Proud to be public: claiming back the essence of public schooling in Australia

By Alan Reid

A large achievement gap between rich and poor blights Australian education – and the gap appears to be widening. Australia is near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of equity in education.

A major cause of the gap is that successive governments have diminished the strength of public education and, in so doing, increased the social stratification of Australian schools.

This trend has major social and economic consequences for all of us. If these are to be addressed, governments need to properly fund public schools. However, adequate funding is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to strengthen public schools. Accompanying the decline in funding to public schools has been a trend to privatise them, which is diluting some of the important features of public education.

I will argue that both the decline in funding and the trend to privatise public schools need to be tackled simultaneously by basing strategies on agreed understandings about the essence of being public.

The neglect of public schooling

The policy neglect of public schools can be traced back to the introduction of systematic federal funding to private schools in the 1970s.

If the public funding of private schools had been organised around a needs-based model as was originally intended by the Whitlam government, it could have ended very differently. But it wasn’t. Starting with the Fraser government, funding policies began to neglect the concept of need and foreground the principle of entitlement.

The entitlement principle resulted in increasing amounts of public money going to private schools, with a consequent expansion of that sector at the expense of public education.

Over time, the total amount of funding from Commonwealth, State and Territory governments closed the gap between the per capita funding of students in the public and private sectors. The most recent MySchool data shows that when like schools are compared in these sectors many private schools are receiving amounts close to that of public schools. Add in the income from fees, and the average per capita income that many private schools have to spend on teaching, resources and facilities exceeds that of public schools, sometimes by a considerable amount.

Increased funding has enabled private schools to enhance their market appeal through such means as improving facilities and creating smaller classes – which in turn attract aspirational parents. It has led to a steady drift of students from the public system almost entirely comprising those from higher SES backgrounds.

The public education system now carries over 80% of all students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Of course this pattern is uneven across the public system which is itself becoming increasingly fragmented with differences between schools in terms of resources and student backgrounds.

The consequences for Australian education 

Such developments have a number of serious consequences for Australian education, including that they widen resource disparities between schools, reduce educational outcomes particularly for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, and diminish the social and cultural mix of schools and thus the capacity of schools to promote social and intercultural understanding.

There is an urgent need to change the current inequitable approach to funding schools so that there is a fairer distribution of funds based on need. In particular, additional public money must be directed to the most disadvantaged schools, most (but not all) of which are in the public system.

Funding is not the only issue for public schools

But funding is not the only issue. Increased funding to private schools has occurred in a policy environment which promotes choice in an education market. In this environment public education has come to be seen by policy makers as a safety net provision for those who cannot afford private education, rather than as a public good.

This is compounded by the call for public schools to win back ‘custom’ by taking on the trappings of private schools. The problem is that those schools which do so, inevitably have to jettison some of the characteristics that are so central to public education.

So, while a fairer funding model is needed to reverse the drift to private schools, it is not enough on its own. A new funding model may reduce disparities in resources between schools and sectors as a whole, but it will do nothing about the creeping privatisation of public education. A strategy is needed to address both these issues simultaneously.

We need to talk about the essence of public schooling

The problem is that public discussion about education is being conducted in the absence of agreed understandings about what constitutes the essence of public education. Without such understandings education policy and practice can actually work to dilute those features of public education which make it such an important part of Australian democracy.

So, an important precursor to changing current policy directions is to refresh the foundation principles upon which our great system of public education has been built. By offering a common language for public discussion, an agreed framework for public education would achieve a number of outcomes.

Why an agreed framework is essential 

First, it would emphasise the individual and public benefits which derive from public education. In so doing it would promote the idea that public education is the schooling system of first choice, rather than a safety net for those who can’t afford private education.

Second, it should provide a powerful public justification for the importance of a well-resourced public education system for Australian society; and would demonstrate the damaging effects of policies which produce large resource disparities between schools.

Third, it would identify those characteristics of public education about which our society can be most proud, and which must not be lost. These could constitute public benchmarks against which to judge many aspects of policy and practice, including what is expected of private schools for receiving public money.

The first step in addressing the drift away from public schools and the associated stratification of the Australian schooling system, lies not in the current trend of making public schools more private, but rather in (re)emphasising their public characteristics. What are the dimensions of public education that must be protected and enhanced?

Three fundamental dimensions of a framework for Australian public education 

In a recent paper for the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA), I argue that there are at least three fundamental dimensions of a framework for public education which must work together – to neglect one of them is to weaken the whole. They are:

    • Public education as a public good. This dimension emphasises public schools as free public resources to which everyone has rights of access and which cannot exclude anyone. The famous principles which have always informed this dimension are free, compulsory and secular – although over time these have been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. These principles are particularly under threat today, and must be protected and promoted if every student is to realise his/her individual potential.


    • Public education for the common good. This dimension involves public schools nurturing the skills, dispositions and understandings of children and young people, not only to develop them as individuals, but also to benefit the wider society. Aspects of education such as teaching and learning, culture, organisation, funding, and governance should be consistent with the aim of promoting the common good in and through education. These aspects look very different when seen through a ‘privatising’ lens.


    • Well-resourced public schools in every community. This dimension assumes that properly resourced public schools are a sine qua non of a democratic society if education is to be available to all on equal terms. Currently Australia has an approach to education funding which tolerates and promotes huge disparities in education resources. It privileges choice for some, at the expense of quality and equity for all. The Gonski review provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to return to the principle of needs-based funding. The fact that the government has effectively rejected the major intent of the review does not mean it was wasted. Future governments may reconsider, and if so would do well to adopt a version of the Gonski model which retains its strengths, and removes weaknesses such as the ‘no losers’ policy which was imposed on the review by the previous government.

Each of these three dimensions needs to be fleshed out through public discussion, resulting in a rich description of what is valued in public education which can then be used as the benchmark against which policies and practices are developed, enacted, and evaluated.

Every community in Australia deserves a high quality public school

Importantly, the framework demonstrates the folly of under-resourcing public education, and treating it as a safety net. It underlines the need for a different starting assumption for public policy: that every local community in Australia must contain well-resourced, socially-mixed, secular public schools which belong to a public system, provide a quality education, and are free and open to all.


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Professor Alan Reid is a Research Professor in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. He recently completed a major paper on the future of public education for the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) which can be accessed HERE


2 thoughts on “Proud to be public: claiming back the essence of public schooling in Australia

  1. Helen Raduntz says:

    In order to ensure a well resourced public education it is imperative that the current ideological obsession with universal privatisation and small government has to be seriously challenged.

  2. Greg Yates says:

    Any notion that one school is ‘better’ than another is a destructive notion which in itself implies societal diversions at root base. The whole notion of education implies opportunity to develop, opportunities to learn new ways, opportunities to change one’s identity if this is desirable. On a trip to Arizona in 1993 I met a teacher from a ‘disadvantaged’ school in which he said his school was the only area in the district free from pathologies such as drugs, etc, and it was where students could learn and develop in a secure and safe context, and become successful people. Where would we be without such places with their dedicated professionals?

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