Thought Leadership – Dr Phillip Heath AM Writes …

Thought Leadership – Dr Phillip Heath AM Writes …

Aspiration and Sacrifice or Privilege and Elitism

Article written by Phillip Heath AM, Head of Barker College, NSW  

The emerging reality of the public commentary in Australian education demonstrates a shift in the mindset – our schools are caricatured as bastions of privilege rather than as symbols of aspiration and sacrifice. This article examines the impact of the mindset and considers how we might influence the future narrative. We must find a coherent answer to the question “what’s the good of independent education in Australia?” The current trajectory in independent schools has the risk of foundering on the hostile reefs of political commentary. Our answer to what’s the good of independent schooling will set a course for the coming decades of educational policy, development and philanthropy in education.

Principle 1: Independent education is portrayed in the public discourse not as evidence of aspiration but as a bastion of privilege.

Principle 2: Despite attempts made by the Gonski Review into School Funding, the failure to implement the reforms has created a resource gap in Australian education and it is perceived to be widening.

Principle 3: Our schools are regarded as some of the wealthiest schools in the land. Barker College, for example, notwithstanding our debt from capital works, is seen as a case in point. Nearby schools are struggling to hire staff and find resources for classrooms. The completion of our magnificent award-winning Rosewood Centre and more recently, the Senior School Hub and the lodging of an expansive SSDA, makes it hard to argue otherwise. With a student enrolment of 2800, our comparative income is also high.

Principle 4: Expressions of social justice through Indigenous Education and, more recently, Humanitarian Education initiatives are important but may not be sufficient to demonstrate an answer to “what’s the good of Barker” nor to negate the three principles listed above.

Principle 5: Public funding of independent schools remains a complex political issue, particularly in the light of the seemingly entrenched social disadvantage. Higher fee schools that receive around 10% of income from public funding (such as Barker) are characterised as symbols of privilege. It will be almost impossible to cut through this perception.

Principle 6: The charitable status of independent schools is under threat in the UK, where there is virtually no government funding.

A way forward:

  1. Use public funding while it survives to demonstrate commitment to social impact economics – the hour is coming when this funding will be under threat.
  2. Demonstrate public good by
    • Sharing facilities
    • Providing assisted places for disadvantaged students
    • Educating students for social conscience
    • Reducing social and cultural impact of our schools
    • Demonstrate social conscience in sustainable practices
  3. Managing the message by
    • Avoiding excessive demonstrations of wealth and privilege
    • Celebrating causes that create social impact, reduce disadvantage and enable change
  4. Reduce the division between government and non-government education
  5. Resist the success narrative in independent education, particularly in League Tables, Trophies and competitions.
  6. Explore ways in which the educational advantages enabled in some of our schools can be shared with other schools
  7. Explore a new narrative or new metaphor for independent education, not be arguing that the points made against us but by setting a new story about our public good.


Phillip Heath AM
Head of Barker College, NSW


Phillip Heath achieved a First Class Honours degree in Reformation History and taught at Trinity Grammar School Sydney and King’s School Ely (UK), before becoming Deputy Head of The William Clarke College in Kellyville, and then Headmaster of St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney, where he formed the Gawura Campus for indigenous inner city children.  Author of “Trinity, the Daring of Your Name”, and numerous journal articles, Mr Heath became fifth Principal of Radford College ACT in 2009 and the school received the Order of Australia Association (ACT) Award for Community Service twice under his leadership. He was made a Fellow of the ACT Branch ACEL in 2011, in 2018 was awarded as a Member in the general division of the Order of Australia for his service to education and his commitment to creating greater opportunities for Indigenous students and was awarded the Australian Principal of the Year at the 2023 Australian Education Awards.

Mr Heath was appointed as the Head of Barker College in 2014, and in 2016 it was announced that the School would transition to be fully coeducational by 2022. In 2016 Mr Heath formed the Darkinjung Barker Campus for Indigenous children on the Central Coast of New South Wales and in 2020 the Ngarralingayil Barker Campus for Indigenous children in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. In 2021, following the signing of an MOU with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Dhupuma Barker commenced as a school for Indigenous children On Country in North East Arnhem Land.

Mr Heath has served on the NSW Board of Studies representing the Independent Sector (2000-2009) and is also a past National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (2013-2015). He is currently working on an unpublished manuscript titled “One Life at a Time”, exploring his journey and work to create greater educational opportunities for Australia’s First Nations people.