My son’s primary school didn’t have much in the way of fancy facilities, but it always struck me as a happy place. It was easy to ignore the fact there was never soap in the toilets, or that the ancient prep readers were held together by sticky-tape, because the enthusiasm of the teachers made up for it. At least it did until chronic overcrowding finally started to bite, and the school’s lack of resources became a lot harder to laugh off.
First, the library was turned into a classroom. Resourceful teachers responded by creating a travelling library that brought the books to the kids, yet it was hard not to mourn the loss of that wonderful space. Shortly afterwards, desks were removed from classrooms, as the school embraced an “open-plan” learning approach. Again, staff tried to accentuate the positives, but the truth was impossible to avoid. An open-plan approach was necessary because there was simply not enough room for every child to be properly seated.
The low point arrived when desks were placed in the corridor that connected the prep classrooms. The school had never numbered its rooms, instead giving them fun, child-friendly names. In keeping with this tradition, the corridor was optimistically renamed the ‘Learning Laneway’. Soon, parents started coming up with their own names for the overstuffed classrooms. ‘The Sardine Can’. ‘The Broom Closet’.
Meanwhile, just down the road, a sparkling new private school was opening. A school that took out expensive newspaper advertisements featuring pictures of smiling children in neatly pressed uniforms. Flyers were left in our letterboxes too, promising educational excellence, smaller class sizes and state-of-the-art facilities.
It became clear that this was a government not just tolerating glaring educational inequities, but actively promoting them.
What I witnessed at my son’s school isn’t unique – and was in no way the fault of the staff, who did a brilliant job under challenging circumstances. The blame, and the shame, belongs entirely to our federal government. As they starve our public education sector of funding, they are funnelling obscene sums into the private system. Clearly, this is a government not just tolerating glaring educational inequities, but actively promoting them.
As a result, the OECD reports that our nation’s school system is now one of the most segregated in the world. Back in 2012, the historic Gonski Report revealed that the achievement gap between children from high versus low socioeconomic backgrounds could be the equivalent of three years of schooling. With current funding disparities, that gap between our most privileged and most disadvantaged, especially Indigenous students, will only widen.
Last year, an Age investigation revealed that Australia’s most prestigious private schools are collectively worth $8.5 billion dollars. And they’re getting richer. Between 2015 and 2019, these schools “accumulated assets at a greater rate than the property market or the stock exchange”.
So, where did such astonishing wealth come from? “Rising school fees, alumni donations, a building boom, surging stock-market returns”. Oh, and “taxpayer assistance”. That’s our money, being handed to private institutions that already boast world-class Olympic swimming pools, state-of-the-art concert halls and cafes with on-site baristas. Meanwhile, teachers at my local state primary were squeezing little desks into a corridor so the five-year-olds would have somewhere to sit while they decipher their crumbling readers.
Just last year, the Morrison government handed a further $1.9 billion to private and Catholic schools in a special deal for capital works. (Why settle for one Olympic swimming pool when you can have two?) By contrast, our federal government does not spend a single cent on maintenance and infrastructure for Australia’s public schools.
In its 2022 pre-election budget, the Morrison government has slashed funding for public schools by $559 million, while funding for private schools has increased by $2.6 billion over the forward estimates. Our government does not even meet the agreed benchmark per-student funding – the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) – which, if allowed to continue on this current trajectory, would leave our public school sector underfunded by an estimated $60 billion by 2029.
This neglect is not restricted to the primary and secondary sectors. Indeed, we have seen the Morrison government wage a sustained war on public education at every level.
Australia is one of the only countries in the world that not only fails to adequately fund its public education sector, but also diverts huge sums of public money into private and religious schools.
At one end, the Morrison government refuses to fund three-year-old kindergarten, despite the widely recognised benefits of early years education – not only for our youngest learners, but also to help support women’s participation in the workforce. At the other end, we have seen the flagrant denigration of TAFE and the gutting of our universities.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this government fancies an under-educated population, and that its approach to education is focused on nurturing no-one but the elite few destined to join its ranks.
The putrid icing on this inequity cake is that the money we throw at private and independent schools brings no commensurate obligation for them to uphold basic standards of non-discrimination and equity of access. Which explains why Citipointe Christian College in Queensland was able to make homophobic and transphobic statements to its school community earlier this year without any fear of losing government support.
Since the 1980s, most developed countries have felt the influence of neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on personal responsibility at the expense of the collective good. In many places, this has led to governments giving less support to public institutions.
Yet, Australia is one of the only countries in the world that not only fails to adequately fund its public education sector, but also diverts huge sums of public money into private and religious schools. Even the class-riven UK does not publicly fund the private sector. If parents want to send their child to an elite institution with Olympic swimming pools, well-manicured lawns and cold-brew espresso, so be it – but they must pay for this privilege themselves.
How is it that we, as a society, have come to accept such a grossly unjust system?
How is it that we, as a society, have come to accept such a grossly unjust system? Most people of good conscience will give up a privilege if they can see that it is undeserved – and that surrendering it will serve the collective good. But, unfortunately, even the best of us become notably partisan when it comes to our children – and this is reflected in the debate around private school funding.
It appears that we have reached a kind of critical mass – in that so many progressively minded people, particularly those with a loud public voice, are now sending their kids to private schools. Having made that decision, they fall silent, or become defensive, rather than acknowledging that their kids are benefiting from a system that wilfully leaves other children behind. A result that will, in the long run, leave us all poorer.
There seems no other plausible explanation for this but that growing numbers of Australians who, despite being strong advocates for the value of public education, have lost faith in their national government’s willingness to support it. As a result, they are inadvertently propping up the conservative agenda, which has – by exploiting parents’ concerns – found the sneakiest possible way of enacting privatisation by stealth.
We are a population that loves to extol our egalitarian ideals. In tolerating and even embracing our government’s neglect of public education, we are abrogating one of the most basic of collective responsibilities: the responsibility to ensure that all children – not just our own – have the chance to realise their full potential, no matter the circumstances of their birth.
Isn’t it time we demanded a return to a federal leadership that champions this fundamental public good, instead of pumping public money into the private sector so it can add a platinum coating to its already gold‑plated facilities?