Sending your kids to private school? Time to think again.

As a marketer, I love think tanks, no really, I do. I love the way they manage to take stuff that is already well known, package it up and release it as news! That’s some damn clever spin right there.

The latest is the earth-shattering information (not) from The Grattan Institute that disadvantage compounds throughout a kid’s life, no matter how much native ability they may start out with. Frankly, duh!

This has been at the centre of the warnings public education advocates like me have been attempting to ram home to policymakers, parents and anyone who will goddamn listen for – oh, I dunno — about 30 years.

When Gough Whitlam first gave recurrent funds to private schools, we warned that we would end up exactly where we have ended up. And that is with one of the most class segregated education systems in the developed world. And class segregated education systems do worse internationally.

“Class segregated education systems do worse internationally.” (Image via iStock)

What did we think was going to happen when we encouraged (via ever more generous subsidies) middle class parents to opt out of the public education system entirely and leave poorer kids to their fate?

When I went to a comprehensive public high school back in the 1970s, they enrolled almost every kid in the community. My peers came from the families of company directors, lawyers, plumbers, what were then called “deserted wives”, and the nearby housing commission.

We didn’t know, we didn’t care — we judged one another on our merits as teenagers. I assume the kids who topped the class (never me, by the way, despite my CEO dad) came from all sorts of backgrounds but I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. Isn’t that great?


Such schools still exist, usually in regional areas where parents have to support the local school or send their kids away, and interestingly those schools do very well. We know (no thanks to the Grattan Institute) that mixed school populations do better. Segregated school populations, particularly along socio-economic lines do worse. The schools that become the sink of disadvantage do the very worst of all.

But it is true, as The Grattan Institute reports, that just as kids do worse when surrounded by disadvantage they do better when surrounded by advantage (again, duh). So, how do we reconcile those two conflicting priorities without damaging some kids for life? Here are just a couple of ideas.

I am on the board of the Public Education Foundation and we give all sorts of scholarships to students in public schools, including to bright kids so they can get extra support, help and opportunities while remaining in their original school as role models.

New South Wales already has one online academically selective school in western Sydney so bright kids can get extra opportunities while also remaining in their local public schools. There should be much more of this.

Kid Public Primary School Feat Fb iStock
(Image via iStock)

What will not help is pooling all the kids who start out behind the eight ball together while parachuting a few lucky ones out. The idea of the “deserving poor” makes me shudder, especially when directed at children. Gonski will also help, and already is in NSW, particularly with disadvantaged kids.


And for those who argue we’ve increased spending on education over the last few decades and seen results go backwards, “throwing money at the problem” doesn’t help. I would say this: we’ve been spending that money in the wrong schools and on the wrong kids.

Public funding to private schools grew by 23 per cent between 2009 and 2013 while public school funding (where all the disadvantaged [read most expensive to educate] kids are) only grew by 12.5 per cent, and that doesn’t even count private school fees.

Data from the 2015 Productivity Commission report shows private schools get on an average $1.2 million more per year from all sources compared to public schools. That should be reversed.

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We can’t keep asking some schools and some teachers to fix the problems of inequality, mental health, substance abuse and generational poverty on their own and then blame them when they can’t — particularly as we currently ask them to do it on the smell of an oily rag.

Frankly, I can’t look at the facilities in some privileged schools and believe they still get millions in taxpayer’s money while schools that do the heavy lifting go without.

As to where you send your kids? I couldn’t care less. If you are middle class and not a lunatic, they’ll probably be fine, whether you decide to “throw money” at them by paying private school fees or send them to the public school up the road. It’s the poor kids I care about – all of them, not just the bright ones — and we are letting them down.