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Private school, public cost

By Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd - posted Wednesday, 22 July 2015

If you are over 60 you might remember the day that the Catholic schools in Goulburn went on strike. Apparently an inspection had revealed that their toilets weren't up to scratch. The schools declared they couldn't fix them and they couldn't even run their schools unless governments paid part of the bill.

To ram the point home they sent their kids to the local public schools which very soon creaked and groaned under the extra load. In the process they launched the belief that funding private schools was a cheaper option for governments than building and running more public schools. It was the iconic beginning of state aid to church schools.

There were several problems involved in giving unfettered public money to private organisations that didn't worry governments too much at the time. Money started rolling out from both state and federal governments but without any coordination between them. The public system still had to be available to everyone and everywhere - but competing schools, which had no such obligation, were increasingly publicly-funded. And they could continue to charge fees which ensured that they would enrol only those who could pay or who were deemed to merit fee exemption or a scholarship.


In effect, while the old countries of Europe worked to break down barriers in schooling, the great egalitarian country down under - which had largely been there and done that - began to recreate social class in its schools. My School data shows Independent schools now at the top of the socio-educational advantage pile on average, followed by Catholic schools and then government schools.

After 50 years of ever-mounting grants the inevitable is happening. A couple of years ago the combination of subsidies and fee income saw the resources of private schools put public schools in the shade. Now the unbelievable is happening: the level of public subsidies alone going to private schools has begun to exceed the public funding of government schools serving similar communities.

Our research [] shows that if recent trends continue, within three to four years 80% of Catholic school students will be funded by governments ahead of their peers in government schools. By the end of the decade half the students in Independent schools will join them. Private schools are about to operate at a far more substantial, and previously unimaginable, public cost. High-fee schools aside, the private school down the road is about to become more public than the public school – while still being able to charge fees and enrol or dis-enrol students as they please. They got the money and the box.

So much for 'saving the taxpayers'. It is true that on average, private schools still get less public money than government schools. That's what happens, on average, when you don't have to serve every child in every corner in every circumstance, including around 80% of children with special educational needs. The difference now is that the data behind the My School website means we are able to compare school apples with apples when it comes to things like student enrolment, achievement … and money.

Now that all this information about school funding is coming out, what next? Can we justify what is becoming high funding farce? Is over-subsidised school choice still the answer to whatever was the question – even though the average income family can't afford school choice? Do we somehow get much better value from a larger private school sector – even though there is now an annual overspend, compared with similar government schools, of almost $4 billion without any difference in student results?

We are reaching the unprecedented situation of two publicly-funded education systems characterised, as a recent report described, by a mixture of values, governance structures and processes, financial incentives, obligations, responsibilities and accountabilities. It's time to do a serious stocktake on what it has delivered for the whole country, to address serious questions, including what is public, what is private, what should be the difference between them? Is it the role of government to continue topping up the advantaged while the strugglers still have to struggle? What obligations should fully-funded schools have to the public which pays so much to run them?


Recent debates about schools, spurred on by the Gonski review, have focused on equity. Alas, the commonwealth and some states have worked hard to avoid the commitment to equity that the Gonski recommendations sought. It is going to be interesting to watch them now try avoid even more questions that won't go away, including about effectiveness and efficiency.

Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd

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About the Authors

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

Bernie Shepherd AM FACE is a retired principal with a long career in teaching and curriculum development in science and was the founding principal of the first public senior high school in NSW. He continues to be active in educational matters as a researcher, writer, consultant and mentor.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Chris Bonnor
All articles by Bernie Shepherd

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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