In Defense of Public Education

Speech to a Dinner for Public Education Day
Canberra, 19th May 2005
Clive Hamilton

It’s a tough time for public schools in Australia. The consensus that once joined all parties in strong support for the public system has broken down with conservatives on the war-path against public schools and what they stand for.

Like most people here, we at the Australia Institute were appalled at the Prime Minister’s cynical and destructive attack on public schools for being “values neutral”. It’s part of a two-pronged ideological war. Howard and his fellow conservatives want to privatize everything; they’d issue education vouchers if they thought they could get away with it.

Instead they shovel money to private schools and bray endlessly about promoting choice. Why the tax payer should subsidise the private choices of others is a mystery to me. You don’t get a massive public subsidy when you decide to buy a Mercedes rather than catch the bus.

When I want to know what the Federal Government is up to I go back to the report commissioned by Peter Costello within weeks of taking office in 1996. The National Commission of Audit was prepared by Professor Bob Officer with the help of four business types. Officer was Jeff Kennett’s most hard-line adviser. You might remember that when the report came out it set out such a radical neo-liberal agenda that the Treasurer felt he had to run a mile from it. But no-one was fooled.

The report’s starting point for schools was the following:

“The providers of education, in various organizational guises, appear to have gathered influence at the expense of the consumers − students, parents and industry.”

Industry! You can see that the agenda is quite clearly what it is everywhere else: turn education into a product that is bought and sold in the marketplace. The National Commission of Audit recommended the abolition of all Commonwealth operating grants to universities and TAFEs and replacement with scholarships to individual students, i.e. education vouchers.

The new conservatives hate the ethos of the public school system. Although they publicly endorse the goals of tolerance and a fair go, the reality is that they believe that everyone should perform according to their ‘merits’. They are actively hostile to the idea of equality, even equality of opportunity.

Howard’s attack on public schools received support from the President of the Australian Anglican Schools Network, the rebarbative principal of St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Phillip Heath:

“People are confused about what state schools actually stand for, and their requirement of accepting everybody for every reason.”

Mr Heath cannot understand why any school should be required to accept anyone who turns up at the door. But hang on. Wasn’t it Jesus Christ who said Christians have a duty to open their doors to those in need? Apparently not at St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Here is the greatest irony of the school system. The schools that do more than any other institution in Australia to promote and entrench inequality, elitism, snobbery and social exclusion are the expensive Christian schools. The humbler members of the clergy are acutely embarrassed by this fact. Others, the arrogant ones, see it as part of the natural order.

Last year, the head of the prep school at King’s attacked what he called the “apologists for the State sector” (which would include everyone in this room) for defending the values of public schools. He magnanimously declared that he will not “arrogantly proclaim that King’s … has a monopoly on values”. That’s a relief to all of us.

As an example of King’s values in action, he extolled the ‘compassion’ shown by the King’s community when one of their number died. He was moved because some of his students cried at the funeral, as if compassion were the preserve of those rich enough to go to schools like King’s, and alien to those rough brutes down the road at the public school.

The tragedy is that public support for the public school system has been eroded by two decades of neo-liberalism, the loss of civic culture and the spread of market values. One of the few laudable things Labor has promised in recent times was the plan to redistribute Commonwealth funds so that poorer private schools receive more support at the expense of the elite ones.

Although the elite schools squealed, they didn’t squeal half as much as one might expect. Large dollops of public funding don’t encourage elite schools to cut their fees to make them more accessible. In fact, fees at elite private schools have been growing much faster than inflation. Increases in Commonwealth funding have been spent on more lavish facilities.

High fees are actually their greatest selling point because they reinforce their exclusivity, and that is exactly what the schools want. They actively restrict choice.

The last thing the parents of children at elite private schools want is for their schools to become affordable to the hoi-polloi. Parents are willing to pay a great deal for the snob value of sending their children to elite schools. It makes no sense to talk about making elite schools accessible to ordinary Australians. One thing’s for sure: there’s no way they would want to let Howard’s battlers through the gates.

Exclusive private schooling is what economists call a ‘positional good’, something that becomes more desirable as its price rises. People are willing to spend large amounts of money on positional goods, such as exclusive private schools and Rolex watches, because they demonstrate the superior social position of their owners.

They won’t admit that parents send their kids to elite schools for their snob value; but most people understand what’s going on. According to a Newspoll survey conducted for The Australia Institute, 58 per cent of Australians believe that elite private schools promote snobbery in Australia.


Mr Howard is getting his wish of turning education into a marketable commodity. Richard Denniss at the Australia Institute did some calculations a year ago working out how parents whose aim is to maximize their children’s employability can best spend their education dollar.

Rather than spending the $15,000 a year to send their children to expensive private schools, which would boost their tertiary entrance rank by 5-6 points, they’d be much better off investing the money saved while their kids are at public schools, and then buying their way into university with a full-fee paying degree. It turns out to be quite a lot cheaper, even more so if the student can convert to a HECS funded place half-way through.

You might have seen the report a couple of weeks ago that showed that kids from public schools perform better than those from elite private schools when they get to university. Because kids at elite private schools are spoon fed, crammed, coached and pressured in order to bump up their HSC marks, many of them struggle at university.

Public school kids who have got into uni by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps are much better equipped to perform well in self-directed study, without the extra tutors, the highly paid teachers cherry picked from the public system, and the ambitious parents cracking the whip every night.

How Howard and his right-wing barrackers in the Murdoch press must seethe when they read reports like that. (Incidentally you might have noticed that the Australian appointed the CIS’s resident right-wing education expert, Jennifer Buckingham, to edit its schools section. No pretence at balance.)

The problem is of course that quite a cohort of public school kids who do not quite get the marks to make it into their course of choice are bumped off the list by private school kids who have benefited from six or more years of performance-enhancing study programs. Yet public school students who don’t quite make it over the line are more likely to excel at uni than those private school kids who just get over the hurdle mark.

This is profoundly unfair (as well as being a serious waste of educational resources). In fact, I believe universities should discount by 5 points the entrance marks of students from elite private schools to compensate for the short-lived mark-inflating boost they get for their $15,000 a year.


The values upheld by the “values-neutral” public school system include tolerance of diversity and rejection of discrimination against students on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality.

Few people seem to be aware of the broad range of exemptions from anti-discrimination laws enjoyed by private schools. Private schools in NSW can exclude or expel boys and girls because they are gay and girls because they are pregnant.

In response, private schools say that while such exemptions do exist, they don’t use them and therefore there is no need to remove them. Apart from the absurdity of the claim that keeping a bad law that nobody uses is good public policy, this argument collapses when high profile advocates of religious education such as Cardinal Pell speak out in support of the ‘right’ of private schools to discriminate against kids who discover they are gay.

Cardinal Pell is out of step with the great majority of Australian Christians who, according to our survey, do not believe that private schools should have the right to penalise and traumatise kids on the basis of their sexuality. Homophobia is not one of the values most parents seek from a private school education. Perhaps we should expel Pell.

In 2002, a former student of Hillcrest Christian College in Victoria sued the school for discriminating against him because he was gay. The student alleged that the Principal told him that ‘I shouldn’t be admitting it, I shouldn’t be proud of it, and that’s the last he wanted to hear about it’. He also said that a second teacher told him that he ‘had the devil in him’.

The Principal of Hillcrest denied the allegations, and said: “We don’t talk about [gay students] being defective, we talk about sin and disobeying God” and he “stands by the motto ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’”. Of course, by teaching teenagers that homosexuality is a sin, schools are perpetuating homophobic attitudes, which may result in students being vilified, and even attacked, on the basis of their sexuality.

Yet the public subsidises schools that teach these attitudes, without any accountability.

It’s always been accepted that organisations must be accountable for the public funds they receive; and private schools should be made accountable for the values they teach.

While the private school sector, in all of its diversity, promotes some of these public values some of the time, some private schools fail to uphold them. The receipt of government funding should be contingent on upholding them.

It is perhaps for these reasons that a majority of Australians do not believe governments should be facilitating the growth of private schools. In the Newspoll survey commissioned by my Institute, only one third of respondents agreed with the statement that policies to increase the percentage of children going to private schools would be good for Australia.

Even among parents who send their children to private schools, there is considerable doubt about the social value of promoting the sector, with less than half believing the promotion of private schools to be good for Australia.


As part of our research we investigated the role of school building funds for private schools. Donations to them are tax deductible. Some of the elite schools raise huge amounts of money which goes to fund state of the art gyms, swimming pools, conservatoriums and so on. Half of this comes from tax breaks, and thus the public purse, amounting to millions of dollars a year that are never added to the direct grants from government.

So in 2003 Scotch College received $2.6 million from Commonwealth grants. But in just two years the school raised $7 million in donations for a state-of-the-art centre for music and drama. Australian tax payers contributed $3.4 million of this $7 million through tax breaks.

A couple of years ago Shore, the most expensive private school in Australia, launched an appeal for $2 million to upgrade its sporting facilities. It already has several top-quality ovals and recruited the head ground-keeper from the SCG to maintain them. Parents and Old Boys are asked to ‘sponsor a picket’ in the white picket fence surrounding the oval. For $500 a picket you get a little plaque on a picket acknowledging your donation.

We found widespread rorting of school building funds, with some schools requiring parents to make the ‘voluntary’ donation, which is unlawful for tax deductible donations. At some elite schools you can bounce your child up the waiting list by making a large donation. Of course the parents claim a tax deduction; but this too is unlawful as they are receiving a return so it is not a donation.

When our report appeared in the papers several of them quickly changed their websites. We dobbed several of them in to the Tax Commissioner and in due course received a very nice reply saying that the Tax Office would be going after those schools that were rorting the system.


This gives you a taste of what our research into the moral values of some private schools revealed. So when the Prime Minister says parents send their kids to private schools because they want their children to learn good moral values, and that public schools are “values neutral”, I say:

Tell that to the boy at a Christian school who discovered he was gay and was told by a teacher he had the devil in him and by the headmaster that he is a sinner.

Tell that to the little girl in a wheelchair who was refused entry into an elite Sydney school because it would cost too much to put in ramps.

Tell that to the girl at the oh-so-pucka Tara School in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs who was raped in Italy on a school excursion and was flown home humiliated and whom the school refused to support.

Tell that to the boys at Trinity Grammar in Sydney who had wooden truncheon shoved up their anuses and then saw the whole thing swept under the carpet by the Sydney establishment. “Unfortunate incident. Just a bad apple. Wouldn’t want to hurt the reputation of a great school.”


I’m told that at this event last year Phillip Adams called the Prime Minister an arse-hole. Mr Howard seems to attract scatological epithets. In his book of a few months ago, Mungo MacCallum referred to him as “the unflushable turd”.

The combination of Mungo MacCallum and turds took me back to the great days of the Nation Review, that wonderful newspaper of the Whitlam era that combined quality journalism, fearlessness and an anti-establishment edge. It would often carry stories that the other papers refused or would report coyly.

I remember one such story. In 1976 US Agriculture Secretary, Earl Butz was asked on a plane what black voters want. He said all that black voters wanted was “loose shoes, tight pussy and a warm place to shit”. Unfortunately for Butz, he was overheard by Pat Boon, the squeaky-clean Christian crooner.

None of the mainstream newspapers reported Butz’s words verbatim, they were regarded as too offensive, but the National Review did. When President Ford was forced to sack his Agriculture Secretary a couple of weeks later it was important enough to be reported on ABC TV News. But how to tell the viewers the reason for his dismissal?

James Dibble, the iconic ABC newsreader who in his forties still lived with his mother, was reading the news. He told the nation that Secretary Butz had been sacked for saying that all black voters want was “loose shoes, good sexual relations and adequate toilet facilities”.

Some viewers must have wondered why saying black voters wanted adequate toilet facilities was a sackable offence, but we Nation Review readers were sniggering away in our lounge rooms.

While it is frustrating and unpleasant for a while, sooner or later the unflushable turd gets flushed away. And I hope that there will not be too many more Public Education Days before we can celebrate the return of a pure white toilet bowl.




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