It’s just not cricket: rich kids win at the expense of everyone else

The opening on Friday of Radford College’s multi-million dollar cricket facility—described as ‘better than Lords’—draws attention to the fundamental unfairness of our education system.

Elite private schools are engaged in a kind of arms race to build the most lavish facilities for their already privileged pupils, which not only highlights the growing gap with public schools but inflicts a moral injury on all those families that cannot afford to pay Radford’s $21,000 a year for senior students or Canberra Grammar’s $30,000. ‘Can’t afford’ or who are committed to public education.

It’s not only a moral injury: when an elite private school announces a new and luxurious swimming centre or concert hall it’s typically because of a large donation by an old boy. The donation is tax-deductible, which means the ordinary tax payer is shelling out around half of the cost of further pampering already privileged children.

In my recent book, The Privileged Few, co-authored with Myra Hamilton, we point out how Australia is becoming an increasing divided and stratified society with success determined more and more by inherited advantage rather than merit, contrary to our comfortable belief that anyone can make it.

‘Success’ is not confined to the professions, the law, business and honours; the encroachment of privilege into sport has been particularly evident in recent times. In England, private schools accounting for around seven per cent of high school students supplied 40 per cent of England’s test match batters born between 1986 and 1999. In an echo of the traditional division between upper-class batsmen and working-class bowlers, the private schools supplied ‘only’ 31 per cent of test match bowlers. Both of these percentages had risen sharply compared to the previous two decades.

Australians might think these data reflect the English class system, but the growing private school lock on top-class sport is happening in Australia too, where high-quality coaching and top-class facilities are precisely what elite schools like Radford and Grammar provide. After a sharp increase in the 1990s, the share of privately educated players in our Ashes teams has been hovering around 45 per cent, disproportionately from the most expensive schools.

If top-class players are made by intensive coaching as teenagers, this is not surprising when we see the luxuriant sporting facilities at schools like Wesley College in Melbourne and The Kings School in Parramatta, which boasts of its 17 sporting fields. And now Radford. Canberra Grammar—with its lush sports grounds, indoor heated pool and ‘state-of-the art performing  arts centre’—is even more of a monument to privilege in Canberra.

It’s true that around 40 per cent of high school students in Australia are enrolled in private schools. However, there is a very wide gap in fees, facilities and prestige from the lowest (mostly in the Catholic system) to the highest, the few dozen mostly non-evangelical Protestant schools that educate the sons and daughters of Australia’s elites, passing on to them the social connections and ‘cultural capital’ that confer a much higher chance of attaining wealth, influence and power later in life.

It’s not only cricket. Elite schools have come to dominate the top ranks of Australian Rules football, once seen as the sporting code that crossed all class barriers. Victoria’s eleven APS schools (accounting for around 0.2 per cent of all high schools in Victoria) provide around a quarter of players drafted into AFL clubs each year. In 2019, Caulfield Grammar alone was the source of nineteen AFL players in the league and Haileybury twenty players.

In addition to the opulent facilities and coaches drawn from the ranks of celebrated former players, one of the key factors has been the decision from around 2000 to aggressively recruit talented teenagers from state schools and put them on scholarships. Using the talents of working-class kids to enhance the reputation of privileged schools is similar to the function of Indigenous scholarships. In fact, the two often overlap.

In a range of sports, children with wealthy parents and sporting talent are especially prized. Beyond its ‘outstanding sporting facilities,’ Knox Grammar boasts a special program to support ‘high-performance student athletes considering a career in elite sport.’ They are promised personalised one-on-one mentoring by high-performance coaches, an individual performance plan and regular visits from experts.

The gap between sporting facilities available to children from families of modest means and those from wealthy families is widening. While cashed-up private schools have been using tax-deductible donations from well-heeled alumni to build state-of-the-art Olympic swimming pools for their students, local councils across Australia have been closing municipal pools because they cannot afford to maintain them.

I can almost hear the parents of children at Canberra’s elite private schools huffing and puffing with all the usual justifications—we worked hard and sacrificed to send our kids there; it’s all about choosing the best school for my child; we pay taxes too you know; look at the scholarships offered to poorer students.

But none of these attempts at legitimation change the fact that these schools exist to enhance the life chances of the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest. A new Squattocracy has taken charge and they know how to play the system to keep their families on top.

It’s just not cricket.


Published in the Canberra Times, 1 July 2024


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