What’s money got to do with it: the great education divide

For students from low socioeconomic high schools, the public-private debate is far from over.

Classrooms at a low SES high school on the Central Coast. Photo: Maani Truu

A ceiling fan circles above our heads, clicking each time it completes a rotation. Flies zip in and out of vision. A puddle of sweat pools at the point where my school skirt ends and skin connects with the scratchy plastic of a stackable school chair.

It’s over 40 degrees and, without air conditioning, the small brick classroom has warmed to a temperature equal to outside.

Unsurprisingly, the class is disrupted. Some students lay their foreheads on the desk, defeated. The teacher stands in front of the whiteboard, dark patches under his armpits, and tries to control the class. Our exams are in under a month but even he, eventually, gives up. We are excused.

This was in 2011. I recently walked around the school for the first time in six years, and was dismayed to see that the same classroom and its neighbours still lacked air-conditioning.

Such a fact can seem trivial when compared to other markers of class disparity; most students wouldn’t even be aware that this is something their peers at private schools don’t have to deal with. But when trivial differences result in diminished class time or learning conditions that are uncomfortable at best, and, unsafe at worst, they start to create structural inequality which doesn’t end at the university gates.

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There seems to be an unspoken agreement that the public-private debate is over.

At least, that’s what I am often told when talking to people about the topic. “It was over and won in the 60s and 70s,” one man told me, before following up with, “and isn’t entry into university just dependent on academic merit anyway?”

Data released in 2016 by the Department of Education and Training showed that Australia-wide, 16.6 per cent of 1,249,544 domestic tertiary students came from a low socioeconomic (SES) background. When looking at sandstone institutions like the University of Sydney, the exact percentage of low SES students is difficult to track down.

“About a quarter” of USyd’s undergraduate domestic students came from comprehensive high schools, according to the soon to be former Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Registrar) Tyrone Carlin, referring to schools that are both public and non-selective.

While there is overlap between comprehensive and low SES high schools, the two terms are not interchangeable. The latter specifically refers to students deemed to be suffering financial disadvantage, and when asked about low SES students specifically, Carlin has no answers. The closest he can get to addressing the number of poor students at the University is his claim that each year somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of students enter the University via equity schemes.

He doesn’t specify what schemes, nor whether they exclusively cater to low SES students. He also doesn’t produce the raw data or exact figures when asked.

Bridget Neave, an employee at USyd’s Widening Participation and Outreach program, the department tasked with increasing the representation of disadvantaged groups at the University, and a low SES student herself, tells me that the number of low SES students at USyd is closer to seven per cent. USyd, however, does not publish reports on its comprehensive and low SES inclusion — as one student learnt when their Freedom of Information request for the data was rejected on this basis earlier this year — meaning this number is unable to be verified.

Despite the picture this paints, the public seems relatively happy to accept an education system segregated by class. Like with most things, there’s an argument that education should be paid for by those that can afford to, and that private school students deserve to be there.

I graduated from a low SES public high school in 2011, the same year the original Gonski Final Report was released. The report was an admirable — albeit an extremely late — attempt to address inequality in education.

“There is an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and indigenous backgrounds,” the report reads, confirming what those working in public education had been aware of for decades.

Despite a number of recommendations aimed at making the system fairer, namely through needs based funding, Gonski once again cemented that the public-private divide would remain.


The digital revolution has spurred the biggest change to teaching in recent times. Many university students today would recall being given a red (or later green) glorified word processor — that the government generously called a laptop — as part of the Computers for Schools program implemented by the Labor government.

While these laptops are an easy target for jokes, the idea behind the program was solid; every student would be up to speed when it came to information and communication. For some students across NSW, it was the first computer they ever had proper access to.

In June 2014, just six years after it was first launched, the program was scrapped. The government adopted a “bring your own device” stance, meaning that families are now responsible for providing laptops for school aged children.

Sydney girls high school MLC, with an annual tuition for HSC students of $29,480, goes as far as to mandate that students from year four onwards must bring their own MacBook Pro, Macbook Pro Retina or Macbook Air to school (but not the new 12” Macbook; it only has a single port for both power and USB connections). This requirement is presented on their website as part of their “commitment to integrating technology into learning”. MLC is one of many private schools with a similar policy.

Bradden Spillane, a recently retired teacher with 39 years experience in low SES public schools, explains how the push to digitalise the classroom has been largely abandoned in a number for classes at his most recent high school on the Central Coast.

“The roll out of the computers hasn’t been replaced by anything other than the assumption that all kids will have a computer, which is not necessarily the case,” he says.

“For a while, there was all this emphasis on these kids having these computers, and you’re going to have to teach in a way so they can use these computers. Well, that’s all gone because it relied on kids having computers.”

A few “left-over” government laptops — by this point wildly outdated — remain in the English staff room for borrowing, but according to Spillane, this isn’t enough to allow every student a device.

This issue existed long before the concerted push towards a digital classroom that we see today. Spillane gives an example of students in his Extension 2 English classes who didn’t have a computer at home and would develop their major works over lunch time when they could borrow computers in the staff room.

“I’ve also taught at least three Extension 2 English students who didn’t have a home to live in,” he says. “Whatever the issue, you try to find a way of dealing. But it’s not easy.”


Aside from the lack of infrastructure and technology, even equalising measures such as HSC special provisions operate to advantage the wealthy in practice.

“Almost all the kids who get special provisions in the HSC are kids at private schools,” Spillane says.

Special provisions refer to exam allowances made to ensure that students with a physical, intellectual or psychiatric disability are able to perform in exam conditions without being disadvantaged.

In 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that private schools accounted for more than half the applications for HSC exam disability provisions, despite educating just one in four students with disabilities.

In order for an application to accepted, students need a number of certificates from medical and teaching professionals attesting to how their condition may affect their exam performance. But for many low SES students, specialist appointments are not an option.

“How many kids in our area [the Central Coast] even have a family doctor?” Spillane asks.

He tells me a story of a student who came to him after missing an assignment. When asked why she didn’t have a doctor’s certificate — a requirement of the then Board of Studies — she explained that she couldn’t get an appointment with a doctor who bulk-billed because they were full, and she couldn’t afford to pay for an appointment.

When Spillane pressed further, it was revealed that the student was supporting her family while both her parents were in jail.

“There’s an assumption that measures like these are meant to make the HSC fair,” he says. “But it’s very much a middle-class game.”

“These things are part of the culture of the whole school. The school is immersed in this context.”

This so-called “school culture” refers to the disconnect between a student’s view of education, as inherited from their family and the community around them, and the desire to pursue tertiary education. Spillane says this is the hardest thing to counter as a public school teacher.

“A lot of kids were coming from a background where they had the idea that what you get taught at school doesn’t really matter,” he says.

“In the end, the only people they know who have done anything in their life are people who have done trades, so they just don’t see university as an option for them.”

Eventually, the school ends up reflecting this culture back to the students. One way of illustrating this is by looking at the subjects and programs a school offers. While private schools offer subjects such as Latin and programs such as debating and model UN, lower SES public schools often put a focus on trades and practical skills. It’s an attempt to funnel students into the workplace rather than try what could be seen as a futile push towards tertiary study.


Countering this culture is the biggest challenge for outreach programs aimed at encouraging students of low SES backgrounds to apply at USyd, as it often prevents information about equity schemes from being effectively disseminated.

“The University is advertising how to support low SES students, through systems that low SES students don’t have access to,” says Neave. “What’s really needed is actually getting to the markets of the students that need this.”

Huw Griffiths is an English professor and the social inclusion officer for USyd’s art faculty. In this role, he works to consider how the faculty can better support students from various equity groups, including low SES students. He points to the University’s E12 scheme as an example of where the university has had success.

The E12 schemes allows students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to gain early admission to USyd through ATAR cut-offs that are lower than standard. They also get a free iPad and a $5950 scholarship in their first year.

“It is targeted specifically at students from schools that have been identified as situated in low SES areas,” says Griffiths. “It attracts more and more students every year.”

In 2014, Honi Soit reported that a number of top-achieving private schools were on the list of schools eligible for the scheme. This is possibly due to the fact that Educational Access Scheme schools are classified by a system that accounts for the location of their students, not families’ socioeconomic status. It also means that wealthy students from these schools are still eligible for consideration.

A quick scan of the current list of E12 eligible schools shows that at least one of the schools named in the 2014 article remains on the list, alongside a number of schools with above average Community Socio-Educational Advantage indexes (ICSEA). These indexes, compiled by My School, take into account the occupation and education of students’ parents, the school’s geographical location and the proportion of indigenous students.

According to Neave, it is the group of students that need low SES scholarships the most that is often untapped by such schemes.

“When you are first in your family to go to university, you don’t know to apply for scholarships before you come. You don’t know about these [scholarships] because you don’t know anyone in your family, school or community who has ever gotten one,” she says.


Once students have enrolled at USyd, it’s easy to assume the fight is over. With all students in one sandstone building, the case for structural inequality is harder to make.

Carlin is quick to assure me that USyd students who enter the University through equity schemes perform equally as well as — if not better than — their peers. When it comes to completion rates, he again says that “nothing stands out”.

Students who are able to enter USyd via equity schemes, however, are likely already ahead of other low SES students who did not have access to — or awareness of — the programs. It is also likely that many of the students in these programs are receiving some form of scholarship, taking some of the stress out of studying

Griffiths similarly points to students who had come through the E12 scheme as “achieving significantly higher than average results”.

Conversely, a Department of Education and Training cohort analysis between 2005 and 2014 shows that low SES students are less likely to complete their degrees, with students from a high SES backgrounds 8.9 per cent more likely to complete their degree.

It goes without saying that this is not because low SES students are inherently less capable of performing academically. They do, however, experience a number of additional stresses outside university.

“The burden for low SES students is so hard because it’s such an invisible burden,” says Neave.

Struggles faced by low SES students can be as simple as lacking what Neave calls “creative energy” after a day of working to earn money for rent, studying, and doing chores. This manifests particularly strongly in campus culture activities, such as clubs, societies, student politics or media, where the representation of poor students is extremely low.

“There’s not that many people who are engaged and who are interested in the low SES experience,” says Neave.

At a University level, Griffiths also points to the university culture as “inaccessible for students unfamiliar with its discourse and practices,” saying those who are first in their family to attend university are hit the hardest by this.

“We need to continue to make sure that university processes — admin, teaching circumstances, the special cons system — are accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds, not just to students who are able to afford to attend class on most weekdays,” he says.

“We have not always been great at this, with many systems being opaque to people who might consider themselves to be a little outside the system.”


“Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education,” reads the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.

It’s not a stretch to argue that our nation agrees every child is deserving of quality education; that every child is equal. But if this is so, why are we satisfied with a system that segregates children — with no control over their circumstance — based on class?

If higher education is to be “equally accessible” we need to develop a school system that is fair, and make a commitment to supporting students who manage to break into tertiary study against all odds.

“I would urge all students who haven’t really considered this before, to think about what it would be like if ever since the day you graduated high school and you left your home, no one had ever been able to give you a cent of money,” says Neave.

In a country where such class disparity exists, perhaps the first step towards a more equal system is simply awareness.