Along with many fellow Australians I was momentarily heartened last year by the United Kingdom’s Labour party announcing that it would scrap elitist private schools in the UK (which are confusingly called “public schools”) if it won the UK election. Had it happened, those UK private schools would have been nationalised, their charitable status removed and their endowments, investments and properties redistributed to the state sector.
I have often called for the defunding of private schools in Australia, but I want to make the distinction between defunding and nationalising. I don’t believe all private schools in Australia should be nationalised. I do believe no private school should receive public funding via governments. Private schools that are unviable without being funded by governments should transition into becoming faith-based public schools, similar to the UK model of faith-based public schools.
UK faith-based public schools
Most faith-based schools in the UK are part of the public system (as they are in most European countries and in Canada). Religious schools (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) are public schools and almost fully funded by the public. They do not charge additional parental fees – and follow the same National Curriculum, enrolment and staffing rules as public schools.
The difference between the UK and Australia
In the UK, private schools are not publicly funded but have tax deductible status and there are far fewer of them than we have here in Australia, currently they educate only around 7% of the UK population. They rely totally on fees raised from parents and donors.
This was also the situation in Australia prior to the 1963 with the beginning of what has been termed State Aid to Catholic schools aimed at bringing their “systemic” or parish school science facilities up to a comparable standard to science facilities in public schools.
So began the long-term process of providing federal benefits to private schools in Australia. At that time some 25% of students were enrolled in private schools in Australia and in 1965 these schools received 25% of all Commonwealth funding.
The morphing of Australia’s school funding into the unsustainable model we have today
Today private schools in Australia receive 75% of all federal funding. We have gone a long way past just bringing poor Catholic parish schools up to public school standards. These days the poor schools across Australia, those needing help, are public schools. Today we don’t just fund Catholic schools, we now fund all religious schools including two Scientology schools with fewer than 50 students, each receiving almost $10,000 per student every year from the public purse. We also fund 31 Exclusive Brethren schools that in many cases get more government funding per student than nearby government schools.
In Germany the “Church” of Scientology is an illegal organisation. In Australia they are a tax-exempt charity. And you might remember Kevin Rudd labelled the Brethren group as “an extremist cult that breaks up families.” But now we gift them more money for their schools than we give to many public schools.
The recent OECD Education at a Glance 2019 shows that Australia is the 4th most privatised country for education. Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education, Australia ranks 4th as the most privatised school education spending in the OECD after Mexico, Columbia and Turkey, with 35% of students attending private schools.
In Australia private schools on average receive about $10K per student from combined government funding on top of the parental fees which can be as much as $35k per student (non-boarding).
According to research by former Productivity Commissioner Trevor Cobbold, real government funding (adjusted for inflation) for public schools between 2009-2017 was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic schools increased by $1420 per student (+18.4%) and $1318 (+20.9%) for so-called Independent schools per student.
Total real income per public student over that time period fell by $58 (-0.5) per student for public schools but increased by $1888 (+17.8%) in Catholic schools and by $2,306 (+15.1%) in Independent schools.
May I remind you most Australians (around 65%) still send their children to public schools.
Value for money spent on private schools?
It is claimed by conservative commentators that private schools are more efficient in their use of money. In 2018 2,558,169 or 65% of Australian students attended public primary and secondary schools. Combined government recurrent (non-capital) expenditure (latest figures 2016-17) averaged $17,531 per student across all states and territories. In the Catholic and Independent schools this figure was $19,302 including $10,664 of public funding per student, the rest being mainly made up of parent fees.
For example, public schools in NSW are operating with less than 70 per cent of the income per student of private schools, with public schools reporting a net yearly income of $13,318 a student compared to the private schools’ income of $20,053 a student.
Given recent research finds that public schools (excluding select entry schools) equal or outperform private schools when socio-economic status is considered, one must ask why does it take so much extra money to educate private school students? Perhaps it is because the decline in Australia’s performance in international tests over the decade is primarily due to falling results in private schools, the falls being similar in both Independent and Catholic schools.
Money matters for disadvantaged schools
Unfortunately, in Australia it seems that most of the additional government spend on education flows to private schools that don’t need this additional money. According to ABC research
- Half of the $22 billion spent on capital projects in Australian schools between 2013 and 2017 was spent in just 10 per cent of schools
- These schools are the country’s richest, ranked by average annual income from all sources (federal and state government funding, fees and other private funding) over the five-year period. They teach fewer than 30 per cent of students
- They also reaped 28 per cent (or $2.4 billion) of the $8.6 billion in capital spending funded by government.
Over the past decade, public funding to private schools has risen nearly twice as fast as public funding to public schools. Recurrent public funding to private schools topped $14 billion in 2017.
What should happen
I believe any private school that charges fees over the agreed Schooling Resource Standard (the SRS is $11,343 for primary and $14,254 for secondary students in 2019) should immediately lose all public funding. Elitist schools across Australia charging over $20,000 in fees do not need public money. They will not lose too many students if they need to raise their fees even higher. Those private schools unable to meet their recurrent costs could voluntarily become public schools, opening enrolment to all students in their local area.
Private schools charging less than the SRS should have their public funding reduced gradually by 10% per annum until it is zero. Again, if these schools cannot meet their financial obligations they could be taken over by the state and become, as in the UK and elsewhere, state-run faith-based schools open to all children in their local area. This would be an actual saving of money for Australian tax payers over time.
Given that Catholic and Independent schools in Australia were subsidised by $14.03 billion in public funding in 2018, should some close and even if 5-10% of their students were to enrol in public schools there would be no problem integrating all these kids into an equitable multicultural diverse public education system. We would then return to the same situation prior to the beginning of the “school choice” phenomenon.
I believe this is what we should be planning because all of the data indicates that what we are doing with school funding in Australia is blatantly unfair and financially unsustainable.
David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier