Australian Nobel laureate professor Brian Schmidt has called for a public education renaissance in Australia, saying some parents are doing a 'disservice' to their children by sending them to private schools.
In a speech at the Australian Education Union's annual Public Education dinner on Wednesday night, Professor Schmidt said there needed to be a renewed focus on the government education system, including greater accountability for principals and proper use of NAPLAN testing.
He also said the Gillard government's Gonski reforms were important to ensure money was well directed in the public school system, which was essential to a healthy democracy.
"I do believe the stakes are high the fundamental tenant of Australian democracy, that we all deserve a fair go is at risk of being eroded away along with our public school system," he said.
Professor Schmidt said there was no difference between private and public schools in terms of actual results, when socio-economic advantage was taken into account.
In fact, he said wealthy Australians who sent their children to private schools got essentially no advantage for their money.
"I'll say that my own teaching of kids at the Australian National University, kids from non-government schools have some different characteristics than kids from government schools but I see no evidence at the university level that they have an advantage," he said.
"Indeed sometimes that they are more poorly able to cope with university than their public school counterparts."
Speaking at the National Press Club, he said he was often told since he moved to Australia that he had done his children a disservice by sending them to public school.
But he said the benefits of going to school in a diverse socio-economic environment were enormous, speaking enthusiastically of his own public schooling in Alaska and Montana.
"I went to school that on the edge of a military base and 50 per cent of my cohorts came from very low socio-economic backgrounds and the other 50 per cent came from people like my father, very rich wealthy people," he said.
"That mix was a great thing that I would never, ever get rid of. I am so lucky that I had a school system which spent about $25,000 per student on public schools."
He said it was important to keep public schools competitive with the private sector, with 35 per cent of Australian children currently enrolled in non-government schools.
"We're beginning to form a two-tier system where we have the better off people sending their kids to private school and the less well off sending their kids to public school," he said.