CHRIS BONNOR. Britain’s private schools in the firing line

Sep 27, 2019

It seems that there is more to UK politics than Brexit: Britain’s Labour conference has passed a motion to effectively abolish private schools and redistribute their students and even their properties to the state sector. Are there implications of such proposals for Australia and what would a similar move cost in this country?

The rhetoric around this is well-known – while enrolling just seven per cent of British students, these schools dominate (stifle?) political, corporate and social life. While being somewhat busy with other things Boris Johnson has costed the proposal at just under $A13 billion each year.

Labour’s proposal in Britain is quite radical. After all, their private schools are almost fully private. Apart from tax breaks and access to teacher training and superannuation, they receive no public funding. That isn’t unusual in the OECD world; most equivalent countries don’t fund private schools. Australia’s funded public/private system is the odd one out in this league. At one level we can’t abolish private schools because we don’t have any – in financial terms all our schools are ‘public’.

But the issues surrounding public/private school differences still resonate here. We have a complex but substantial class system of schools, easily identifiable by the measures of school socio-educational advantage on the My School website. In Australia, just as in the UK, the exclusion created by the charging of fees by some schools, alongside rules about inclusion in others, inevitably creates such a divide. The big difference in Australia is that governments in this country are substantial funders of the private system; governments are active agents in creating the mess we are in.

Boris Johnson’s immediate reference to the cost of abolishing private schools will strike a chord with those in Australia who believe that even subsidising private schools represents a saving to the public purse. In dollar terms the frequent claim is that this amounts to an annual saving of around $7 billion. A few years ago the late Bernie Shepherd and I challenged this assumption, reducing any saving to maybe a billion dollars. But the funding has continued to rise and the ‘saving’ has continued to fall and may not exist at all. Watch this space.

Any serious debate about school funding – and abolishing private schools if that a desirable thing to do – has to put all the rhetoric aside and take a closer look. Where does the claimed annual cost of $A7million to shift all private school kids into government schools in Australia come from?

The most simplistic figures assume that the existing private income for non-government school students would somehow need to be matched by governments. This assumption may contribute to the numbers conjured up by the UK prime minister. Why would governments spend more in this way? We’ve long known that students with similar levels of socio-educational advantage (or more broadly, SES) tend to achieve at similar levels, regardless of school sector. Why should some ‘similar’ students come with a much bigger price tag than others? Why would any UK government need to match the high private spend on students freshly enrolled from the hallowed halls of Harrow or the playing fields of Eton?

The different average spend on students in the three main sectors in Australia creates another source of misleading claims about costs. The average per-student costs in each sector are often compared to show that government schools are somehow costly and inefficient – ignoring the fact that they overwhelmingly enrol the higher cost students, including in higher cost locations.

This means that the notional cost of transferring students from the private to public sector has to be calculated for groups of schools enrolling students with similar backgrounds and costs. But even some local comparisons are revealing. A previous calculation for Goulburn in NSW shows that it would cost governments less in recurrent funding if all the Catholic school students attended local government schools. One significant calculation for all of Australia shows that the marginal cost of having new students in private schools since 1973 has been greater than it would have been if they had enrolled in government schools

Finally, the difference between the status of private schools in Britain and Australia fuels a fascinating scenario for our country. While some Brits might contemplate abolishing their rather ‘elite’ private schools, many Australians would be perfectly happy if equivalent schools in this country just became fully private, ceasing to draw on the public purse at all. To achieve a better framework of schools in Australia we don’t have to embark on ideological campaigns – we just have to design something that makes sense.

Chris Bonnor is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development

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