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Everyone loses when schools are segregated… but some more than others

9 December 2019

Only fifteen minutes from Parliament House, four Canberra schools reveal the growing segregation in Australian education — and how government policy is at its heart

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Australia’s hybrid system drives the segregation of school students. gaiamoments/iStockphoto

Australia’s hybrid system drives the segregation of school students. gaiamoments/iStockphoto


The story of how governments began providing “state aid” to non-government schools usually starts in 1962 in the NSW town of Goulburn. When school inspectors ordered a parish primary school to build an “additional sanitary convenience” or face closure, the cash-strapped church authorities shut down all seven Goulburn Catholic schools in protest, forcing their students to descend on government schools ill-equipped to cope. After a week of national headlines, the argument that governments had an obligation to help church schools stay open — and a strong financial interest in doing so — had been effectively made. Soon, prime minister Robert Menzies and his government initiated a program of capital funding for church and government schools alike.

At least, that’s how the story usually goes. In reality, state aid had already started flowing to some church schools years before the “Goulburn strike.” On 10 July 1956 the Canberra Times reported acting prime minister Arthur Fadden’s announcement that capital works in church schools in Canberra would be subsidised. The news was welcomed by the local Catholic and Anglican bishops, but critics argued that the money was needed more urgently by public schools. They pointed to the dire state of Telopea Park High School, where there were “eight classes without classrooms, a final examination class housed on a verandah-end” and “four teachers teaching 300 girls home management in one small, ill-equipped room.”

The subsidy for church schools was justified as a way of guaranteeing to public servants — who were moving to the capital in significant numbers — the same amenities they were used to in their home states. As the historian Michael Hogan has observed, Menzies also appreciated the significance of creating a precedent for financing non-government schools. With support from his government, numerous new church schools sprang up in Canberra in the late fifties and, when the Woden Valley opened up in the sixties, Menzies’s program helped create a Catholic boys school on Marr Street in the new suburb of Pearce.

A couple of years later, a co-educational public school opened next door. Side-by-side not far from Parliament House, separated only by a few gum trees and a footpath, the two schools represented the hybrid education system that Menzies had established, with its two distinct kinds of government-funded schools. As this system expanded under Menzies’s successors (not least Labor’s Gough Whitlam, who introduced recurrent Commonwealth funding for non-government schools), the two schools also grew. Today, Marr Street in Pearce becomes clogged with school buses and SUVs every weekday morning as nearly 2500 students arrive to attend either of the two schools. Over half a century later the pair, so closely connected with the origins of state aid, provide an insight into the consequences of Menzies’s innovation.

A microcosm of Australian schooling

On the south side of the footpath, the public school enjoys a strong reputation in the local community, and people try to buy into the surrounding suburbs to enrol their kids there. In recent years, the front of the school has been painted, roofing renewed and the oval, long renowned as an ankle-breaker, reseeded. But even to motorists speeding along nearby Athllon Drive, the contrast with the school north of the footpath is clearly visible.

Expanding across some fifteen hectares, the Catholic school features an Australian Rules football oval, a rugby union pitch overlooked by a state-of-the-art stadium, and numerous soccer fields. “Visitors typically comment on the lawns, gardens, trees and landscaping which give the school an atmosphere of orderliness, beauty and peace,” the school’s website says, as well as the “impressive collection of sculpture and other artworks.” Earlier this year, the school’s Jubilee Building was officially opened, with industrial arts workshops, visual arts studios, renovated prayer space, a senior common room and a new grandstand overlooking one of the many ovals. And this is not the only major new building erected in recent years.

If the visual contrast between the two schools is striking, other differences may matter more. Some 58 per cent of students at the non-government school come from the most privileged quarter of Australian families. When the ACT’s senators at the time, Zed Seselja and David Smith, attended the opening of the school’s new Jubilee Building at the beginning of this year, the college magazine proudly noted that they both did so as parents of boys at the school. Next door at the public school, the proportion of similarly privileged students is less than half (28 per cent). There, 16 per cent of students come from the most disadvantaged quarter of Australian families; at the Catholic school, only 1 per cent of students fit this description.

The difference between the kids at these schools might be pronounced, but the gap between the two of them and the schools in neighbouring suburbs is even more revealing. From the back of Pearce, it’s possible to climb Mount Taylor and, at the summit, turn back and look in a northerly direction to Parliament House and beyond. Turn to the south, and you are looking over the district of Tuggeranong — or “God’s country” to the locals. At the southern foot of the mountain are the suburbs of Kambah and Wanniassa, each of which is home to public schools that begin in preschool and go through to Year 10.

While they are only a few kilometres from the two schools in Pearce, these two schools serve a very different group of children. A third or more of their students come from the most disadvantaged quarter of Australian families. More than 10 per cent of their students are Indigenous (the figure is only 1 per cent at the Catholic boys school in Pearce), and the two schools have almost three times the number of students, proportionally, from language backgrounds other than English than their counterparts in Pearce.

In fact, the social disadvantage among students at the Tuggeranong schools is greater than at the average Australian school, let alone the average Canberra school. On the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA — the policymakers’ measure of how lucky our home circumstances are — the average Australian school gets a score of 1000. The scores assigned to the public schools in Kambah and Wanniassa are 980 and 983 respectively. In Pearce, the government school’s ICSEA is 1049 and the non-government school’s is 1132.

Does Mount Taylor mark a major socioeconomic divide in Canberra, with the schools simply reflecting their respective suburbs? Not really. Kambah and Wanniassa are not quite as affluent as Pearce, but the difference is only one of degree. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’s Index of Relative Social Advantage and Disadvantage places Pearce in the top tenth of Australian postcodes, but Kambah and Wanniassa are in the second-highest tenth, not far behind. The differences between the suburbs are nowhere near enough to explain the differences between the schools. In fact, if the students at these four schools represented a cross-section of their local communities, they would look pretty much like each other.

Instead, they exemplify how Australia’s hybrid system of government-funded schools, with its independent, Catholic and public sectors, sorts children into different schools on the basis of their social background, dramatically exacerbating variations in social geography. In 2011, 32 per cent of children at public schools came from the most disadvantaged quarter of Australian families. By 2018, that figure had grown to 36 per cent, more than double the proportion at Catholic schools (17 per cent) and independent schools (14 per cent).

It turns out that the hills and footpaths separating these four Canberra schools wind their way through our country’s education system, increasingly separating young Australians into schools characterised by concentrated privilege or concentrated disadvantage. To understand the marked variations between the backgrounds of kids on either side of Mount Taylor — and on either side of the footpath in Pearce — is to gain an insight into a pattern that repeats itself again and again across the country, from Western Sydney to Wagga Wagga and Alice Springs to Albany.

Levers of segregation

The first clue to this understanding lies in the fact that the problem is getting worse. As the fees at the Catholic school in Pearce increased by a hefty 40 per cent between 2011 and 2017, the divergence between the student populations at the two schools on Marr Street sharpened appreciably. As the proportion of disadvantaged children at the Catholic school fell from 5 per cent to 1 per cent, the proportion of similar students next door grew from 11 per cent to 16 per cent. In effect, a bunch of kids from challenging backgrounds was transferred from one side of the footpath to the other. The shift vividly illustrates how our hybrid system, in which some schools receive public funding but are permitted to charge fees at whatever rate the market will bear, drives the segregation of Australian school students.

The steep fee increases at the Catholic school occurred despite a significant and growing taxpayer contribution. In fact, the school has enjoyed faster growth in government funding this decade than the government school next door. And, once again, the two schools encapsulate what is happening across the country. While we were supposed to be entering an era of needs-based funding — and even though we know more disadvantaged students than ever attend public schools — the non-government sectors have enjoyed much greater increases in government funding.

Between 2011 and 2017, combined federal and state government funding increased by 35 per cent for Catholic schools across the country, 37 per cent for independent schools, and just 18 per cent for public schools. When the Morrison government cut another special deal with the non-government sectors in September last year, it labelled the largesse the Choice and Affordability Fund. The reality is that our current policy settings are delivering neither. Just as it has become harder for poor Catholics — and others — to attend the Catholic school in Pearce, the concentration of disadvantaged children in public schools across the country has increased.

At the same time as those fees have become increasingly prohibitive, the school has been able to marshal more resources than ever to attract those who can afford them. On its website, the school claims that it is “fortunate in having facilities which are second to none,” but also observes, sagely, that “the climate, tone and spirit of a school are far more important than any of its physical aspects.” Buildings do matter, though, not least because, as educational economist Trevor Cobbold points out, “the lavish facilities… serve as status markers in marketing strategies to attract enrolments from rich families.” (Cobbold was responding to revelations in August that four exclusive private schools spent more on renovations and new facilities than Australia’s poorest 1800 schools combined.) And successfully recruiting students from well-educated, high-income families makes establishing the climate, tone and spirit of a school an awful lot easier.

In addition to its impressive facilities, Pearce’s Catholic school also enjoys a significant advantage in recurrent revenue over the public school next door. By 2017, it received a public subsidy of $10,100 per student, more than one-and-a-half times the needs-based resourcing allocation it’s entitled to. Combined with revenue from fees and other sources of income, this meant it had $3200 more to spend on each of its students annually than the school on the other side of the footpath. Better positioned than ever to offer the diverse curriculum and rich array of extracurricular activities that are critical in competition for enrolments, the Catholic school’s share of students from the most advantaged quarter of Australian families jumped from 47 per cent to 58 per cent between 2011 and 2018. Next door, the number of students in this group declined correspondingly.

While resource advantages help some schools pull privileged students in, and high fees push children from low-income families away, the increasingly segmented character of Australian schooling is also attributable to the power of non-government schools to pick and choose whom they enrol. When an elite Sydney private school expelled eight boys for smoking dope in 2014, then NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli condemned the decision as simply shifting the problem to another school. Controversial cases attract attention, but less noticeable and more pervasive forms of problem-shifting are embedded in the structures of Australian schooling.

Numerous parents and educators in Tuggeranong told me about incidents where a child’s Year 3 NAPLAN results were considered as part of their application to attend a non-government school. In some cases, the child’s test results were deemed acceptable and they were admitted; in other cases, the enrolment was rejected or delayed. This practice was documented in the recent national NAPLAN reporting review, and government research also made it clear that parents expect schools to use NAPLAN results for marketing purposes.

In this atmosphere, NAPLAN morphs from a diagnostic tool that can enable a candid conversation between parent and school into a de facto entrance examination used by non-government schools to skim the cream. Long before teenagers are ejected from certain schools over an illicit puff, primary schoolers can be rejected for slipping up on a NAPLAN test. As Piccoli told the ABC in August, “It is the ability of schools to select their students that creates inequity which is one of the structural weaknesses of Australian education.”

We tend to view the performance of schools in isolation, but in reality schools exist in delicate relation to each other, like the elements of an ecosystem, and decisions at one school profoundly affect the life of another school. This was vividly portrayed to me by a principal at a highly disadvantaged school in which there was a dearth of natural role models among the student group. The principal and his staff laboured like Sisyphus to build kids up to be leaders among their peers, only to eventually find that they would lose those very kids to better-resourced, more exclusive schools.

The children left behind

In his book about inequality in Australia, Battlers and Billionaires, economist and Labor MP Andrew Leigh compares the Australian Football League and the English Premier League. The AFL shares television revenue evenly among its clubs; lower-ranked teams have first pick when new talent is drafted; and salary bills are capped. In English football it’s more like the law of the jungle: salary budgets are uncapped and clubs that finish higher up the ladder receive more of the earnings from TV rights. Strong Premier League clubs get even stronger, making it a much more uneven competition than the AFL. It’s a lot easier to predict the clubs that will end the season at the top of the ladder.

But imagine a sporting competition in which some clubs were regulated like AFL clubs while others were treated like Premier League teams; in which, every week, teams made up of star talent lured from around the world by enormously lucrative contracts trounced clubs constrained by salary caps and restricted to recruiting from their local area. This, in essence, is the structural imbalance at the heart of Australia’s education system, in which some schools are fee-charging and selective (in numerous ways) while others are free and comprehensive.

In practice, school choice in Australia means that some schools choose their students, while the others are dominated by social disadvantage. If only 1 per cent of students at the Pearce Catholic school are from tough backgrounds, then there have to be very high proportions of these kids at the other schools in the area. The result is not one-sided football matches but educational outcomes that, almost a decade after the Gonski report, are increasingly “the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.” Young Australians are consequently getting less and less out of the education we are providing them than they did five, ten or fifteen years ago.

For this story, I spoke to numerous parents and educators in school communities where a disproportionate number of children come from families with experiences of unemployment, unstable and transient housing, and social dysfunction. They told me of any number of innovations to address children’s learning needs, from introducing the Cambridge international curriculum to developing a Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden. One educator spoke of the joy of working with a student with an intellectual disability who swore volubly and uncontrollably but, with weeks of patient guidance and goal-setting, learnt to control his language and more effectively manage friendships. Another referred to the alacrity with which colleagues dig into their own pockets to meet resource shortfalls.

But no matter how good the teachers or inspiring the school’s leaders, the educational task facing schools with concentrated social disadvantage is incredibly challenging. Significant numbers of students with significant learning and behavioural difficulties, and a lack of the necessary parental support, inevitably affects teacher morale and staff recruitment and retention. When there are a significant number of children with troubling behaviours in the same school or classroom, the risk is that they will dictate the culture and set the patterns of behaviour for their peers.

Educational researchers call the impact of classmates on an individual student’s educational outcomes “peer effects.” They make a big difference. In fact, in its analysis of the performance of Australian school students in the OECD’s PISA tests, the Australian Council for Educational Research found that “the social composition of schools had just as strong an impact on the likelihood of being a low achiever as a student’s own family background… Disadvantaged students in average socioeconomic level schools, for example, are almost a year of schooling higher than those in disadvantaged schools.”

Our dual system catalyses a self-perpetuating process: it engenders schools with a disproportionate number of disadvantaged kids; and that, in itself, causes the concentration of disadvantage to grow over time. The process is fuelled by an often simplistic debate about variations in school “quality” and a tendency for the reputation of schools to long outlast any basis in reality.

Parents with the means to pay for schooling are placed in an invidious position. Many want their children to be part of the local community and to be able to play and learn with kids from diverse backgrounds. But they also understand that it is very difficult to provide a rich educational experience when there isn’t a critical mass of children with the disposition and know-how to learn, and they recognise when a school is confronted with a preponderance of challenging behaviours with which it struggles to cope. Sometimes a decision is finally made for them when their child comes home one day and says he or she can no longer cope with the behaviour issues and the disruption. Over time, children, particularly from middle-class families, trickle away from disadvantaged school communities.

In Tuggeranong, this movement manifests itself as a desire to get up the valley, over Mount Taylor into Woden and the leafy suburbs of Canberra’s inner south, mirroring the centripetal energy flowing through all our major cities. In addition to exclusive non-government schools, the destination is the sought-after public schools in the affluent parts of town that often have a long queue of out-of-area applicants, affording them a degree of discretion over whom they enrol.

The end result was described to me by a Tuggeranong parent. Flicking through the Year 6 yearbook at her son’s primary school, she took in the photos of the students in the graduating class, accompanied by their personal stories, including the high school they were heading to the following year. From a capacity Year 6 class, about half the students were proceeding to non-government schools. The other half were going to out-of-area public schools. Only one student was continuing on to the local public high school.

Then and now

As an origin story, the tale of the “Goulburn strike” conveys a number of morals that continue to underpin the way we think about our schools today. When Catholic parents and educators in Goulburn demanded that their children no longer be relegated to second-class schools, they asserted both the right to educate their children by their own lights and a claim to sector-blind government resourcing. Their success was critical to improving the marginalised status of Catholics in Australia and ending the nasty sectarian bigotry that accompanied it. It also helped establish a de facto consensus that, when it comes to the role of religion in education, parents should be able to decide what is right for their children, and that all schools deserve public support. After all, as the school closures in Goulburn in 1962 graphically illustrated, fee-paying parents helped reduce pressure on the public purse… at least at the time.

Today, the Canberra schools where state aid actually started symbolise how little the truths of the Goulburn strike continue to apply. Public funding doesn’t keep the Catholic school on Marr Street open, or buy it toilets it could not otherwise afford, or induce it to lower the fees it charges parents. Just as kids from poor Catholic families can’t access the Catholic school in Pearce, the majority of poor Catholics in Australia don’t attend Catholic schools. Government funding to non-government schools might once have served to facilitate choice, but it no longer does today.

Far from being sector-blind or a cost-saver, government funding to non-government schools has grown to the extent that many receive more public funding than comparable government schools. If all Goulburn’s Catholic schools closed today and the students were forced to attend public schools, governments would actually save money. While massive taxpayer support is provided to non-government schools, they continue to be able to enrol, expel and charge fees as they please — and our schools have become more and more characterised by either privilege or poverty. •

Revised: The first and second percentage figures in this sentence have been revised upwards to reflect the available data: “Between 2011 and 2017, combined federal and state government funding increased by 35 per cent for Catholic schools across the country, 37 per cent for independent schools, and just 18 per cent for public schools.”

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Selective attention: treasurer Josh Frydenberg in parliament on Tuesday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Selective attention: treasurer Josh Frydenberg in parliament on Tuesday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image