Who’s Afraid of a Public School? Public Perceptions of Education in Australia

March 6, 2014


March 2014

By Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley

Children’s education has become the new topic du jour in Australia, nudging out house prices as a conversation piece at many a dinner party and BBQ across the nation. In the wake of the Gonski Report into school funding and the previous Labor government’s National Plan for School improvement, the public discussion about the quality of Australian schooling is about to claim more of the spotlight. At the heart of all of this is the divide between public and private systems in this country, a sensitive issue for our politicians and an emotive and confusing issue for voters.

It is clear from research done by Ipsos, for this report and elsewhere, that Australians are in an ongoing, as yet unresolved, debate about the value of private versus public education. While the trend is definitively towards greater investment in private education, Australians remain ambivalent about whether private education is in fact better quality, is worth the money and whether going to a private school is a better foundation for career success. What is clear from the qualitative research is that even among Australians who live in areas where there are excellent public schools, there is a question mark over some parts of the public system not just in terms of standards of teaching but in relation to their social environments and their ability to cater to the needs of all children. There seem to be a mixture of emotional and logical drivers behind this anxiety about the quality of public schooling.

This paper aims to do two things. First, it will measure and explore (through both qualitative and quantitative research) the attitudes of Australians towards the relative merits of public versus private education. This section of the paper is authored by Rebecca Huntley, the director of the Mind and Mood Report, Australia’s longest running social trends study. Second, it will evaluate those findings according to the established literature and data available about actual strengths and weaknesses of the two different systems. This section of the paper is authored by Verity Firth, former Minister of Education in New South Wales and now Chief Executive of The Public Education Foundation. Both authors then combine forces to make some conclusions about public perception of education in Australia and what this means for public policy, particularly for those working within in and around public school communities.

Download the report here: Who’s Afraid of a Public School?