What happened to the politicians’ schools?

May 14, 2024
School corridor with lockers. 3d illustration

This year our federal members of parliament will vote on a new National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA). Before voting they might consider what happened to the schools they once attended. Their alma maters reveal what went wrong.

Public interest in where MPs went to school isn’t new and often comes with judgments based on the schools they attended. But there’s more. Did their schooling form their current perspectives on schools and related policies? If they had a dream run through school can they understand those who struggled then … and now? Does their collective school experience create a basis for developing informed policy?

To find some answers this analysis looks at the secondary school background of 120 current federal MPs who reveal where they went to school, a sizeable 50% sample. Their schools can be divided into three ‘SES’ groups, in broad terms by My School’s Index of Community School Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA). For simplicity they can be categorised as low, middle or high ICSEA schools. Click here to find the list of politicians and their schools.

As the list illustrates, 26 MPs once attended the lowest ICSEA schools, all of them public schools. Nineteen of these MPs are ALP elected members. The second group of 42 ‘middle’ ICSEA schools is more diverse, but are predominantly Catholic schools – with some government but not many independent schools. There is a reasonable spread of party affiliations in this middle group. The upper ICSEA group of 50 MP’s schools is dominated by thirty independent schools, even more if the high-fee independent Catholic schools are categorised as independent. Most of the MPs are in the Coalition parties, a dozen are ALP members, and five are ‘Teal’ independents.

That’s just the beginning of the story. It’s also possible to compare 2011 with current data to track how their schools have changed in the last dozen years. 2011 was the year the Gonski Review reported to the Gillard Government. This was the picture twelve years ago:

  • The lowest ICSEA schools enrolled the most disadvantaged students, including in Simon Birmingham’s and Pat Conroy’s schools. On the other hand, there were fewer disadvantaged students in the middle group, including in Stephen Jones’ and Jim Chalmers’ schools … and they were certainly few and far between in the highest ICSEA schools. 
  • Indigenous students made up 7% of enrolments in the groups of lowest ICSEA schools (including Bert Van Manen’ and Kristy McBain’s schools), to 2% in the middle group (Sharon Claydon’s school), and to less than 1% in the highest SES schools.
  • In overall terms, more (but not much more) public funding went to the neediest students. But in total funding, students in both the lowest and middle groups received the same funding, with 50% more to those in the highest SES group. The intention of governments to preference those most in need was (and still is) reversed when school fee income was added to the mix.
  • Funding figures in 2011 reveal hard-to-explain differences between otherwise similar schools. In the lowest ICSEA group the per-student funding of Anne Stanley’s Lurnea High School was 44% higher than Jason Clare’s Canley Vale High School. In the second group Michael McCormack’s Trinity College in Wagga was funded well ahead of Helen Haines’ Trinity College in Colac.

From then to now – what has changed?
The Gonski Review was tasked to fix much of that, and a stronger emphasis on needs-based funding was part of the Gonski solution. The review also reported that concentrating disadvantaged children together was having a negative impact on overall outcomes, in part due to the influence of student peers, an influence even higher than a student’s own SES background.

But the Gonski equity funding solution became a victim of political timidity, compromises and bastardry at a number of levels, while the funding solution itself was never going to be enough to slow the cause of the problem, namely the segregation of student enrolments.

Hence it didn’t happen.

If the lowest ICSEA schools were disadvantaged in 2011 they are even more so now. On average across Australia 25% of enrolled students fall into the least advantaged quarter, but they have risen from 43% to 51% of all enrolled students in this group of schools. Increasing disadvantage can take on a human face in many schools. Notwithstanding the diversity in Indigenous Australia, the lower SES schools now enrol a greater proportion of Indigenous students, markedly so in the former schools of Julie Collins, Bert Van Manen, Kristy McBain, Fiona Phillips, and Senators Tammy Tyrell, Anne Ruston, and Tim Ayres.

Have all these changes impacted on the achievement profile of the schools? While not shown in the table, Year 12 student results in three states reveal a diminishing number of high-end achievers and results in low SES schools.

What about funding? It would be reasonable to assume that public funding has strongly favoured these schools. Combined government funding Since 2011 has increased by an average of 47% in these schools, yet it increased by almost as much (44%) for the more advantaged middle ICSEA group. The money certainly hasn’t sufficiently followed the need.

Many oddities emerge when real dollars going into schools are compared. Madeline King might wonder why the public funding of her Western Australian school has risen by just 19% in a decade, while the similar NSW school of her caucus colleague Jenny McAlister has seen a 52% increase. Keith Pitt’s Queensland school has seen a 39% rise, while public funding of Anne Ruston’s South Australian school rose by 61%. Such differences between similar schools in different states suggest young people are in a ‘state of origin’ lottery when it comes to the resourcing of their schools. 

What about the middle group of schools? These predominantly Catholic schools have fared better. On average, they have retained their previous mix of students. A closer look reveals complexity and contradictions within this group. Senator Fatima Payman’s former school now has many more disadvantaged, and fewer advantaged students, Ian Goodenough’s and Senator Lidia Thorpe’s schools even moreso. Eight schools have grown in size, accumulating more advantaged students. These include the former schools of Patrick Gorman, Andrew Wilkie, Tanya Plibersek, Jim Chalmers, Andrew Wallace, Stephen Jones, and Senators Deborah O’Neill and Raff Ciccone. 

School funding reveals numerous contradictions. There will always be some explanations created by the size and make-up of schools, and where they are located. But oddities remain:

  • Why is each student at Senator Duniam’s Tasmanian school funded at $19,265, against $15,117 the more remote John Paul College in Kalgoorlie (Zaneta Mascarenhas)
  • Why is each student at Michael McCormack’s former Catholic school in Wagga funded $3500 more than each at the Islamic College in Dianella.
  • Why is each student at Susan Templeman’s Strathfield GHS apparently worth $4,000 less than those at De La Salle Cronulla (Tony Sheldon) … or why those at Katy Gallagher’s old school (Canberra College, ICSEA 1091) receive more funding than those at Jason Clare’s old school (Canley Vale HS, ICSEA 932).
  • Why are students at Anthony Albanese’s St Mary’s Cathedral College (ICSEA 1097) publicly funded at the same level as those at Sally Sitou’s Sefton High School (ICSEA 1005). 

In considerable contrast to most others, the schools on top have remained on top, in particular enrolling the most advantaged while managing to avoid most others. Yet their average 40% increase in public funding per student isn’t much less than the middle group (44.2%) and the lowest ICSEA group (46.8%) – and that is before income from other sources is added.

There often seems an odd relationship between their public and total funding:

  • Xavier College, once attended by Bill Shorten and Dan Teehan, saw its public funding grow, but the public funding of Monique Ryan’s and Clare O’Neill’s school (Loreto Madeville Hall) barely shifted.
  • Amanda Rishworth’s and Mark Burnley’s Unley High School (also once attended by Julia Gillard) saw its public funding rise by 41%, but the much higher ICSEA Geelong Grammar, once attended by Richard Marles, saw its public funding rise by 73%.
  • The Scots College (Andrew Hastie) in Sydney appropriately saw little increase in public funding (29%), but its total funding has almost doubled since 2011.  

The real school choice: compound the problems, or search for solutions?

We’ve long known that Australia is dividing up its young people into separate schooling pathways on the basis of family advantage. It has accelerated since the 1980s and is most evident in the lowest ICSEA schools where the most disadvantaged now form one half of enrolments. Families with any choice scramble to avoid these schools. The resulting enrolment segregation, combined with regressive and divisive peer effects on learning, acts as an anchor on overall system capacity and improvement

While some families can distance themselves from the strugglers, it seems that the nation has no such option. Our elected representatives need to see their own school experience in this context. In the process they could push for three essential changes if Australian school education is to achieve the holy grail of both equity and excellence: full equity funding, evidence-based school reform, and the wider structural changes needed to ensure that the first two deliver on their promise.

Dealing with each of these three requires thinking outside the square. Full funding isn’t just about money, it is also about a sustainable fix to our federalism. School reform won’t deliver if it just focuses on classrooms and fails to take a closer look at how schools actually ‘do school’ to engage all of our young people in learning. This is an urgent need best encapsulated in Dean Ashenden’s Unbeaching the Whale, Can Australia’s schooling be reformed? And for an illustration of how authentic reforms can work, our legislators could do worse than visit schools which are doing it right now!

The story of the politicians’ schools suggests that both equity funding and school reform will always fall short if we continue to put the most disadvantaged literally in a ‘class of their own’. Why have other countries either avoided ending up where we are, or are looking for a way out? It is surely time to contemplate .

Key institutions know that our current problems have become too big to ignore. In the words of  Improving outcomes for all the recent review set up to inform the next National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA) “the current system entrenches educational disadvantage and makes it less likely that other reforms will realise Australia’s longstanding ambition of equity and excellence.” In saying this, it built on concerns raised by the Productivity Commission.

Both the Commission and the more recent review have widened the scope of school reform by directly addressing the need to increase socio-economic diversity in school enrolments – and to do it soon, by “reviewing existing policy settings by the end of 2027 and implementing new policy levers to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools and lift student outcomes”.

The impending NSRA is our last chance to get it right. Half a century ago and regardless of their intention, governments created what we have today: a system driven by the self-interest of the most powerful to deliver an ever-increasing hierarchy of schools that seems to endlessly fall short on our expectations. It is a win-lose system that creates advantages for the best resourced families at the expense of others. Efforts to change this have always fallen short, hence the divides continue to play out, from the smallest communities into the corridors of power, including in our federal parliament.

It could change if Australia’s federal politicians are driven, not only by their own school experiences, but by an understanding of what went wrong and a commitment to make it right.


Chris Bonnor is co-author, with Tom Greenwell, of Choice and Fairness published by Australian Learning Lecture. This is a shorter version of a report published in Inside Story

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