More than 3.5 million students returned to school last week, increasingly segregated by wealth. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 65% will attend public schools, with the remaining 1.2 million students divided between Catholic schools (700,000) and independent schools (500,000), which are almost all religious.

In the last decade, Catholic and independent enrolments have grown 12% and 31% respectively, while enrolments in public schools have grown just 2.6%.

Many Catholic and independent schools declare an intention to develop students’ commitments to “social justice”, “compassion” and “generous service”, as taught by their sponsoring religions.

Explaining why he chose the name Francis, the freshly elected Pope told journalists: “Oh, how I would like a poor church, and for the poor.” His Jesuit order is noted for its commitment to social justice, and Jesuit schools aim to mould their students into “men and women for others”.

The price of such training varies. The only Australian Jesuit school to open in the last 60 years, Redfern Jarjum College, is a primary school for indigenous children in inner-city Sydney that charges no tuition fees. It was partly an initiative of another Jesuit school, St Aloysius College Milsons Point, for which year 12 students’ families in 2014 pay $14,256.

Jarjum also received support from another Jesuit school, St Ignatius’ College Riverview. The annual fee for a year 12 student in 2014 is $23,505, or $40,305 for boarders. Putting it another way, a year 12 day boy’s family has to put aside around one-third of a median Australian household’s pretax income, while boarders’ families needed to find an amount just short of the Australian median wage.

According to the My School website, 83% of students at both St Aloysius and Riverview students come from the top quartile of socio-educational advantage (calculated from factors like parents’ occupation and education levels), while only 1% at either comes from the bottom quartile.

These fees are significantly higher than the cost of educating a public school student, yet the federal and NSW governments still find it necessary, between them, to supplement the schools’ income with a further $5958 per St Aloysius student and $4313 per Riverview student.

A much smaller operator of schools than the Catholics, with only 52 schools nationwide, is the Uniting Church. Its schools promote the denomination’s teachings on social justice; indeed, some schools appear to make their social justice orientation a key part of their marketing strategy, differentiating them from other elite schools.

Only one NSW Uniting school going to year 12 charged annual fees below $20,000 in 2013, with most over $25,000, or more than a third of Australian median household income. In NSW, the least economically diverse Uniting school is Wahroonga Prep, whose 124 students from kindergarten to year 6 come almost exclusively from the top quartile (97%), with two or three stragglers in the second quartile.

Melbourne’s Uniting Church Wesley College teaches 2909 students across three metropolitan campuses (Elsternwick, Glen Waverley and St Kilda Road). In 2011, Wesley’s recurrent costs were covered from $64.8 million in fees, over $10.3 million from governments and $4 million from “other private sources” (e.g. investments).

Wesley’s My School profile states that it is an “open-entry” school, presumably meaning it is not academically selective, because annual fees for a year 12 student are close to 40% of Australia’s median household income.

Coupled with substantial fees and historical endowments, government contributions enable impressive facilities. Wesley students’ experience is broadened by three outdoor education sites at Healesville, Portland and on the Gippsland Lakes, a residential campus in the Victorian township of Clunes and a studio school on Leopold Downs Cattle Station in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The college’s profile on My School assures “each campus has a strong culture of promoting social justice”.

Nineteenth-century political campaigns for “free, compulsory and secular” schools were sometimes countered by arguments that religious schools would keep down the prison population. Parliaments were sceptical, but 2013 finally brought evidence that they can.

In April 2013, a corporate lawyer pleaded guilty to intentionally causing injury after punching and glassing another man at a Melbourne casino. The magistrate imposed a $5000 fine and 18 months’ imprisonment but suspended the custodial term, explaining to the defence lawyer that “I don’t think [your client] would last very long”, partly because “not many people are in jail who went to Haileybury”.

The magistrate was probably right that the attacker would have stood out: 68% of Haileybury students come from the top socio-educational quartile while, as the magistrate spelled out, few prisoners have the attacker’s “privileged background”.

The Uniting Church’s Haileybury charged secondary students over $25,000 in 2013, or around 37% of median household income. Governments chipped in over $5000 per student. The attacker’s parents’ fees and neighbours’ tax contributions had amounted to quite a pricey “get out of jail free” card.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Education Minister Christopher Pyne were all taught by the Jesuits, who also produced Pope Francis, now urging a “church for the poor”. Meanwhile, the school year resumes with the Abbott government guaranteeing Gonski funding increases for private schools, but not for public schools, which still educate most students — including the poorest.

*Professor Marion Maddox is Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Politics Department at Macquarie University and a member of the Uniting Church. Her latest book — Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education? — is published by Allen & Unwin.