New school enrolment data show that the long-term shift of students to private schools has stopped in recent years. But, whether it will be sustained is uncertain given school funding trends that massively favour private schools.
Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this month show no change in the share of enrolments between public and private schools over the past three years. Public schools enrolled 65.1 per cent of all students in 2015, the same as in 2013 and 2014. Prior to this, private schools had regularly increased their share since the 1970s.
The figures show different trends in primary and secondary school enrolments. Public primary schools increased their share of enrolments from 68.9 per cent in 2011 to 69.5 per cent in 2015, with small increases each year.
However, the shift to private secondary schools has continued at much the same rate as in previous years, although it did slow markedly in 2015. The public school share fell from 60.3 per cent in 2011 to 59.2 per cent in 2015. The year-on-year growth in private secondary school enrolments has averaged about 0.3-0.4 per cent since 2010, but in 2015 it was 0.2 per cent, the smallest increase since 2009 and 2010.
The shift in primary school enrolments to public schools came largely at the expense of Catholic schools. The share of Catholic school enrolments declined from 19.4 per cent in 2011 to 18.9 per cent in 2015. The Independent school share fell only in 2015, down from 11.8 per cent in 2014 to 11.6 per cent.
The Catholic share of secondary school enrolments fell slightly in 2015 for the first time in decades, from 22.6 to 22.5 per cent. The Independent school enrolment share increased from 17.7 per cent in 2011 to 18.3 per cent in 2015.
While it is important not to read too much into small changes, the figures do suggest a significant change in trend in primary school enrolments. Families now seem to be more inclined to enrol their children in public schools than for many years.
There appear to be a couple of factors behind the change.
One is that there has been a significant slowdown in average weekly earnings growth in the past few years and some families may be finding it harder to pay fees at private schools. Wages growth has been at historically low levels over the past three years – increasing at about 2 per cent a year compared to 3.5-4 per cent in the decade before.
The slowdown in wages growth has probably more affected the ability of Catholic school families to pay fees than those in Independent schools who tend to attract better off families. When families are feeling the pinch, their first option is likely to be reduce expenditure on primary schooling rather than secondary.
The second is that over the past few years there has been increasing awareness in the community that there is little academic advantage in attending private schools. Public schools achieve similar results to private schools for a given socio-economic background of parents. Research findings consistently show that students from a given socio-economic background achieve similar results in public and private schools. Increasing awareness of these findings may be affecting decisions about whether to enrol in private schools.
There can be no certainty that the change in trend will be sustained as the long-term shift to private schools has been fuelled by increasingly skewed government funding. Between 1998-99 and 2013-14, government funding (Commonwealth and state/territory) per private school student, adjusted for inflation increased, by 39 per cent compared with only 17 per cent for public schools.
The situation has been even more dire in recent years. Real government funding for public schools has decreased while funding for private schools continued to increase. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, public school funding per student fell by 3 per cent but private school funding increased by 10 per cent.
Many private schools serving the most privileged sections of Australian society continue to receive large funding increases while many schools serving the most disadvantaged communities have received only small increases and, in some cases, reduced funding.
For example, government funding of Korowa Anglican Girls School in Melbourne, with 83 per cent of students from the highest socio-economic status (SES) quartile and 1 per cent from the lowest quartile, increased by 38 per cent between 2009 and 2013. In contrast, funding for Northern Bay P-12 College in Geelong, with 73 per cent of students from the lowest SES and 1 per cent from the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 18 per cent.
In Sydney, government funding for Ravenswood Girls School, with 85 per cent of students from the highest SES quartile and none from the lowest quartile, increased by 28 per cent while funding for Punchbowl Boys HS, with 63 per cent of students in the lowest SES quartile and only 2 per cent in the highest quartile, had its funding cut by 3 per cent.
Given this, it is a big call to expect that public schools can hold or increase their share of enrolments. Australia has a distorted, incoherent and unfair school funding system in which privilege trumps disadvantage.
The Gonksi plan promised change. However, it was sabotaged by the refusal of the Abbott and Turnbull governments to fund the last two years of the plan when some $7 billion was due to flow to schools, including $5.8 billion to public schools.
At least Labor has given voters a clear choice on education by promising to restore a large part, though not all, of its original commitment made when it was in government. It offers hope that disadvantaged schools and students will finally get some justice and that public schools will be able to reverse the enrolment shift to private schools over the longer term.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools