The Guardian 3 August, 2005

Private vs public education

The tendency for parents to send their children to private schools has increased. In most states the proportion of students going to public secondary schools has fallen below 60 percent. Only in Darwin is the figure (just) above 70 percent.

The primary reason for the declining popularity of state schools remains their lack of facilities and inadequate funding. Since major state funding of private education commenced in the 1970s, the under-funded public schools can’t offer anything like the facilities, grounds or equipment that some private schools do.

There is another group of schools which are also struggling financially. Many of their students are poor and their fees are relatively low compared with those of the elite church and independent schools. They are the Catholic parish schools.

The Catholic education system is now looking at the concept of incorporation in the public education system.

Already, on the newly developed estate of Caroline Springs on the western fringe of Melbourne, there has been a move in this direction.

Brookside Learning Centre is home to Carolyne Springs College (public), Mobray College (private) and Christ the Priest Catholic Primary School.

They share a common library, multi-media centre, science and visual arts facilities, have a common staffroom and teachers work closely together.

Proponents of this approach argue that it gives parents "greater choice", and students "more opportunities".

This is an approach being pushed by the Education Foundation for a new type of school that blurs the distinctions between public and private.

This raises many issues about funding of student places, ownership of real estate, school policies, how religion would be handled, what values would prevail, the impact it would have on the independence and quality of public education, etc.

The initiative has been supported by Victoria’s Education Foundation, which despite having been described as a strong advocate of public education, endorses the introduction of private funding (e.g. corporate) for public schools.

At such institutions as Brookside, it is proposed that the private and public schools would have a common fee, set at the same level as the voluntary fees applicable at public schools.


There are big catches here, however. Firstly, fees should not be charged for public schools at all, since they’re open to all students and are essentially funded by state taxes. P and C organisations only seek voluntary fees — and reluctantly — in order to rectify shortfalls in government funding.

Secondly, given the common approach applicable for these blended schools, pressure would mount for public school fees to become compulsory, not voluntary. If accepted, this would set a precedent for compulsory "user-pays" fees at all state schools.

They would insist on the public schools increasing their fees to a point where the whole establishment became profitable.

The principles of this arrangement, touted as "egalitarian" by its proponents, would eventually sound the death-knell of public education. Future conservative state governments could argue that since the same requirements applied to both private and public schools in "blended" systems, the public schools were simply unnecessary and could be wound up and/or be taken over by the private schools. As more and more schools became involved in "blending" schemes, the distinctions between state public and private education systems would gradually be removed. It is privatisation by merger.

Although the proposed arrangements speak in terms of private schools agreeing to a set of public education principles, covering such things as curriculum, access and equality, there is no guarantee what these would be. The public education system was based on the principles of quality, free, universal and secular education. This is clearly not what is intended.

Then there is the question of religion and values — something which Education Minister Brendan Nelson and Prime Minister John Howard are pushing. The private-school culture, usually with religion as the institutionalised philosophical outlook, would remain unchanged.

There is a real danger that as private schools gain funding on an equal basis (same dollars per student — possibly a voucher system) as public schools, then it may well be the public system which is incorporated into the private one (including the Catholic system).

The Victorian head of the Australian Education Union, Mary Bluett, commented: "It would tempt them [Howard Government] to say that Catholic and government school education is now the responsibility of the states, and we’ll take care of the independent schools."

The new proposals have aroused strong opposition from teacher and parent groups. Angelo Gavrielatos, Senior Vice-President of the NSW Teachers Federation, stated bluntly that these initiatives would be "completely opposed to the essential principles of public education as free, secular and universal."

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