a partnership between the public and private sectors can work to achieve an agreed public goal. Yet, as the policies announced by the Greens and Democrats prior to the Federal election showed, non-government schools in Australia are still fighting for legitimacy in some political quarters.

It seems that non-government schools emerged during the lead up to the Federal election as symbols of the divide between the haves and have-nots. Yet even a brief glance at ABS census data reveals the economic diversity of student populations in non-government schools. Like government schools, they draw their students from every social spectrum in terms of family income, parental occupation and labour force status. Many affluent parents choose to educate their children in non-government schools, but more send their children to government schools.

It is just not good enough to argue against non-government education providers simply on the grounds of social justice issues. Equity and social justice concerns need to be brought to the education debate in order to be embraced by our schooling systems, not used as a means to pre-empt our choice in determining those systems.

Education is an investment, not a cost, we were told repeatedly in the lead up to the Federal election. Parents who send their children to non-government schools already know that education is an investment, and are making a significant contribution to Australia’s expenditure on education. If we are to fund a new vision of educating Australia for the 21st century, we need to find ways to encourage this investment.

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An edited version of this article was published in The Australian Financial Review, November 27, 2001. It is also available here.

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About the Author

Bill Daniels is Executive Director of the National Council of Independent Schools’ Associations.

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