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A Very Private Education

A government-funded education revolution is long overdue because lately, it seems, any move to improve education has been paid directly out of our post-tax dollars.
Since 1993, the percentage of schools that are government operated has fallen from 75 percent to 71 percent. According to the OECD, in the seven years to 2007, public funding in Australia dropped from 73 percent of total education spending to 69.5 percent. That puts us on a par with the UK and slightly ahead of the US, but below the OECD average of 83 percent. We're a long way behind Scandinavia, where schools are predominantly publicly funded (Finland 98 percent, Sweden 97 percent, Denmark 93 percent).

The last ten years have seen a slight drop in the total number of schools, despite a 230,000 increase in the number of students. We had 165 fewer public schools by 2009, but the gap was scooped up by 107 new private schools. Bigger private schools helped to maintain student to teacher ratios --- they've actually improved in the last decade, although not by much in the public sector. In 2009, there were 12.3 students for every teaching staff in government secondary schools, only a smidgen higher than the 11.7 student ratio in private schools. Teacher ratios have been protected, it seems, because more of us are sending our kids to private schools.

This shift to private education is all well and good, provided you can afford it. In today's BTalk podcast I discuss with Chris Bonnor how this shift is reducing the equality of opportunity for our children, surely one of the fundamental requirements of our education system.

It might be a coincidence, but those states and territories with the highest level of non-government schools (with the exclusion of ACT) have the lowest number of university graduates. Only 18 percent of Victorians and 25 percent of those in NSW have a degree, compared with 42 percent of South Australians and 58 percent of Tasmanians. So for most of us the answer seems to be, if you want your children to get ahead, move interstate.

There is good news. According to the OECD at the age of 21 or 22, almost half of all Australians have graduated. That puts us close to the top of the table (only New Zealand beats us), with those publicly funded Scandinavian countries close behind. In the US, which is behind Australia in the table for public funding of education (66 percent of all spending) the graduation figure is just 36 percent. Surely this isn't a system that Australia wants to mirror.

I couldn't find figures to show what proportion of graduates had a private secondary education, but it's not a brave assumption that it will be higher than for public schools. So our strong private sector is driving more children to tertiary education, but that doesn't mean there's a balance of opportunity for all Australian kids. The Scandinavian system seems to offer equality and success, but at a cost.

More public funding here could help even the balance, but the debate yet to be had is on where that money should go. Should more be spent on middle-class schools where an affordable private alternative might exist, or be diverted to disadvantaged areas where the cost of raising the bar is so much higher? Should private schools get any public funding?

As Chris Bonnor says in today's BTalk podcast the attitude towards education has shifted from being seen as a community good to being a private and positional good. If we continue to accept that as a good thing then we can let the government off the hook and we'll see public spending reduce further. Is that what we really want?

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