Sharing the luck

How to end social apartheid in Australian schools

8 Comments 28 June 2010

How our schools funding system is hurting students – and what to do about it

by Chris Bonnor

Imagine this letter from a suburban constituent to her local member in 2020:

“I’m writing because I can’t really find a secondary school for my son Jahred in Year 7 next year. The closest school is a church school but we’re not churchgoers. Anyway, we can’t afford fees like that. The closest public school was closed down in 2012. Another was made selective. There is a good school in the next suburb but it became one of those independent public schools a few years ago. They interviewed Jahred but now they say that they can’t cater for his special needs. There is a music academy four suburbs away but he is really better with his hands. Of course there is the comprehensive school near the shops but I don’t want him in with the wrong sort, if you know what I mean. Anyway, he doesn’t mix with many of the kids that go there. They’re not like us. Mum tells me that in her day there were plenty of good schools, and grand-dad grew up in the bush where all kids went to the local school. Everyone now talks about choice – but what choices do I have?”

It would be a sad letter, one which suggests almost a social and academic apartheid, separating the schools depicted. What is really worrying is that many Australians can write a letter like this right now.

Many Australian schools are not obliged to take all comers. Simply by charging fees school enrolments are inevitably sorted along social lines – and devices such as tests, interviews, scholarships and references act as additional discriminators. Selective schools, particularly in New South Wales, contribute to the growing social and academic divisions between one school and another. Even a “comprehensive” public school in a high demand area (that is, a high income area) has some capacity to pick and choose. There are enrolment procedures, rules and zones, but little gets between school principals and the intake of students they desire. In fact almost half our secondary schools have some say over who walks in through the school gate.

The flipside of consumer choice – where schools either actively or passively choose desirable students – is now a big feature of our education system. The end result is that we are seeing unprecedented social, academic and other differences in the enrolment profile of schools.

Fast facts: The widening gap

  • In 1996 there were around 13 low-income for every ten high-income students in our public school playgrounds. Ten years later there were 16 for every ten.1 The opposite trend occurred in private schools. This gap is increasing.

“Catholic schools are not educating most of our poor, especially at the primary level. 72 per cent of Catholic students from families with lowest third of family income attend Government infant/primary schools and only 19 per cent attend Catholic schools. At secondary level 63 per cent of the “poorest” Catholics attend Government secondary schools and 22 per cent attend Catholic secondary schools. Predominantly our schools now cater for the huge Australian middle class, which they helped create.”2

- Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, 28 September 2006

Research and commentary in this area highlights the role played by our increasingly dysfunctional federal system of government; a complex umbrella under which good intentions have been mixed with trade-offs and short term fixes – and the education portfolio attracts more than its fair share of ad hoc decisions and special deals.

Research also refers to the arguably unique way in which Australian private schools are funded from both private and public sources with relatively little government oversight or regulation. These schools compete against each other and also against the public schools which are dependent on state government finances and which, unlike private schools, are usually obliged to enrol all comers. It would be hard to come up with a better formula for generating divides between schools.

But as the letter from Jahred’s mum suggests, the public-private divide is not the whole story. Public education systems have created and cemented their own hierarchies. Selective schools have multiplied in New South Wales. The impact of creating greater autonomy for schools in Victoria has been well-researched.3 The most recent variation to inclusive public schooling is the creation of “Independent Public Schools” in Western Australia – something which has excited both Tony Abbott4 and Julia Gillard.5 In Stephen Lamb’s words:

“the school reforms driving the growing diversity in schools over the last decade have intensified the gaps between schools serving the rich and those serving the poor, gaps marked by growing differences in school size, student intake, resources and achievement.”6

We know and should be concerned about the high cost of low educational performance.7 International comparisons show that selecting children for separate and unequal schooling does not deliver improved learning outcomes for whole systems or countries.8 We also know much more about the social and economic costs and impacts of inequality.9 In the light of this how much confidence can we really have in our divided school system with its long underperforming tail?

Schools policy: the need for a new approach

Since 2007, the Labor government has been working hard to build a more comprehensive and integrated national framework for curriculum, assessment, reporting, teaching and infrastructure. It can point with justified pride to its plans and programs in funding much-needed improvements to school buildings and facilities, targeted funding, teacher quality, school leadership, vocational education and access to university, to name a few. The commitment to equity, especially for Indigenous young people, is especially welcome.

But we can’t continue to bolt even good policy onto a regressive school system. We need to reframe the education debate, while recognising that one third of the nation’s children are enrolled in private schools. Jane Caro and I attempted this in The Stupid Country.10 A number of ‘must read’ analyses have been written by Jack Keating11 and more recently by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow.12 These all show that the way out of our current predicament lies in revisiting how we provide and fund schools.

Fortunately, in 2010, the Government has finally commenced its long awaited Review of Funding for Schooling. In the context of an otherwise conservative reform agenda, only this review gives cause for hope that attention will be turned towards the deep structural and equity problems in Australian schooling.

The Discussion Paper and Draft Terms of Reference for the Review seems to be sounding the right notes. It constantly refers to all students, the need to determine principles, to learn from overseas models and the need for a fairer and more transparent system.13 It even refers to the review being “evidence-based” – an expression which quickly went missing after the initial excitement of the 2007 election. Even the composition of the expert panel leading the review provides grounds for cautious optimism.14 Done properly, the review and reform of schools funding can address the issues discussed in this chapter.

But even the best plans and intentions can be hijacked by commitments and promises to vested interests, which would pre-empt any serious review of this enduring and difficult aspect of the politics of education in Australia. We can only hope that the newly-elected Gillard Government will follow-through with this review, focus on the good principles already announced, and engage the community in debate around these fundamental issues: What sort of public education system do we want in Australia? What sort of society is our current system creating?

Review of school funding: Labor’s principles

“The guiding principle of the review of funding for schooling is that a funding system will support schools to raise the educational standards of all school students whilst reducing achievement gaps between students.

In reviewing school funding arrangements, the Australian Government aspires to an outcome which:

  • results in a fair and simple funding model that supports student attainment and distributes funding to where it is needed most, regardless of sector.
  • builds the strongest possible platform for financially sustainable long-term investment in schooling and improvements in educational outcomes beyond 2012.

Consequently, the Australian Government’s view is that the principles upon which any new model for school funding is developed should be based on simplicity, flexibility, stability, equity, value for money, transparency and best practice.”

Source: ‘Review of Funding for Schooling: Discussion Paper and Draft Terms of Reference’, Commonwealth of Australia 2010

Getting the focus right: Key issues in funding education

There has been an endless – but constantly recycled – debate about the merits or otherwise of public or private schools, and whether students in one system or the other should get more public funding. Media attention also intermittently focuses on the superficial labelling of good and bad schools encouraged by My School. However, the market principles underlying the current system of schools funding, that competition and choice creates quality for all, go unchallenged.

As we begin the second term of a Labor Government it is time to think long term, clarify goals and review policies, to ensure a strong alignment between principles, policies and the wider structural reforms needed to make these policies sustainable and successful. In the process we have to be driven by social justice concerns but also by the fact that greater equity and access to quality schooling, and improved educational outcomes, can deliver dividends in economic growth and competitiveness.

Issue #1: Supporting comprehensive public schools

Long ago Australia established a system of public schools premised on the belief that circumstances of birth, family and community should not determine who succeeds and who struggles. Quality public schools have always been at the centre of the successful Australian story. We need to reverse the long slow march away from a system in which most schools were inclusive, were rooted in their communities and which, in their 100-year heyday, significantly cut across social divides.


The primary focus of the schools funding review must be on the schools that are open and accessible to all. This rests on one core principle: that every family deserves the choice of an excellent public school. Funding principles should reward schools, regardless of sector, which commit to inclusive enrolment practices.

Issue #2: Needs based funding to reduce the gaps

The main idea driving schools policy in Australia is the increasingly discredited belief that it is school competition and choice which creates quality for all.15 We promote this choice mainly by subsidising private schooling. But regardless of the merits of any individual schools, choice remains elusive for most people.

“the competitive use of individual choice, combined with selection and streaming and an increasing concentration of social geography, will stratify the opportunities available to students from different socio-economic backgrounds and undermine the performance of the system as a whole.”16

Tom Bentley, then Director of UK think-tank Demos, now one of Prime Minister Gillard’s top advisors

We are allocating scarce public resources – in many cases well above entitlement – to children whose level of achievement and access to quality learning is already well-supported. We increase the advantages for some while increasing the concentration of lower achieving children in disadvantaged schools. It is simply harder for all children to achieve in these circumstances.


Good policy will identify the real drivers of quality and equitable schooling. It will ensure that public investment in schools allocates teachers and other resources according to the needs of all students for a quality education. It will acknowledge the diversity in school provision but, in common with most OECD countries, will ensure that this does not widen the opportunity and achievement gaps between children and between schools.

Issue #3: Rebuilding confidence with real transparency

The policies and strategies for transparency represented by the My School website don’t really pass close scrutiny. The information provided is not sufficient, accurate or meaningful. It drives invalid comparisons between schools, in turn feeding a poorly-informed language about success and failures, winners and losers.


Schools should always provide as much information as possible to parents and the wider community, information which is validated by independent and frequent school reviews. There are no short cuts in this, least of all the publication of comparative school-by-school tables based on raw student test scores.

Independent appraisal and the development of schools in cooperation with each other, improves quality far more than anything achieved by competition. Schools which are not performing to expectations should be provided with support, but if needed must also make changes to leadership and practice in areas as diverse as classroom teaching and links with their community.

Issue #4: Building social capital

We need to recognise and rebuild the social and civic purpose of inclusive schools. Schools generate and sustain social capital; they are part of the glue which creates viable communities and underpins a healthy democracy. Good policy will encourage the role that inclusive schools play in creating community cohesion, harmony and development. While all schools work hard in civic and social justice programs, the loss of the essential bridging and linking work performed by inclusive local schools reduces the power of all schools to create connections across religious, racial and social class divides.


Public funding must strongly support, as a priority, local schools which are open to all students. Schools which choose, by the use of various discriminators, not to serve all children and families should have a reduced entitlement to such funding. If we can do this we’ll achieve a much better balance between the private benefits schools provide for students and families and the wider public benefits of public funding – and we’ll accrue social and economic dividends from this improved balance.

Issue #5: Effective investment in schools

For years we have been under-investing in early childhood education and under-investing in ‘at risk’ students in disadvantaged schools and communities – while combining public and private funding to over-invest in children whose level of achievement is already high.

Investment in education should provide the best delivery for the dollar, supporting student growth and maximising student achievement. We should better resource those children and families for whom it will make the greatest difference. Good policy will also ensure that investment in schooling is efficient, providing complementary rather than wastefully competing services, as well as providing the resources and services which are proven to be effective.

“No arbitrary obstacles should prevent people from achieving those positions for which their talents fit them and which their values lead them to seek. Not birth, nationality, colour, religion, sex, nor any other irrelevant characteristic should determine the opportunities that are open to a person…”17

- Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman


We need to achieve a pattern of investment in schooling which reflects known evidence, agreed targets and priorities. The huge capital investment in school infrastructure is welcome but it has been rolled out regardless of school size, sector or properly assessed need. Even more important than the much publicised issues of waste and efficiency, it may simply be compounding the equity problem. Even if the claimed benefits of the computer roll-out are realised, the opportunity cost of the “digital education revolution” really needs to be carefully considered.

Issue #6: Individual achievement and retention rates

Australia’s school achievement and retention rates vary considerably over time and from place-to-place, with a persistent level of student disengagement. Our response seems to be to import unproven solutions – such as narrowly focused testing of students and subsequent ranking of schools – from jurisdictions which are less highly regarded and where claims of success are seriously contested. It’s an odd strategy for a country where average student achievement ranks well in the world but where the underachieving tail, well-documented for some time in OECD reports,18 is doggedly resistant to a long parade of quasi-market reforms. 

The retention of students into their late teenage years, supported by the best possible teachers, is crucial to maximising student achievement. This would improve livelihoods for all school leavers and deliver economic dividends which would accrue to the whole nation.19


Good policy will ensure that each school as far as possible will implement curriculum and teaching which caters for and engages all students. Rather than cutting off pathways for kids at the very time they grow and change, siphoning them into selective or trade schools, we must support proven programs which can re-engage those students who might leave school early, including alternative school structures.20

We need a national curriculum that meets the needs of all students, engaging them through to the time they leave.


1. Jack Keating’s National Reform Agenda

A good start for education reform would be the structural initiatives and projects included in Jack Keating’s 2009 proposals for a national reform agenda. Keating refers to curriculum and funding but also talks about the need for reframed goals and purposes, a common regulatory framework and a national quality agency. He calls for a specific focus on early childhood, the middle years and student pathways in the upper secondary years. Professor Keating has more recently added proposals for funding schools to meet the needs identified in his 2009 paper. He expands on the principles against which funding should be measured and considers the most effective means of distributing resources.21

2. Teachers are the key: Connors and McMorrow’s New Directions in School Funding

In their search for a funding model the expert panel should pay close attention to Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrows’ New Directions in School Funding – a Proposed Model.22

In the words of the authors, the directions proposed in their report would:

  • put education back into schools funding
  • provide a more educationally explicit, rational and ethical basis for schools funding
  • establish clear lines of responsibility
  • align government and non-government schools funding
  • make quality teaching the centrepiece of schools funding

In common with others they argue that there is currently no rational link between the amount invested publicly in all our schools and the work we expect of them. What they propose is deceptively simple: teachers are the most significant key to quality learning, so the provision of teachers to schools in Australia must be the mechanism by which governments can achieve quality with equity. Connors and McMorrow show that governments are already providing the costs of teacher salaries and related expenses in Australia. The distribution of this resource means that the teaching workload of schools needs to be assessed. This workload will vary according to the range, intensity and complexity of needs arising from the students they enrol and the vastly differing circumstances in which they operate – something which is at the core of the problems described in this chapter.

Under Connors and McMorrow’s model, schools with similar workloads and resource needs would receive a similar level of teaching resources, regardless of sector. Schools with the greatest gap between their current level of teaching resources and their target standard would receive the greatest level and rate of public funding increase.

Like all models it has to be tested and will need modifications and improvements. But at least they propose a manageable transition to needs-based funding, something we have walked away from over the last 15 years.

If implemented their model will address most of the issues raised in this chapter in a way which may even gain grudging acceptance from the very disparate interests in Australian school education. It will help to create comparable opportunities in all schools and most strongly support those schools which meet an obligation to be inclusive. Only in these ways can we recreate the social and civic purpose of schools and put quality, equity and the learning needs of children at the heart of our school system.


Perhaps the best way to conclude is to again think about Jahred and his mum. Unless things change Jahred’s situation really will epitomise an increasingly regressive framework of schools. He wouldn’t have any choice: he would go to the increasingly marginalised school near the shops. His classmates would be the socio-economically deprived, the strugglers; the only role models within sight will be the teachers trying to do the very best for Jahred against the odds. He may join that persistent and growing tail of underachievers. His country would more or less support him whatever he does – in school, in transition, in some work and even in jail. But Jahred – and the rest of us – would all have lost an opportunity to do something better.

Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt,


  1. Preston, B.  in Bonnor, C. (ed) (2008) ‘The unintended consequences of government policies & the historic power of rent-seekers protecting positional goods’, 2020 School Education Summit – the public good and education of children.
  2. Pell, G. (2006) Keynote address to the National Catholic Education Conference, Sydney. Available online:
  3. Lamb, S. in Teese, R., Lamb, S. and Duru-Bellat, M. (eds) (2007) ‘School Reform and Inequality in Urban Australia – A case of Residualising the Poor’, International Studies in Educational Inequality, Theory and Policy: Volume 3 – Inequality: Educational Theory and Public Policy, Netherlands, Springer.
  4. ABC News (2010) ‘Abbott backs WA school system’. Available online:
  5. World News (2010) ‘Laurie Oakes Today Weekend Interview with Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister’. Available online:
  6. Lamb, S., op. cit.
  7. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2006) ‘The High Cost of Low Educational Performance - The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes’. Available online:,3343,en_32252351_32236191_44417722_1_1_1_1,00.html
  8. McGaw, B. (2007) ‘International benchmarking of Australian schools’, Speech delivered to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority Branch Conference Day, December 10 2007. Available online: For further work on PISA data see Schneeweis, N. and Winter-Ebmer, R. (2005) Peer effects in Austrian schools, Working Paper No. 0502, Department of Economics, Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria, p.2. See also Lamb, S. et. al. (2004) School Performance in Australia: results from analyses of school effectiveness, Centre for Post-compulsory Education and Lifelong Learning, Melbourne, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet. Available online:$file/SHAREDFUTURE040826%20-%20school%20performance%20in%20australia%20FINAL.pdf
  9. The Equality Trust (2010) The Evidence. Available online:
  10. Bonnor, C. and Caro, J. (2007) The Stupid Country, Sydney, UNSW Press.
  11. Keating, J. (2009) A new federalism in Australian education: A proposal for a national reform agenda, the Education Foundation and R.E. Ross Trust. Available online:
  12. Connors, L. and McMorrow, J. (2010) New Directions in Schools Funding, The University of Sydney Faculty of Education and Social Work. Available online:
  13. Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2010) ‘Review of Funding for Schooling’. Available online:
  14. Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2010) ‘Review of Funding for Schooling – Expert Panel’. Available online:
  15. Ravitch, D. in Dillon, S. (2010) ‘Scholar’s School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate’, The New York Times. Available online:
  16. Bentley, T. (2004) A fair go: public value and diversity in education, London, Demos.
  17. Friedman, M. and Friedman, R. (1980) Free to Choose, New York, Harcourt.
  18. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2003) Learning for tomorrow’s world – first results from PISA 2003. Available online:
  19. Rorris, A. in Bonnor, C. (ed) (2008) ‘Investment in Australian Schools Somewhere between the virtuous and the vicious’, 2020 School Education Summit – the public good and the education of children.
  20. For an excellent example of creativity in structuring school learning, see Big Picture Education Australia. In these schools student learning is built around their passions and in tandem with internship in work and mentoring. Available online:
  21. Keating, J. (2010) Resourcing schools in Australia – a proposal for the restructure of public funds, Foundation for Young Australians. Available online:
  22. Connors, L. and McMorrow, J., op. cit.


Chris Bonnor

Your Comments

8 Comments so far

  1. megan says:

    As the world is evolving in so many ways..
    So MUST & WILL what we know as the ‘school system’.

    Schools in the future will find ways of being able to meet each individual child’s needs, regardless of their financial pocket size, or portfolio of documentation to validate themself.

    Until then, many of us will choose to home-educate, because as a parent, it is my job to not just take whatever is given & to shut-up when I don’t like the consequences, but to be pro-active in their development of becoming into balanced, positive, loving, living, caring, conscious human beings, who are fully in-tune with who they are & what they are here on the planet for.. not just existing & ticking boxes for govts and society to say they fit-in and/or are ‘good boys’…

  2. Miriam Lyons says:

    Megan – I can’t wait for Australia to move beyond its current impasse on school funding so that us big-picture policy folks can shift our attention to the need for a real revolution in the culture of school education itself. But there are some people who are getting on with that important job already – for example you might like to check out

  3. Colin Fraser says:

    “Australia to move beyond its current impasse on school funding so that us big-picture policy folks can shift our attention to the need for a real revolution in the culture of school education itself.”

    Never going to happen. The best opportunity was lost by the Rudd Government and with the impending dominance of the conservatives, why would they bother to put money into the public system? After all, that is not where our next generation of leaders will come from. Pure Hobbesean – “Leviathan” Part 2…

  4. megan says:

    love that link mim – thanX!
    i did notice they have some already running in tassie.. hmmm..?? interesting.. bit further away for family relations tho… ;)

  5. Brenton White says:

    The history of the last eight hundred years since Magna Carta has been one of a slow, gradual insistance by the disadvantaged on transferring power from the exclusive few aristocratic families to the community as a whole: Magna Carta itself, equity law, parliament, democracy, end of slavery, universal sufferage, human rights law, consumer rights… public health and public schools. It is simply in defiance of the deep seated recognition of these human rights that the forces of exclusiveness claim their privilege.

  6. Anthony Denahy says:

    god – I nearly cried just then – a combination of joy that Big Picture schools are coming to Australia, and sadness/despair at the lack of intelligent debate in this country (apart from some confoundingly sophisticated analysis of footy stategies and player psychology) – for instance so few comments here. Miriam, I just watched your talk on ABC’s Big Ideas – thanks for your work.
    Anyway, regarding schools – yes, I agree that re-jigging funding must be an important factor, but I think this is a really tricky area. Our eldest son has just started secondary school. We moved to an affluent suburb of Melbourne from a country town so that our children could get a decent education. We are renting – modest three bedroon houses here cost over a million. The thing is – just taking say 25% of current private school funding away and giving it to state schools won’t make a lot of difference to many of those state schools, (generalisations follow ..) because the kids are dammned hard to teach, because the parents are uneducated and don’t support their kids enough in a love of/respect for learning and teachers, because Aussie culture does not encourage the same … So, we are fortunate to be able to afford the rent here – the school is great, and the parents (a large proportion Asian) expect their children to work hard and respect their teachers. How can this be spread around? Just redistributing money won’t do it.

  7. Richard Ure says:

    Have the goals of and tasks for education changed in the intervening 100 years since the state assumed responsibility? Has this resulted in other compromises? Is parental ability to pay or contribute the idea that bear not speak its name?

    The way in which federal money is distributed to schools seems to dominate the education debate. Consequently, until last night’s 4 Corners, that’s where the debate seemed to end.

    If equality is the goal, why not stop federal funding to all schools and let the states take the whole of society responsibility? At least the debate could then proceed on a level playing field.


  1. Chris Bonner: Education’s Social Division | - 07. Dec, 2010

    [...] to private education is creating social and academic apartheid in our schools.  In his article  How to end apartheid in Australian schools”, in our recent book More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now, he argues that education is no [...]

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