Opposition Leader Tony Abbott with his predominantly private school educated shadow cabinet. From left, Julie Bishop, Abbott, the Nationals leader Warren Truss, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The eight Sydney Great Public Schools (GPS) are a mostly high-fee-paying group that see themselves as the elite secondary educators in Australia.
Although they do not have the best academic record, their former students occupy a disproportionate percentage of high positions in Australian society, demonstrating the old school tie still has a place in the boardroom. It also has a place in government.
If Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wins the election and maintains his current frontbench, he will have four ministers - including himself - from the exclusive band of schools.
This will be some achievement given that, according to the Bureau of Statistics, in 2010 there were 6743 government schools (71 per cent), 1708 Catholic schools (18 per cent), and 1017 independent schools (11 per cent). Of these, 1409 were secondary schools, 1286 combined primary/secondary schools and 416 special schools.
In a nutshell, the eight schools, representing less than 0.5 per cent of all secondary schools, will provide 21 per cent of the ministry.
The GPS opposition frontbenchers, aided by their colleagues, mostly from some almost equally exclusive interstate schools, are pushing their views on the government's Gonski funding proposals. They reject the plan, which aims to have educational success determined by ability, not wealth or family background.
Abbott has made it clear the Coalition will not go along with the government's plan unless all eight states and territories sign up. Only NSW and Tasmania have committed, and the belief is Abbott is doing everything he can to persuade other premiers not to sign.
An examination of the shadow cabinet's secondary education provides some explanation for their cool response to the fairer funding proposal.
Abbott attended GPS St Ignatius' College, Riverview, as did his would-be member for New England, Barnaby Joyce; alternative leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull attended Sydney Grammar; and opposition spokesman for productivity and population, immigration and citizenship Scott Morrison was educated at Sydney Boys High School, a government school allowed into the GPS rugby fellowship.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop was head prefect at St Peter's Girls' School, Adelaide, another exclusive school with a 100-year history.
Sophie Mirabella, who presents as the migrant family girl who grew up working in the family milk bar, managed to get an education at St Catherine's School, Toorak - an institution that, like most of the GPS schools, now has annual fees of $20,000 or more.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston went to Wesley College, Perth, while shadow attorney-general George Brandis attended Villanova College, a Catholic boys school in Brisbane.
Other private schools to have a representative on the frontbench include St Aloysius' College, Milsons Point, the Peninsula School, Mornington Peninsula and St Ignatius' College, Adelaide.
There are also some surprises. opposition health and ageing spokesman Peter Dutton says he was educated at the Queensland Police Academy; opposition spokesman for families and housing Kevin Andrews was dux and school captain of St Patrick's College, Sale; and Andrew Robb, the opposition finance spokesman, attended Parade College, a Catholic school with fees today of about $5000 a year.
Nearly half the shadow cabinet had a Catholic school education.
The government school sector has its representatives in Senate Opposition Leader Eric Abetz, who went to Taroona High and Hobart Matriculation College and Bruce Bilson, who attended Monterey High School, Frankston.
The contrast between the Abbott shadow cabinet's schooling and the Labor ministry is stunning. Prime Minister Julia Gillard attended Unley High School in Adelaide. Her deputy and Treasurer Wayne Swan went to Nambour High. Greg Combet went to Rooty Hill High and Baulkham Hills High in Sydney. Tanya Plibersek was dux of Jannali Girls High, while Bob Carr topped Matraville High and Gary Gray topped Whyalla High. Others who got a state school education are Jason Clare (Canley Vale), Kate Ellis (Daws Road) and Mike Kelly (Asquith Boys High).
Most other ministers went to Catholic schools but Penny Wong gained a scholarship to Scotch College, Adelaide, and Minister for School Education Peter Garrett spent his childhood in Wahroonga and went Barker College.
ACT Senator and Minister for Sport Kate Lundy dropped out of school in year 11 and worked on a construction site.
If Abbott appoints his current shadow cabinet, he could have the most unrepresentative, elite-school ministry ever. An analysis of past cabinet ministers by Professor Jan Pakulski of the School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, found 58 per cent had attended a public state school. Before 1982, the percentage was 62 per cent. The Hawke and Keating governments were made up of 56 per cent state school graduates while Rudd and Gillard had 62 per cent.
John Howard's ministry had a solid 53 per cent state school representation (Howard attended Earlwood Public School and Canterbury Boys' High, a selective state school).
If we believe merit should be the primary determinant of school success, a better system of school funding must be implemented.
But so far only one premier, NSW's Barry O'Farrell, has signed up and acknowledged the existing formula is broken and unfair. He said, ''A system which provides everyone with a basic level of support and then directs more resources to people in need - whether that need relates to disability, socio-economic, Aboriginality, or something else - is a fairer system. [It] will help us deliver better outcomes and help produce that strong Australia we want.''
Abbott and his frontbench should take note.