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Should private schools be abolished?

Alecia Simmonds
Published: December 18, 2012 - 6:53AM

Australians have a fine tradition of mocking the toffs. We beamed with pride when Paul Keating patted the Royal Behind, we yawned at the exposure of the Royal Knockers and we recently leapt  to the defence of the 2Day FM hosts. We may be experiencing a few hiccoughs on our way to becoming a Republic, but our egalitarian society has long laughed in the face of unearned privilege.

In England, being rich and successful is an accident of birth. In Australia it’s a product of hard yakka. Which is why, on the release of the results for HSC students today (and VCE on Monday), rich students from mostly private schools received, on average, 22 more marks than poor students from public (non-selective) schools.

Let’s imagine a fabulously wealthy John Chumley-Tellybutton of Geelong Grammar and a desperately poor Jayden Brown of Cragieburn High downloading their marks with tremulous haste. John’s chances of flunking his literature paper are 1.7 per cent, Jayden’s are 43 per cent.  There’s about a 39 per cent chance that Jayden will bomb out in chemistry and a 40 per cent chance that John will get in the top percentile bracket.

With school fees of over $30,000 and a 315 per cent increase in government funding since 2001, John would want to do well. By contrast, Jayden’s school has received an increase in government funding of only 67 per cent since 1998. Jayden may have worked as hard as his little disadvantaged tush could possibly bear, but his chances of failure are statistically about as high as John’s chances of success. Behold our Classless Antipodean Utopia!

Educationalist Bob Connell has this to say: If you wanted a better mark, then you should have chosen richer parents.

Sure, they could also have gone to a selective school, but to get in, many would need parents wealthy enough to be able to afford after-school coaching in order to pass the entrance exams. Selective school students, according to educationalist Chris Bonner, come mostly from affluent families.

At no other moment is Australia so glaringly exposed as a nation of hypocrites as when the final school examination results are released. Our entire cultural ethos is built upon ideas of a fair go for all. But we sing this at precisely the same moment as we fund the most basic form of institutionalised class discrimination: a two-tiered system of public and private schooling.

The release of HSC and VCE results are an excellent time to question why we continue to publicly fund private schools. In fact, it’s a perfect moment to ask why we have private schools at all.

Here is a response to the three most common arguments given by the pouty and the privileged:

1) Parents should have the right to choose a private school that guarantees success.

 As both Gillard and Abbott agree, taxpayers’ money should subsidise this choice. Firstly, a choice between your child having a high chance of failure and being virtually immune from failure is not really a choice. I don’t blame well-off parents for  ‘‘choosing’’ to protect their children from risk. Who would ever choose mediocrity? The problem is,  those who can’t afford it are left in schools that look like dens of disadvantage: underfunded, under-resourced and where all the clever kids with education-active parents have been poached by private or selective schools.

Schools do not exist in self-contained bubbles. ‘‘Choice’’ for the wealthy means enforced disadvantage for the poor. Secondly, the idea that the community should subsidise wealthy people’s decision to pay for their child’s education seems unfathomably stupid. Is there any more blatant form of aristocratic/ middle-class welfare? Education is not an individual right for some. It is a collective right for all that is crucial to a stable, democratic society. It should overcome disadvantage, not entrench it. We are the only OECD country where the state funds wealthy private school students. And we are all the more socially impoverished for it.

2) Success in life isn’t about where you went to school, but a potent mix of luck and hard work

 Let’s begin by saying that getting into university matters. Research shows that university educated people will earn 70 per cent more money over a lifetime than those who only make it to year 12. But beyond this base level, private schools foster elite networks which continue for life. A 1988 study by Who’s Who in Australia found that private schools are your best passport to social success.  With the ‘‘old girls’’ or ‘‘old boys’’ network comes a sense of entitlement, confidence, knowledge of social graces and perfect comportment. An old school tie means having learnt a whole set of exclusionary behaviours that award you entrance into the upper echelons of society. If luck is involved then it is the luck of birth. The meek simply inherit the worst.

3) Private schools give children values and discipline

 I admit that there is something quite exquisite about children dressed in knee length box-pleat skirts and boater hats. But isn’t the fact that they all look the same a little bit alarming? And isn’t there something vile about a secular society funding a child’s religious indoctrination? The problem with a two-tiered system is that we foster a monocultural environment on both ends that bears no relation to our diverse society.The wealthy mix with the wealthy and the poor mix with the poor. This has particularly noxious results in private schools. Private schools create a bizarre world where the opposite sex is viewed with abject terror, as is anything outside of their own privileged bubble. Yet these are the people who end up dominating corporate boardrooms and the judiciary.

At the same time that Australia started funding private schools in 1972, Finland abolished them and implemented free public education.  Today Finland is regarded as having the world’s best education system. Australia’s is bordering on the catastrophic.Obviously we need to increase teachers’ pay and qualifications, increase funding to public schools and stop subsidising the wealthy. But more than this, if we believe in a fair go for all, then private schools should simply be abolished.  Either that or we relinquish the myth of equality and accept that we’re a nation defined by caste where education only serves to reinforce pre-existing privilege.


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