A class of their own: segregation in New South Wales schools

There is no such thing as a private education in Australia. According to Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor in their book Waiting for Gonski, In 2011 the ‘government fully covered the costs of the teaching workforce in 95% of all Australian schools’ including non-government schools—which means the money being raked in through exorbitant fees and donations is funding vanity projects to attract a greater percentages percentage of affluent students away from public schools, as opposed to funding the teaching costs of private schools themselves.

Non-government school fees increased by 50 per cent over the last decade and public funding to non-government schools increased five times more than for public schools during the same period under the guise of improving accessibility and choice to poorer students. The funding disparity has led to the exodus of affluent students to non-government and selective schools. In turn, this exodus has created a segregated education system in Australia where poor, First Nations and disabled students are ghettoised into underfunded and unsustainable learning environments.

Money for nothing

On the national scale, this segregation was propelled by the Howard government disconnecting non-government schools funding from their fees. Subsequently, under both Labor and Liberals Gonski promised all those schools would continue to receive increased funding in an attempt to throw some scraps to government schools. However, as Commonwealth government money came in, state governments across Australia cut or froze funding to public schools, but not their non-government counterparts. Greenwell and Bonnor estimate that in two case study schools from the Gonski report, ‘if the 488 students at Trinity had been enrolled in Mulwaree High in 2019, governments would have saved over $1 million (2224 x 488) in that year alone’ because students at Trinity received $2224 per student more in public funding than their local government high school. Private schools cost the public more than government schools and deliver no benefit to the public in terms of educating students that require assistance to succeed within the problematic confines of Australian classrooms.

Selecting the rich

In NSW, the situation is at its starkest. While Victoria has four selective public schools, NSW has forty-eight, with more on the way if election promises are anything to go by. The ongoing marketisation of the sector aims to facilitate competition with the non-government schools and among public schools, in order to fuel innovation and efficiency. What actually happens is that selective schools spend big to attract valuable affluent students with luxury programs while low SES students languish with little support. In partially selective schools, the classes are streamed to ensure none of the dirty plebs get near the rich kids—a practice that in itself invalidates the rationale for bending over backwards to get affluent students there in the first place. In fully selective schools, the situation is even starker. Often when these schools are forced to take on local low SES students, a culture of negligence and refusal to cater for their needs among staff and management kicks in to bully these children out of the selective system, where the peer effect would otherwise alleviate their disadvantage.

When students leave comprehensive schools on sports or disadvantaged scholarships for private or selective schools, there’s a ‘see you in six months’ attitude amongst the schools. After six months of being wheeled out to do welcome to country or languishing at the back of a classroom getting screamed at for the defiance of not being able to read, those low SES students return to their local comprehensive public high schools with full knowledge of the disadvantage they’re coming back to.

The residuals

‘Residualisation’ is a lot more palatable than ghettoisation, and is the term used to refer to the students left behind when the valuable middle- and upper-class students flee to better-funded schools. Each affluent student who leaves is a blow to a local public school. Public education is designed for the middle class and it is easy to catch up a disadvantaged kid’s literacy or provide a stable learning environment for a traumatised student in a class of conscientious middle class students. In a classroom of ‘residuals’ (read: poor, First Nations and disabled) it can be almost impossible with the resources at hand to do the simple task of teaching a kid to read or count. In  schools full of traumatised and disadvantaged students, it is a struggle just maintaining a safe environment for the fourteen year old girl who got out of prison two days ago and the young men who don’t know where they’re sleeping tonight.

There is no coherent argument for Australian education’s funding arrangements. Classrooms isolated from our communities do not give students any tools to reinvent the world. Monocultures do not afford a greater understanding of your own and your peers’ humanity. Public subsidies for luxury facilities are not a pragmatic investment in the future. Australian education is failing by any metric imaginable and it is the deliberate outcome of government funding decisions.

The rising tides sinks all dinghies

The ‘choice in education’ promised by both major parties is the dog whistle for increasing segregation by funding selective and private schools while doing nothing to alleviate the pressure building on comprehensive public schools. If drastic changes are not taken soon, we are liable to go in the direction of the American charter school model, where each student is given a voucher to take to the school of their ‘choice’, or the UK austerity route of bringing in unqualified ‘instructors’ to supplement the teaching workforce at comprehensive public schools where no one wants to teach.

Much of my research into national education funding comes from the work of Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor, who in their sensational book Waiting for Gonski present a far more modest proposal for reform than my own—which would be to burn down every ‘elite’ non-government and selective school. Their suggestion is to fully fund the teaching costs of non-government schools, that are already 95 per cent government funded, in return for obligations like not charging fees and accepting local enrolments. In their words:

If competition and choice could be disconnected from an ability to pay fees. innovation would be less about appearances and resources and more about meeting the needs and improving the outcomes of all students.

It’s mind boggling that the notion of receiving something in return for public funds should be seen as radical, but such is the nonsensical education policy in Australia.

The irony of fate

In the 1976 Soviet rom-com The Irony of Fate, a man called Zhenya catches a plain to Leningrad while drunk, wakes up believing he’s in Moscow and gives a local taxi his Moscow address, only to be taken to an identical street with an identical apartment block to his own. He enters what he assumes is his apartment and eventually falls in love with its irate existing resident.

This scenario calls to mind the public school system across greater Sydney. Every school is a mix of the same concrete buildings and architectural motifs, with a few notable icons left over, like the spots where Binishells once housed hundreds of students ironically clapping to announcements and the ubiquitous blue un-flued heaters leaking brain damaging chemicals into the lungs of teenagers gathered around for warmth. There’s a promise in those buildings that, whatever shithole you grew up in, you deserve a decent education. That’s a promise no state or federal government is willing to back.


Image: Flickr


This article was written by a NSW public teacher.

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  1. There is no way, no way in hell, the smug middle class will allow their special, and precious offspring’s education to be sullied by financial cutbacks to private schools.
    You’ve got more chance of getting a reduction in the defence budget.
    Let’s face it, the old English class system is alive and well in ‘fair go’ Australia.

    1. Here in the UK, private education is publicly opposed by the Left while privately regarded as proof of their own success. Diane Abbott, an avowedly left-wing MP who was a few days ago suspended from the Labour party, was notorious for unashamedly defending her right to privilege her own offspring through private education while the working class of the country has no choice but to use state schools however bad they might be through underfunding.

  2. Elitist selective schools are also a massive equity issue. They, like private schools, should be abolished

  3. “maintaining a safe environment for the fourteen year old girl who got out of prison” seems to be signalling the writer’s credentials. There are hardly any such girls. “There were 818 young people in youth detention on an average night in the June quarter 2022. The vast majority (90%) were male. Most young people (81%) were aged 14–17, at a rate of 5.4 per 10,000 young people.” This contrasts to the adult rate of about 214 per 100,000 adults. Still too many young people in prison, but the prevalence in schools of prison-leavers, particularly female, must be very low.


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