In a Q&A series with people involved in the Ourschool program, Caroline Milburn, Ourschool’s CEO and co-founder, talks to:

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner and immunologist.

Peter, you were educated at Indooroopilly State High School, in Brisbane. How did your education shape you as a person?
It was a very long time ago, back in the 1950s. I came from a family, like many people growing up in Queensland at that time, whose parents had no education beyond two years of high school at the most.

In Brisbane in 1953, there were only four public high schools for the whole of Brisbane. There was the state high school, which was academic, there was the industrial high school where my father went for a time, there was the commercial high school and there was the domestic science high school.

But in the year that I completed my primary school, the government started four new high schools.

One was Indooroopilly High School.

It was an odd secondary education because there were no older children at the school. There was no sporting equipment, there were no clubs, there was no tradition.

Basically, we were dumped into a brand-new building with some teachers and a bit of chemistry equipment and physics equipment. But the teachers were very dedicated, and they were really out to prove that a high school education could work.
That was the first time I had met people who were teaching in their specialty and teaching in some depth, whereas at primary school you had a teacher who taught everything.

So high school was a transformative experience for me. I think I missed out on a lot of things that I would have got at a long-established public high school. But I got a good basic education in arts and science.

Australia has one of the most socially segregated school systems in the OECD. What was your experience like at school?
I came from Oxley, which was a working-class suburb. A lot of the dads had come back from World War Two, a lot of them worked in the railway workshops.

I was mixing with a great diversity of kids at school.

As an adult, I’ve lived in the United States and in Europe where public education is regarded as an obligation on the part of the state to provide a high-quality public education. In the US and Europe, you don’t go to a private school because of the social context that operates here in Australia.

Australia’s state high schools do a really good job. When we see the students in the universities they do well, they do better than expected, especially if they come from rural high schools. Often the kids from private schools do worse than expected at university because they’ve been so intensively coached.

If you’re asked in the United States, ‘Where did you go to school?’, they’re asking which university you went to. Here, if you’re asked, ‘Where did you go to school?’, you’re being asked which private high school you went to. Australia is a very class-ridden society.

I’ve got no objection to private schools. If people want to send their kids to private schools and make that financial sacrifice, that’s their business. But I don’t understand why we’re paying for it from tax dollars when the primary obligation of the government is to provide a quality public education.

Do you think public funding of private schooling and the trend of social segregation might change in the future?
I don’t see Australia changing this because Labor supports this situation as well and a lot of Labor politicians went to private schools. It does create these private school networks of influence and power that help each other and exclude others. It may not even be conscious.

But the prevalence of private school networks doesn’t operate in Australian science. A lot of the top Australian scientists did not go to private schools.

Suzanne Corey, who was a director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and president of the Australian Academy of Science, is a University High graduate. Liz Blackburn, Nobel Prize winner, lives in San Francisco and is a University High graduate. Jack Eccles, Nobel Prize winner, went to Warrnambool High and then Melbourne High.

Another scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Professor Brian Schmidt, the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, recently announced a new ANU scholarship scheme to attract more students from low-income backgrounds. He said he could no longer accept that ANU’s student intake was mostly made up of students from wealthy backgrounds who could afford to go there.
There’s no doubt that private high schools give a lot of kids an advantage into getting into university because they coach them. I think we should give a weighting to all the schools.

So, Sunshine College should get a weighting of plus two, then you would have rich people in Toorak sending their kids to Sunshine College so they can get their kids into medicine at Monash University!

That system operates in the United States. If you’re applying to a top east coast university from San Diego, which is a wealthy area, you will have less chance of getting in, than if you are applying from a poor town such as Oxford, Mississippi.

In Australia we have a lot of untapped ability. We need to provide access to high-quality education to kids from poor backgrounds. We’re doing a terrible job at that but it’s an enormously complex issue.

There’s a right to a good free public education – that’s the model that Japan works on, that China works on, that Europe works on and that most of the United States works on.

Why have you decided to champion Ourschool?
The idea of getting people who have graduated from public high schools to show some loyalty back to the school and support the school is a great idea. These institutions all need resources.

My main reason for supporting Ourschool is I believe every child, no matter what their parents’ income, should be guaranteed access to a high-quality education.

Private schooling is fine; a lot of private schools are wonderful schools. But it’s kind of distressing when you go to these private schools and you see the enormous opulence of their facilities.

Scotch College in Melbourne has a professional performance theatre and a professional music theatre. It also has a fantastic science building.

But I’m not sure that such opulence is necessarily helping these kids because if the peak of your life is at high school, you’re in trouble. If that’s the happiest, most satisfactory time in your life, then you’ve got a problem.