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Let's be fair and square about the public-private school debate

By Charles Worringham - posted Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Other than a slip earlier in the week by ALP candidate for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, representatives of the major parties have set aside any real debate on reconciling those aspects of private and public education that stand in conflict. I say "those aspects" because on a wide array of issues teachers, parents and students are on common ground. A great teacher is a community asset irrespective of the school’s heritage; a bully is a bully whether he wears a boater and blazer or the less formal uniform from the nearby State High. I’ve met very few 'private' parents who want their local public schools to be anything other than successful institutions that are real options for their own children, or 'public' parents who don’t recognise that students in the non-government sector really do free up public resources.

But there remain tensions because we have failed to attempt sensible reform of those aspects of funding and governance that genuinely divide the sectors. These remain despite Kevin Rudd’s electorally smart but philosophically feeble strategy of "wedge avoidance", and are made no less real by Coalition’s hyperbole about the "politics of envy".

To really put this issue behind us, we have to achieve a level of agreement on some important principles. First, we need a funding scheme that is widely accepted as fair and reasonable.


The notion that a proportion of taxpayer dollars should follow students to the non-government sector has been partly conceded, but uses a funding model that is fatally flawed.  It is a fact that public money in private education leverages additional private investment through fees, and thereby generates additional school infrastructure and adds to the teaching workforce.  The claim of the independent schools that they save the tax-payer money  has some validity. In my local area, which has a high proportion of private school secondary students, I calculated from 2006 Census figures that our local State High School would be over capacity by 826 students if parents used the public system in the same proportion as for the whole of Brisbane. Even though we are further along the road of taxpayer subsidies of private schools than virtually any other OECD country, it can be justified if it maximises total education resources reasonably fairly. To claim, though, that total government expenditure is “biased against the non-government sector”, as stated by the Association of Independent Schools Victoria (AISV) in  the Australian (20.08.07) is a travesty. Having won part of the pie they now appear to want equal portions, while leaving the dishes to the public sector.

How much is a fair subsidy? There are three considerations. First, it has to be at a level that leverages private investment in education in excess of what would be spent without it, (plus the subsidy), or else it is not adding to the total stock of education resources. I don’t know what this figure would be, but I would guess an amount in the order of $2,500 per annum per student.

Second, it should be substantially less than the per capita cost of running the average government school, say 60 per cent. Why? Because if a school is primarily tax-payer funded it should be considered part of the public system. Moreover, if a school's fees exceed the average by too much, an unduly large subsidy simply acts as an incentive to use public funds for underwriting an inflated product.

The third consideration is that an amount should be retained by the public sector that properly accounts for the significant costs of providing education to the most disadvantaged, the most remote, and the most demanding, an obligation that does not fall on at least the selective part of the non-government sector. I would guess this could be in the order of 25-30 per cent of an average per capita cost, equivalent to every third or fourth student.

Overall, the average level of taxpayer subsidy for independent schools quoted by the AISV ($5,559), at about half the $10,715 they report for the average government school place, seems about right with respect to these principles. Why not introduce some certainty into budget planning by fixing the government subsidy at 50 per cent of average indexed government school cost per student, irrespective of school type, accept that it’s a compromise between competing principles, and move on to more pressing issues?

The second crucial question concerns governance. This is a special concern for selective schools. Schools that willingly accept a substantial public subsidy should be governed by a board or council that has more than token representation of the taxpayer's interests. This should not mean education bureaucrats, but interested and qualified local individuals who have no direct stake in the school or its funding – the citizens of "parents and citizens". In fact, reforms to school governance across the board offer one of the most promising avenues to achieve better parity between the sectors and a stimulus to often unresponsive State Education bureaucracies.  School Councils or Boards – public and private - should have the authority to hire and fire school principals, the duty to make public their income and expenditure in some detail, and to approve funding for local initiatives that State Departments often quash.


Thirdly, the divide between the sectors will narrow further if provision is made to stimulate initiatives that can be jointly proposed by voluntary consortia of government and non-government schools. These might typically take the form of experimental or pilot programs – teacher and student exchanges, pooling expertise for specialised subjects, professional development, and so on. They need not be confined to a locality, and could involve metropolitan and regional schools devising cross-sector initiatives. Systems with reasonable autonomy and some leeway for innovation are far more likely to generate outstanding ideas and projects, as well as a few failures, than those that are overly centralised, and to the extent we can encourage new educational thinking that spans the sectors, the more we will serve our students as communities rather than as clusters of citizens with separate allegiances and interests.

A final, and rather different cross-sector development I would advocate is wholesale reform of University education faculties, a redressing of the imbalance that favours curriculum studies over knowledge of disciplines, and a requirement for university education academics to spend time in schools comparable to that of medical school academics who conduct clinical practice in teaching hospitals.  But that’s another matter ….

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About the Author

Dr Charles Worringham is an academic at Queensland University of Technology and an Independent candidate for the federal seat of Ryan. He can be contacted at

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