Stop all government funding for private schools. (Why and how we could do it)

By David Zyngier

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

Study after study indicates that money does really matter in education in disadvantaged communities but not in wealthier ones.

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

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

15 thoughts on “Stop all government funding for private schools. (Why and how we could do it)

  1. Cathy Stone says:

    Thankyou! I love this article. I spent most of my primary school years in the UK attending an Anglican primary school, which was my local state school. It was a very diverse school in terms of its cohort. I am so tired of the inequity in our school system and this article shows how different it could be if we followed this model.

  2. David Zyngier says:

    Thank you, Cathy. Please join the Public Education Network on Facebook!

  3. Terry Beggs says:

    Economics is certainly not your strong subject. The non funded private schools just surviving in poorer suburbs would have to close.
    The state could not cope with the additional students and most people recognise this as fact.

  4. David Perry says:

    Terry, do you know exactly how many public schools are below capacity? How many surplus buildings owned by the state education departments could be brought on line with the extra demand? Until you have this data, you cannot conclusively assert that the state could not cope.

  5. David Zyngier says:

    Please join the Public Education Network on Facebook!

  6. David Zyngier says:

    Terry at the moment these so-called “low fee” schools in “poorer suburbs” are already receiving more public money than the local public primary school. So if they were to close and become public schools it would actually be a net saving to the budget let alone their parents! As I have explained above these schools could continue to be a “religious” school but administered and funded by the state.

  7. Rachel Watley says:

    No mention of the 19060’s Goulburn strike that was the catalyst for increased catholic school funding? Many state schools would not be able to cope with the influx of students from private schools if they were to close, as was the case in Goulburn. It is cheaper for the government to fund them than put the infrastructure in place to accept them in local state schools.

  8. David Perry says:

    The Goulburn Strike was a stunt that only lasted a week. Any longer than that, and the public schools would have found a workable solution that would have turned the Catholic stunt into an own goal – as it is, I have heard it said that many of the Catholic school students liked the public school that they were temporarily sent to and did not want to return to their parish school!

    Bonnor and Shepherd also crunched the numbers and saw that it would cost just 1% more if Goulburn happened today – and that is before you take into account the massive capital costs to the Catholic schools, or the likely savings that would result from the improved economies of scale. Just check out page 29 of Losing The Game Report by Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd.

  9. David Zyngier says:

    Terry that’s an untested hypothesis. There is no evidence to suggest that withdrawal of public funds from parish Catholic schools would mean their closure. The Catholic church is so rich worth over $72B in Australia.
    Secondly these so called poorer schools already receive more govt funding than public schools. It would actually be a saving!

  10. `Dr David Zyngier says:

    Rachel not that old chestnut again! It comes out every time. A storm in a toilet bowl! Read Prof Tony Taylor’s “Class Wars. Money school and power in Australia” (2018) Monash Publishing for a definitive rejection of your argument pages xvii, xix,xx, 1-3

  11. David Smith says:

    David – you neglect to explain that whilst Federal support provides most of the independent school funding, State governments fund the State schools. The bigger capital city private schools could survive without the funding as it is a much smaller proportion of their overall income but regional and growth area independent schools would not survive under your plan.

  12. David Zyngier says:

    David if independent schools (private) can’t survive on their own funding why should they be entitled to public support? Can you point to me the section in the Constitution that states that the Federal government is responsible for funding private schools? Of course, you can’t. Because in 1901-1963 all non-government schools were privately funded.

  13. There is nothing new about the current situation. But Australia refuses to learn from its own history. Back in the nineteenth century, as early as 1844 a Commission of enquiry realised that the result of a denominational system was to separate the children, providing some with an inadequate sectarian education while leaving the majority uneducated. That is why we had a State system introduced ( the old Irish National system) in 1848. Finally, in the second half of the nineteenth century our forefathers, in their wisdom, withdrew funding from the divisive, sectarian system.
    Our tragedy is that it was started again in 1964-69, and was exacerbated by the much rorted ‘Needs” policy in 1973. ‘Needs’ have long since become ‘Greeds’.

    We lost our chance in the 1960s. And, by the way, the Goulburn strike story has a lot of mythologising in it. There is another narrative – if you were there.
    The State schools in Goulburn did manage to enrol the Catholic children and the strike ended because a lot of the children didn’t want to go back to their old schools.

    DOGS predicted the current situation in 1964.

    But, so powerful is the private school lobby in Australia now – funded by our taxes – that, in spite of a great deal of highly questionable activity on the part of their administrators and teachers, they are rewarded with further billions…and Australia falls behind in the international stakes.

    Jean Ely

  14. David Perry says:

    More strength to your hand, Jean, and to the DOGS for that matter.

  15. David Zyngier says:

    Jean that is a great comment. Please join the Public Education Network on Facebook!

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