public schooling in Australia

The creeping commercialisation of public schools

The privatisation of public education is attracting a lot of attention around the world but what is happening within public schooling is falling under the radar. Increases in commercialisation in public schooling, both in Australia and internationally, is attracting less scrutiny. Commercialisation is the creation, marketing and sale of education goods and services to schools by private providers.

With commercialisation private providers work with and within public schools to support schooling processes. They don’t take over the delivery and running of schools in the way privatised school models work, such as low-fee for-profit schools and some Charter schools in the US, Academies in the UK or Free Schools in Sweden.

In the commercialised school, public monies intended for public schooling are being used to fund the operation of commercial businesses. However, the scope of commercial activities in schools remains largely invisible to taxpayers, as commercialisation has crept into schools as a seemingly necessary way to deliver education in the 21st century.

On this point it is worth noting that commercialisation has had a long (and relatively uncontroversial) history in schools, beginning with commercially produced textbooks which have been around since the early 20th century. Similarly, schools have tended to involve the private sector for transportation services, food supply and specialised instruction and facilities. However, since the 1990s many educators have become interested, and concerned, about the scale and scope of commercialisation.

The increasing economy of standardisation

In Australia for example, the creation of a national system of schooling (e.g. the Australian curriculum, NAPLAN, a national funding approach) has helped create an economy of scale that is attractive to businesses who now have the opportunity to become major suppliers to school systems in local education markets. Commercial providers can utilise increasing standardisation to offer ready-made ‘solutions’ to the various education ‘problems’ schools are facing in improving student outcomes at scale – meaning they can develop a product and sell it nationally.

These services complement and supplement basic education facilities often in a context where bureaucratic or central support is being withdrawn. These services include the provision of curriculum content, assessment services, data infrastructures, digital learning, remedial instruction, professional development for staff and school administration support.

It’s not all bad

Not all aspects of schooling have become commercialised. A lot of teachers are doing what they have always done and are going about their business without engaging in commercialisation. However, there are particular services that are considered useful, even necessary for teachers to effectively do their jobs.

Our recent research commissioned by the New South Wales Teachers Federation, the largest teachers’ union in Australia, about the extent of commercialisation in Australian public schooling, surveyed AEU members and found that 40% of the participants suggested resources and curriculum materials that supported their development of innovative learning experiences were important. Indeed, 28% of teachers reported they regularly use commercial lesson plans.

Similarly, many participants argued that ICT and technology solutions including things such as attendance and timetabling software, as well as programs that assist in the recording, summarising and reporting of student assessment were absolutely necessary to purchase from the private sector, particularly because teachers, school leaders and even Education Departments do not have the skills or expertise to develop these services and programs themselves.

But commercial providers should not influence decision-making or de-professionalise our teachers

Those responses that argued for some level of commercialisation in public schools tended to offer a caveat for commercial assistance, suggesting commercial providers should not be able to influence school, state or national decisions about curriculum, pedagogy or assessment.

What teachers and school leaders did express concern about was the idea that increasing commercialisation would lead to an intensification of the de-professionalisation of teaching. For example, some respondents referenced their unease with the outsourcing phenomenon in schools, particularly in Health and Physical Education (HPE). This means that rather than employing a specialist HPE teacher, schools contract an external provider to come in and deliver HPE for them. Often this results in sports coaches rather than teachers delivering these lessons. An associated concern with this shift is that these providers are not 4-year, university trained teachers and far from experts in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Ultimately, this jeopardises the academic value placed on subjects like HPE.

Transferring of costs to parents

Others expressed concern about how the costs of commercial programs were being transferred to parents. For example, one participant observed that at their school parents are asked to pay for their child’s subscription to online learning programs, and if they were unwilling or unable to pay, their child would not be able to use the program while all other students could.

Given our research is exploratory we do not know how common this practice is, but it is certainly cause for concern in the public education system that has historically been considered free and based on principles of social democratic equality.

‘Free’ public schooling in jeopardy

Interestingly, it was this traditional, social democratic view of public education that many teachers argued was being jeopardised by the increasing commercialisation of schooling. 72% of respondents had significant concern that schools were being run like businesses and 68% were significantly concerned about the notion that schools will be increasingly privatised and commercialised, following the path of reform in the US or even in Australia’s own VET education sector. Respondents to the open-ended survey question called on governments and Education Departments to learn from these failed models and implement stricter regulations about the role of commercial providers in schools.

We need to learn more and do more about commercialisation in public schooling

It must be stressed that this survey was intended as an exploratory study. As this is the first research of its kind in Australia, it is important to note that all exploratory studies suffer from limitations, which means that it is not advisable to assume causal conclusions as a result. We are only just beginning to map this phenomenon in Australia and we need further research to understand the affordances of commercialisation, because some commercialisation in schools is inevitable. But we also need to consider at which point commercialisation has detrimental effects on the rationale for public schooling.

It is clear we need a strong and informed system to help regulate commercial activities in public schools and ensure that we are putting student interests before profits.


Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the commercialisation and privatisation of education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the commercialisation of Australian public schooling, global for-profit models of schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and Critical Studies in Education

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

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


Educational researchers unite to challenge inequality in Australian schooling

Educational inequality in Australia is persistent. One in four young Australians are now being left behind according to a recent report from the Mitchell Institute, evidence that school isn’t working for many of our children.

 We have one of the most segregated schooling systems in the world.

A large proportion of students attend private schools while public schools are becoming increasingly residualised. Families who can draw on significant cultural, social and economic capital are able to send their children to private schools with state-of-the-art performing arts and sporting facilities, and a promise of future economic prosperity and social success.

But four out of five children with a disability and 85% of Indigenous students attend public schools. Nearly 600,000 Australian children live in poverty and our public schools are struggling to cater for the majority of them, with limited resources. Former Prime Minister, John Howard, referred to public schools operating as a safety net, and in a sense that is what they are becoming.

The worse thing about all of this is not many Australians seem to notice much or care. As Professor John Smyth, one of Australia’s leading experts in education, said recently, “it is probably no exaggeration to say that we are in the throes of a social epidemic that is going on largely unnoticed and un-debated, and is silently endured by those most affected.”

Yet it needn’t be that way.

Educational researchers form a network to challenge inequalities

Last month, I participated in a three-day research symposium hosted by the Centre for Educational Research and the School of Education at Western Sydney University. The symposium theme was Resisting educational inequality: reframing policy and practice in schools serving vulnerable communities.

Researchers working with disadvantaged communities, including high-poverty, marginalised and disenfranchised learners, came together to share empirical research and engage in critical conversations about understanding and improving educational engagement and success in disadvantaged communities.

The symposium program included papers addressing re-engaging disenfranchised learners, broadening diagnostic frames and understanding how inequalities are reproduced. There were sessions on enhancing engagement in the early years of schooling as well as initial teacher education programs geared towards high poverty schools. Whole school culture and student engagement, accountability systems, and alternative schooling models were also featured in the program.

The wisdom and experience of participants was inspirational. I felt privileged to be part of it all.

One of the outcomes of the symposium was the creation of a network of researchers working with low socioeconomic status and other disadvantaged schools and communities. The idea is to challenge the injustices faced by those who are least advantaged by the system. A clear commitment to social justice and reframing how educational policy and practice might better address the needs of vulnerable young people in education was evident.

Public schooling is the key

A healthy and vibrant public school system is the key to a prosperous and diverse multicultural society that is democratic, inclusive and can provide social, cultural and economic success for all of its citizens.

As the symposium highlighted, we should be talking more about access to a meaningful education and what this might look like for different students. The current focus on quality and choice in Australian schooling is not going to have much impact on the educational opportunities and outcomes for the least advantaged Australians.

As with most educational researchers, I believe the key for improving access and outcomes for all students is to provide greater resourcing for those most disadvantaged. A needs-based school funding model (as recommended by David Gonski) would be a very good start.

It’s time to resist inequality

There is no doubt social justice lies at the heart of any attempt to address inequalities in educational access, opportunities and outcomes. We need to be having long, difficult conversations about what kind of society we wish to be and what kind of educational system will best fit.

While the symposium may only have lasted for three days, I was most heartened by some of the country’s leading educational researchers committing to a more coordinated and dedicated response to resisting educational inequality in Australia.


Riddle copyDr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.

Stewart Ridde is presenting at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week.