I’ve ranted about this issue before. I’m vocally against the principle of private schools. So is Justice Michael Kirby. Below are some of his thoughts from his interview with Fran Kelly on Radio National this week. But first…


I know parents want to provide the best thing for their own kids. And they feel that private schools provide a better start in life.

But two issues.

1. I don’t know that fancy pools and excursions to Tuscany make for a better education. When I got to uni I was surrounded by private school kids…I was one of a few public school kids studying law at ANU (I don’t think this is to do with grades alone…more that I think law is pushed more as a career at private schools…which ain’t necessarily a good thing). I remember being astounded by how much hand-holding my peers required to keep up with the course load. This is a generalisation that might offend. So let’s put it this way – I reckon the “self-led” approach required to get ahead in public schools sets a kid up well for life beyond school. In all kinds of ways. Not least of all that it instills awareness of a fuller spectrum of the human experience.

2. The “my kid deserves the best” attitude perpetuates the growing divide in schooling quality between public and private. While ever good, engaged, smart parents send their kids to private schools, it drains resources from public schools.

My beliefs are these:

* The two hallmarks of a just society are the same (high) standard of education and health for all. What chance does a kid have if these things aren’t accessible to them? With a decent education a kid that comes from nowhere has choices.

* Good, engaged, smart parents have an obligation to all kids, not just their own.

* Good, engaged, smart parents can turn a school around – make a public school a vibrant, nurturing space that attracts great teachers. And they can ensure their children get a good education. They don’t need fancy pools and excursions to Tuscany. They don’t need private schools.

* The more good, engaged, smart parents that proactively support the public school system, the better for our society.

* This issue matters. It really does.

Here’s some highlights from the interview.

I cried hearing his take. This stuff matters. You can listen to the podcast here.

Michael Kirby: In the High Court in my day, and even today, only one justice in my day was me, was educated in public schools. And, given that 67% of Australians are educated in public schools, that is itself a question. Now, why is that so? And, in my opinion, where your educated, your schooling, your values, the democratic secular values that I received in my public education, really are hardwired in me. And the values affect the decisions you make. We can pretend they don’t. We can hide them. We can disguise them. We can not reveal them in our judicial opinions. But they’re down there, affecting the decisions, affecting the way we see words in the Constitution or statutes and so on.

Fran Kelly: If those decisions, as you say, are hardwired into you at school, then every parent, a lot of parents have a dilemma – they want to support the public school system but they want to their kid the best chance. On those statistics, to give their child the best chance there for a future in the law is to go to a private school.

Michael Kirby: Well, I’m sorry Fran, but if we take that view, we will wind down the great Australian experiment. We were the first continent that from sea to sea had public education, free, secular and compulsory.

Fran Kelly: So we should be investing in it?

Michael Kirby: Absolutely. And fewer manicured lawns and swimming pools in private schools, if necessary. We should be putting our money where 67% of the population has its children.

I suspect this issue will divide opinion a lot. Do you think parents should consider the greater good when making school choices?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Maggie

    “Good, engaged, smart parents have an obligation to all kids, not just their own.” Do we? I feel that I have a responsibility to society to contribute but I don’t feel I have an obligation to sacrifice my kid. And why, in this debate, is there never a mention of the responsibility of the awful parents for the state of bad public schools? Most bad public schools are bad because they have to deal with children who are the product of god-awful parents who can’t be arsed to feed their children properly, make sure they get enough sleep, read to them, discipline them, and provide them with safe and loving homes. If parents are to be blamed this is where the blame lies. Let us first ask these people to step up to their responsibility. Lets make meaningful changes in public schools before we blame responsible hard-working parents for trying to choose safe and fulfilling environments for their children.

  • justshocking!!

    OMG people, I recently immigrated to Australia from South Africa, a country bridled with the stigma of apartheid and racism, thinking I was making the better move, only to find when I called the local catholic school in the suburb I live in, that firstly my 4 year old would need to be baptised to be considered for enrolment and secondly I was warned that children from catholic families are given preference. It was both shocking and disturbing hearing the secretary at the school conveying this information to me with a tone of absolute authority. DISGUSTED does not even begin to decribe how I was feeling. I however, persevered and to quell my curiosity asked the dear lady if the children themselves discriminate against each other based on their beliefs. She was as you might expect shocked by my question. Being the ever curteous- natured South African I refrained from adding, Ah so its only you people that d then :). Further I made it abundantly clear that I had no intention of baptising my 4 year old. I explained further that I was a protestant (didnt know that was a bad word!) and was immediately told twice! that catholic families are given preference during selection. I would love to know what she would have said if id added oh Im of indian decent and my husband is actually hindu. Probably fallen off her gold encrusted chair.

    • Common sense

      With all due respect, if you are looking to send your child to a catholic school then you are committing your child to a catholic education. I don’t understand why you would be willing to send your little one there if you were not willing to baptise them. There are many private schools that don’t follow a religious education. Catholic schools cater for those with a catholic religion, I am sending both my children to a catholic school and would be extremely frustrated if children from families who are not catholic we’re given priority. That being said just because you won’t get “priority”, doesn’t mean they won’t endeavour to find you a place if there is one available.

  • Jess

    I went to a public high school in Perth – they had a boarding school for students from remote areas. I’m fairly certain it isn’t the only one.

  • NSW Teacher

    HSC is also based on ALL assessment throughout the senior year (in fact you start your HSC year in term 4 of year 11 for this reason).

  • Fel

    I went to Catholic schools and my three children all started out there too.
    One son was bullied so badly at his Catholic high school (by teachers, as well as students) that we removed him and sent him to our local public high school for year 10. I cried as I enrolled him. Friends (mine and my children’s) reacted with horror and pity when they found out. “A public high school? Oh no, you poor thing!” Yes, some really said those exact words.
    At the local high school, my son met some indifferent teachers, it must be said. But he’d had indifferent – and just plain bad – teachers at his Catholic high school too. The school was shabby and the toilets were a dilapidated disgrace. I felt sad.
    But my son had an amazing experience in those three years and it really turned my thinking about public education on its head. The main thing was that he was lucky enough to meet the most wonderful group of friends, both boys and girls. They were gorgeous kids from wonderful families. I guess, to my shame, I’d expected something different.
    Many of these kids went on to achieve ATARS in the high 90s. Some even hit 99 and above. In many ways, that really doesn’t matter, although I don’t wish to belittle their efforts. They worked hard and deserved to do well. But it does show that high academic achievement doesn’t depend on expensive schools.
    If I had my time again, I’d go with public schools for my children. The problem I see is that parents who went to private schools don’t know how good public schools can be and are frightened of them. Parents who themselves went to public schools but can afford private schools for their children assume private must be better. Some even see private schools as the magic potion that will automatically catapult their kids to the dizzy heights of academia, regardless of any other factors which might come into play.

  • Misslil

    Coming from some-on who has been career orientated his whole life, is used to being treated in a privledged manner, expects a certain level of respect from his peers and those who know his ‘title’ and who has NEVER had children of his own to consider their future and those with whom those children associate with, all whilst sipping wine from an exclusive club that he no doubt is a member of…and I imagine still has a PA for all life’s menial tasks…..not worth listening to a word he says. Times change, I doubt the school he attended is NOT the same nor would he send a child to it!!

  • Jessica Brown

    As one of your bloggers said, ‘it should never be an issue of private v’s public. It should be school v’s school and the best one chosen in the eyes of the parent and what is best for their child’. We didn’t choose our private anglican school based on its private staus or religious affiliation, we chose it simply because we believed it was the best school for our child at the time of enrollment. …I considered and reviewed all the schools in our areas when choosing our school and this school offered the right mix of schooling elements for our child. I plan on sending my other two children to a different independant school, again because this is the right school for these two children. I’m not sure why I should send my children to a public school just because you beleive it’s the right thing taking into account your values and experiences. Should my values that are unique to my child and my circumstances not take precedence?

  • Fe

    Jessica, that talk is definitely all “ignorant small minded rubbish”. A someone who got caught up in all the “mum-hysteria” to, I believe, the detriment of our whole family, I applaud you for keeping a sane head on your shoulders. Your son will do fantastically well at a public school or wherever you send him.

  • Christen

    I really struggled with the public vs private debate and initially felt we should all be supporting the public system as we pay for it and should be fighting to make it better. But we also have to think of each child and the way they will best learn. I don’t agree with the push for such early rigid education that the public sector is going for. Our children simply aren’t ready at such a young age to sit and be disciplined and the more we force it the worse our results are going to be. I have opted for a very small independent school with a montessori kindy moving on to curriculum based in pre-primary but retaining the montessori philosophy. Here they will re-enforce the lessons we teach at home on how to be a good person and part of a big community. With only 100 students I know my child may outgrow the school before the move to high school and at that time I hope to find a public school that will suit him.

  • Laura

    I agree ! I went to a public primary and secondary school and now work in an industry tht is dominated with private school ‘kids’ I’m constantly amazed with the lack of common sense in the work place and the inability to work within a process. Drive me crazy! Life needs to be learnt not handed to you on a platter

  • Yvette

    Its not that black and white.Did you know public schools are zoned? I cannot move house to live in an area that provides better public schools. I live in an area where I cant pick or chose the school I want to send my children to, they have to go to the closest government school. I have chosen to instead send my kids to a private school where I am confident they will receive the best education I can get for them. If we had decent public schools in my area, I would most definitely send them there.

  • Fiona

    It isn’t government money paying for manicured lawns, but the school fees. If parents want to pay that, then so be it. If private school funding was cut, we would have a crisis on our hands – that 67% would look more like 87%, or more. The public system wouldn’t cope with the influx of students. The extra money the public system would find themselves with would be put into building new schools, not in improving existing ones. The government gives the private schools funding per student (at a lesser rate than a public student receives) to keep them in the private schools. They know the system wouldn’t cope without it!

  • J9

    I understand what you are saying. My kids went to a public primary school and are now private in high school. The contrast between the experience they have and their friends (who are at the local public school) is dramatic. On my daughter’s first day she was introduced to the year 12s who were helping her year 8 class out with maths, they ended up forming friendships with those girls and went on a non school based camp at the end of the school year. In contrast, her best friend who was at a local public school was egged by the year 12s on her first day. The local public school has a really bad reputation for drug use, not saying there wouldn’t be instances of it at my kids private school, but they are exposed to a caring and nurturing group of young people (I see evidence of this when I have to visit the school). I agree that all kids deserve a fair go and I feel for those parents who can’t afford to send kids to better schools in my area but I wonder how much energy it would take to turn a really bad public school around. More energy than I think I have.

  • Hadley Fierlinger

    I have always chosen my kids education based on the “best fit” for them as individuals (montessori, regular public school, private school) and I am grateful there are choices in my area. Many public schools do a “once style fits all” educational approach and I find it’s not really inspiring lifelong learners. By this same philosophy I also travel quite far to the organic grocery store to get my food. Should I only shop at my local grocery that does not sell the foods I want to feed my family? I also don’t eat at my local pub but choose to drive into the city for a rare meal out.

  • Deb Moncrieff

    The only difference between public and private is that private schools seem to have a stronger stance on bullying, otherwise not much else difference.

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