13 November 2020

How can public funding of rich private schools continue to be justified?

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra Grammar School

Canberra Grammar School: golden schooldays for some. Photo: File.

The news this week that Radford College will soon have a world-class cricket centre as part of a new sports precinct thanks to a $4 million donation must leave public education advocates despairing.

Tech millionaire Greg Boorer, who has four sons enrolled at the school, says his family wanted to lift the standards of sport at the school and encourage students to build resilience.

There is no question that Mr Boorer is entitled to put his hard-earned money wherever he chooses and the motivation is exemplary.

Last year businessman, philanthropist and Canberra Grammar old boy Terry Snow donated $20 million to his former school to fund a 1400-seat underground auditorium as well as a new library and learning centre opening in 2021.

Canberra Grammar's proposed auditorium

An artist’s impression of the new auditorium and library at Canberra Grammar. Image: Canberra Grammar School.

But these sorts of donations highlight an ever-growing divide between public and many private schools and how the latter profit from the largesse of wealthy parents, networks of alumni, and investment portfolios that often exploit their good fortune at being sited in prime property locations.

At the same time, they continue to be the beneficiary of generous government funding which in many ways only tops up their already well-stocked storehouse of riches.

The Gonski education reforms were supposed to realign funding on need and restore some real funding levels to the public sector.

That so-called bipartisan unity ticket disappeared long ago and the Gonski goals have been subverted for political aims.

As if the Liberal Party would ever allow the very schools that nurture it and its constituents to lose some of the funding Gonski’s original recommendations would have meant.

State-of-the-art science laboratories, multi-sports complexes, swimming pools, football and cricket grounds, concert halls and theatres – it is an embarrassment of riches that these schools, many of them church-based, flaunt without a shred of self-consciousness.

READ ALSO Terry Snow donates record-breaking $20 million to Canberra Grammar

This inequity flourishes as public and smaller independent schools struggle with unrealistic budgets and a dearth of resources.

The awful consequence is a self-perpetuating spiral as parents attempt to flee what they see as a public system in decline for a safer world endowed with success.

On the surface the state aid arguments that all parents are taxpayers and all schools deserved to be funded have merit.

But when many of these schools have built-in advantages, are already resource-rich and continue to reap the benefits of their extended communities, is that funding even needed for them to operate?

The counter has been that without government support, fees would increase and lockout more children from the opportunity to have a better education.

But this notion of providing choice has never stood up as fees continue to rise every year and outpace incomes.

These are halls of privilege and have intrinsic value because of it. For many parents, it is the networks and introduction to a world of connections rather than the actual education that matters.

The irony is studies have consistently shown that public school graduates perform better at university than their private school counterparts who struggle without their elaborate support systems.

But this is no argument for the status quo.

Politically, this has always been a thorny issue given the powerful vested interests involved and parental desire to give their children the best they can, but the country is selling itself short by limiting its investment in human capital.

Education has always been a big economic driver and should be a priority for any government, but particularly when it is striving to guide the nation out of recession.

After a year in which we were all supposed to be in it together, the ongoing inequities across our schools rankle.

The integrity of the Gonski process needs to be restored and people need to take another look at how Australia’s schools really operate.

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A benefit of removing public funding from private schools, is that they’d become more expensive and more elite. The cost of public education would also then increase.

The next step (for those opposed to individual choice and in favour of state coercion, and let’s face it, covid shows that is a big constituency) is to advocate for eliminating private education.

Public schools are better resourced than ever, but I’m told standards are declining. A real head scratcher.

Thankfully though, the kids (from both private and public schools) can recite all the boiler-plate climate points, while being unable to recite the “times-table”.


Queanbeyanite5:39 pm 19 Nov 20

Yes, I agree. Government schools should charge means tested fees.

The fees should be invoiced attached to the end of year school report and paid, in person, with a bank cheque, to the school on the Monday before Christmas, direct to the child’s teacher.

It would focus the minds of all participants.

HiddenDragon9:21 pm 13 Nov 20

Much as it would go against the centralist grain to do so, the longer term solution to this problem (and, perhaps, some others) for the Left might, in fact, be to embrace the idea of substantial (if not complete) devolution of funding controls from the federal government to state and territory governments.

With Labor now looking more and more like the natural party of government at the sub-national level (and the opposite at the federal level) there would surely be greater scope to achieve enduring changes to schools funding arrangements if there was less central control.

From ACARA (see https://www.acara.edu.au/reporting/national-report-on-schooling-in-australia/national-report-on-schooling-in-australia-2013/funding-australia-s-schools/an-overview-of-government-funding-of-schools)… “Total government school education funding, on a student per capita basis, was on average $15,703 for the government sector and $8,812 for the non-government sector.”

Capital Retro5:38 pm 13 Nov 20

People sometimes overlook the fact that public school funding includes the building costs of the schools as well as the wages of the teachers and admin people. People who choose to send their children to private schools pay up to $20k a year per child as well as seeing their taxes fund the public system.

I think that teachers in public schools are compelled to be trade union members. That alone would be an incentive for the teachers to get into the private system and excel.

Stephen Saunders2:58 pm 13 Nov 20

Correspondents ought to update their fairy stories. In no sense are church schools “saving money” for federal and state governments.

Cobbold and others have documented that, already, combined fed-state funding for church schools averages close to that for govies. Plus, the church schools keep their unique privileges of uncapped fees, hiring and firing students, and anti-discrimination waivers. Plus, the church schools keep on gaining funding, re govies.

More so than any other OECD country, is written into federal law that church schools are the preferred provider, and the Commonwealth’s iniquitous 80:20 SRS funding rule gives effect to that law. Which all three parties support wholeheartedly.

Until we admit that simple reality, church schools have won, have become the preferred provider, it’s useless even talking about it.

There’s certainly a big difference between wealthy private schools such as Radford and Grammar compared to the catholic private schools in the outer suburbs.

The Kambah school closures of the 2000s and the complete and utter disaster of the replacement super school (plus being denied a place at a Weston Creek Public school) forced our kids over to St Thomas at Kambah.

This private school was far from a wealthy school full of wealthy families. Many of the kids there were also dumped out of the public schools that Mr Barr closed and so hopelessly managed the transition of.

School funding is certainly not a simple case of just Public versus Private.

Another symptom of growing inequality of opportunity in our society, which is a bad thing for society as a whole, because we are not achieving our full potential. BTW Finland doesn’t even have private schools. They seem to be doing OK as a country.

Capital Retro4:15 pm 17 Feb 21

If the Netflix series “Bordertown” is a reflection of how Finland functions, things are really not OK in that country.

liberalsocialist10:26 am 13 Nov 20

Oh dear, the anti-Private School trolling.
If the Government were fair, then EVERY child, in every school, will have a certain amount of funding provided for them. Sure, this would be location dependent, probably with country schools receiving more per student due to lower numbers – but the private kids and public kids in those area’s should all receive the same.
BUT THEY DO NOT, when you look at the combined (which no one does) provision of money from both Federal and State Governments. Private school kids receive less, and this is made up by the parents fee’s. Yes, it means they receive, in total, more – but again, this is the parents providing this additional funding.
So will they provide equal funding for all kids? Heck no – the cost would skyrocket.

Perhaps RiotAct can provide the accurate picture and provide ALL Government funding provided to each kid in Canberra or in NSW – both State and Federal. May make people realise that the Private system is taking a financial burden off the state schools.

Which school system is better at sorting out apostrophes?

How about we end the politics of envy instead?

The government(s) should fund each school equally based on how many children they are educating, with the funding tied to the student rather than the school.

Private schools as they are currently funded save taxpayers significant amounts and should be applauded for their ability to work with less government funding and raise their own through parents and the community freely.

“The irony is studies have consistently shown that public school graduates perform better at university than their private school counterparts who struggle without their elaborate support systems.”

Not really ironic, more a reflection of how private secondary schools are able to lift scholastic results above underlying ability because of their teaching and structures

You know, the schools you are criticising….

Actually, it’s fine that they receive government funding BUT they can’t call themselves ‘private schools’ then. They are semi-government or semi-private. Of course they won’t admit to that because people like to feel that they are advantaging their offspring over the offspring of others. It’s how the class system develops.

liberalsocialist10:29 am 13 Nov 20

Really? That’s your beef with this? That they call themselves Private rather than semi-Private like the rest of the world? I would suggest every adult knows all kids get Government funding. What isn’t clear is the amount – and if that’s going to be put to paper then it needs to include both the State and Federal amounts, not just the Federal or cherry-picking that goes on in this tiresome bashing. But that’s a new one – the name being offensive. Cool.

You didn’t read the post. Nowhere does it say that using the term “private school”. is offensive. Simply that if the school receives government funds on an ongoing basis then we should be honest about it – the school is not “private” as such. It is “semi-government”or semi-private. However many parents would not like to say that their child went to a “semi-private school” doesn’t have the same ring to it. The way we describe things does have meaning.

I don’t think it’s the school’s forcing the word “private” onto the sector, it’s others that do that.

But you’re right, they aren’t truly “private”, they are partly government funded and teach to a government approved curriculum to receive that funding.

Because people might remove their kids from private schools and put them in the public system? Then taxpayers pay anyway.

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