Private Schools vs. Public Schools

September 30, 2021
Editor(s): Melanie Suriarachchi
Writer(s): Laurel Chen, Amy Soodi, Philip Phung

Structural Issues & Resource Allocation

In Australia, primary and secondary levels of education are mandatory for all children aged six to fifteen, depending on the state or territory legislations in which they reside (Study Australia, 2021). Secondary education in particular, remains the most popular route to enter university from (Universities Australia, 2020); with approximately 83.6% of high school students completing VCE/VCAL or an equivalent, suggesting the importance of education is held with high regard within Australian society (ACARA, 2020). Thus, the Australian government continuously seeks to employ educational policies that ensure all students achieve their potential within their schooling life.

Source: The University of Melbourne.

In order to achieve successful and efficient educational policies, the government must utilise funding, a key policy tool, in a way that benefits all Australian children. Australia’s education funding is done at two levels: state government funding, and federal funding, which is also known as Commonwealth funding. In Australia there are three main types of schools: public/government, religious, and independent (Study Australia, 2021). Public schools are those opened by the government and are usually state-run, they are the most common type of school, with over 2.6 million students attending in 2020 (ABS, 2020). As for funding, public schools receive the most of its funding and resources from the state governments, with approximately 90% of the allocated funds for educational institutes going to these schools (ACARA, 2020). However, the federal government’s funding for public schools is approximately only 39%, with the rest to non-government schools (ACARA, 2020). The disparity within the state and federal government fundings exists for mostly historical reasons, which will be elucidated later throughout this article. As a result of being subsidised, mainly by the state government, public school communities enjoy the lowest school fees, and enrolment allocation to these schools are mostly based on the student’s location of residence, albeit some exceptions may apply (Education Victoria, 2021). 

Catholic schools are partially funded by the government, along with private sources, usually annual school fees. However, for a vast majority of these schools, they are funded through a Catholic education institution, which in turn receives its money from private sources, such as donations, and the government (CECV, 2019). Independent schools receive their funding in a similar manner, annual school fees being the principal source. As mentioned previously, the main reason why the federal government continues to spend a large proportion of its education funding on non-government schools dates back to the 20th century and prior: Catholic and independent schools helped to educate many citizens before government funding of schools started in the 1950s (Boyd, 1987). Hence, even in this age, private schools rely on these subsidies to keep school fees as affordable as possible to obtain the largest number of students, but some have claimed that independent schools are receiving money that “[the schools] do not need” (CECV, 2018). 

With that being said, not all schools in each category are equal to one another: the ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational advantage) measures the socio-economic and educational backgrounds of students in schools in Australia (Wilson & Kidson, 2021). This score has a base score of 1000, meaning a school with an ICSEA score of over 1000 implies that school has a higher “educational advantage”. This tool provides valuable insight when comparing schools from the same sector (e.g. public), but in different locations (e.g. inner east Melbourne vs. rural Victoria). The data collected helps the government to allocate a certain amount of capital to the schools which may require it more than others (ACARA, 2020).

However, there is large criticism regarding the funding structures of secondary and primary schools across the country. In 2012, the Gonski Report was published, and along with its later iterations, it suggested that the divide between private and public schools was growing larger, and the divide between schools within high socio-economic areas and lower socio-economic areas was also increasing, amongst other items (Bonner et al., 2021). 

The Gonski Report still remains an extremely controversial topic of debate throughout government and society today owing to its recommendations for the government to implement (Buckingham & Joseph, 2018).

When thinking about the growing gap between government and non-government schools, it is important to remember the many children who are being left behind as a result. When government schools are not being funded enough to afford basic stationary and school supplies, it begs the question of whether federal government funding for education should be redirected from non-government schools, many of whom no longer need subsidies and funding (Carey, 2020).

Life Skills and Benefits: The Gap Between What Private Schools Offer and Government Schools Don’t

One of the main advantages that private schools possess in attracting students is the emphasis they place on the individualisation of every student’s experience (Munro, 2018). Students are provided access to a wide range of extracurricular activities (ECAs), allowing them to explore personal interests and develop valuable skills during their time at school. Participation in ECAs is positively associated with academic achievement, psychological development, as well as social capital accumulation. This means that private school students are likely to have an upper hand in the university application and job finding process compared to their less advantaged government school counterparts, as they have the opportunity to develop qualities that universities and employers seek.

Despite the fact that being involved in ECAs implies a smaller amount of time available for studying, relevant research has shown that participation in these activities has a positive impact on academic performance, even after taking into account background variables (Keenan, 2010). ECAs allow students to build time management skills, establish work ethic, develop self-discipline and improve resilience (Craft, 2012). These are all essential traits when it comes to maintaining good study habits and achieving academic goals, and therefore result in better student performance. In addition, participating in ECAs often means that students are surrounded by supportive peers and adults who are likely to endorse the school culture. This socialising effect increases students’ commitment to school, which is proven to be positively correlated with grades as well as postsecondary aspirations (Keenan, 2010), and therefore, contributes to academic performance. As academic achievement is strongly associated with access to higher education and prestigious academic institutions, having the opportunity to participate in various ECAs means that private school students have an additional advantage in staying in the elite circle.

With an increasing emphasis on the value of soft skills in the job market, the impact of ECAs upon psychological development should not be overlooked. The effects of ECAs include higher self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and employment self-efficacy, which are all sought after personality traits in the job market (Keenan, 2010). Employment self-efficacy, one’s confidence in finding employment, is especially influential in students’ employability outcome. With the experiential-learning opportunities provided in ECAs, students are able to build confidence in their abilities to find quality employment, and therefore are more motivated to take action and likely to be resilient in the face of challenges in the job seeking process (Bouckenooghe & Kanar, 2021). Improved employment self-efficacy also impacts employers’ perception of students, as they appear more confident and have a better understanding of their own weaknesses and strengths during interviews.

ECAs also provide private school students with the opportunity to accumulate social capital.  Although there is a lack of research regarding the direct impact of private school ‘old school tie’ on job finding, networks established for school alumni are still helpful in informing students of available career opportunities (Keenan, 2010). On the other hand, a lack of social capital is associated with risk-taking behaviour, which includes poor attendance at school, smoking, and consumption of illicit drugs (Konde, 2015). This is especially prevalent among students from high-poverty communities, where opportunities for ECAs are not provided, and a sense of belonging at school is not established. 

Overall, the social isolation faced by disadvantaged students, in addition to the differences in academic performance and soft skill development exacerbated by ECAs, demonstrates how the opportunity gap between public and private schools can potentially lead to contrasting future outcomes faced by the students.

Family Social & Economic Status: The Winners of Inequality?

Do Australian children deserve a sub-par standard of education just because their parents do not have the resources to send them to prestigious private schools?

In this section, the role of family income, intergenerational wealth and circumstances will be explored in determining education outcomes for children. To do this, first, the myth of meritocracy will be addressed. This is done to dispel the common argument that leads some people to answer yes to the above question.

There has been increasing public awareness that the education ­­system is a perpetuator of inequality. Traditional perceptions of the public education system have been aspirational in nature; the children of the not-so-well off are presented with an opportunity to increase their social and economic status. Although public schools have the potential to be a mechanism that fosters upward mobility, they are by no means heroes of equal opportunity.  

A school costing $40,000 a year isn’t a luxury every parent can afford. Education has a clear class element – one that is growing in significance. A system that is built to reward the children who happened to be born into high income families is failing a large section of society. This is being done by entrenching inequality and not accounting for the role of parental wealth.

Source: Melbourne Grammar School.

Under The Guise of ‘Merit’, The Motor of Inequality Powers On.

The ruling class are living in an imagined meritocracy. In his book, “The Meritocracy Trap”, Yale University professor, Daniel Markovits criticises the education system which rewards an ever-growing share of society’s riches to an ever-shrinking pool of winners (Markovits, 2019). In a paper for The Atlantic (2019), he writes,

“Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite.”

However, the argument that children’s deservingness is an extension of their parents’ deservingness is flawed. Put simply, a rich child entering a private school for the first time at the age of 5 generally has done nothing different than a child of the same age coming from a middle-income family. Therefore, there is no credible argument that one is more deserving of a quality education than the other. Despite this, children who come from families that cannot afford private education do not get an equal education to children who come from families that can attend these prestigious institutions and therefore, are destined to be disadvantaged in comparison to their privately educated peers. To make matters worse, we know the consequences of disadvantage are not limited to school years – education quality and the relative affluence that accompanies it largely determine life outcomes (Plenty & Mood, 2016). This might be part of the reason behind why we see who the private school consumer demographic is.

Private School: An Expensive Consumer Product For The Rich.

Emma Rowe, a senior academic in Education, put it well, “we are really going back to the industrial era in terms of how much what your parents earn will determine your life pathway” (Ting et al., 2019).

On average, students at Australian private schools are more advantaged than their public school peers. Specifically, the parents of these students tend to be more educated and have higher incomes in comparison to their public school counterparts.

A way of measuring the impact of family social and economic status is through the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment and Science (PISA), a comprehensive and rigorous international assessment of student learning outcomes. The PISA report has consistently been used as evidence to show that once student and school level socio-economic statuses are accounted for, the difference between the results of private school students and government school students is small (Pham, 2018). Such findings suggest that the family you are born into is also a significant driver behind educational outcomes rather than just the school itself.

Source: Education Matters Magazine.

Therefore, the PISA findings are added to the already vast established body of literature (Australian Education Union – Victorian Branch, n.d.) showing that the socioeconomic status of the school and the student are major determinants of education outcomes.

For politicians and policy researchers, this may suggest that any reform that does not acknowledge the importance of family social and economic status will fail.

Ultimately, with the growing divide between public and private schools, the issue at hand remains: how do we ensure that students on both ends of the spectrum attain an equal level of education and support? How do we make certain that sections of society are not left behind? One may argue that indeed, it is not fair that students attending private schools have the opportunity to take part in a multitude of extracurricular activities, however that is the offering private schools provide to distinguish themselves from public schools. The quality of education as well as necessary life skills form the foundation of an exceptional private school education, and whilst public schools may not offer the array of extracurricular activities extended at independent schools, there is no excuse for the quality of education to falter at government schools at a primary and secondary level.


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The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Melanie Suriarachchi
Laurel Chen
Amy Soodi

I'm a Bachelor of Commerce student in my final year majoring in Finance and Management. My key interests are in public policy, regulation and inequality. As a writer at Cainz, I hope to produce pertinent pieces of work that will help people think critically about the pressing issues of our time.

Philip Phung