Should private schools be abolished?

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

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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.

 

137 comments

  • When I was younger, my parents gave me the option of attending a private boarding school, or a public all girls school, I opted for the public all girls school and 10yrs later wish I had gone to the private school. The few friends I knew that attended finished and went on to go to university and are now very successfull in their chosen fields, and are very grounded functioning human beings, where as my friends from public school (inlcuding myself) are all working menial jobs and none of us have a degree or any form of tertiary education and are barely functioning human beings..... lol. Having this discussion a while back with a small group from each, the closes we could come to why we were so different was the girls that attended the private school where encouraged to learn, where taught that learning was fun and exciting, and that being smart was nothing to be ashamed of, where as we at public school weren't given that sort of encouragement, and infact a lot of my public school friends had to get jobs whan they were 16 to help support their families, which placed more importance on making money, and also caused a lot of them to drop out. So in regards to private schools being abolished, I think they serve a good purpose, but I dont think they should receive more govt funding than a public school, if parents want to send their children to a private school, they should foot the rest of the bill, and maybe if funding was spread more evenly across all schools, then we would find the those children that attend public schools will have a greater chance, just like their private school couterparts.

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 18, 2012, 7:48AM
    • Public schools get more government money than private schools.

      > but I dont think they should receive more govt funding than a public school

      And they don't.

      This selective and misleading article has deceived you. For example in Lane Cove the public primary gets $7,120 in government funds, and the catholic school down the road gets $6,213.

      This is all available from the my school web site.

      This is a really important issue and requires debate based on the facts.

      Commenter
      Deciding on high school for 2014
      Location
      Lane Cove
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 8:31AM
    • I went to a public school and did enough work to get into uni. I have just finished my second Masters Degree. I dont think that its got to do with the public education system vs private education system, I think it's about how you relate to your parents and how they push you. Both my parents went to public schools and are university educated (Mum went back at 50 and now has a PhD). All my three siblings have been publicly educated and all have university degrees - one sister has a Masters, the other is about to finish her PhD and my bro spent 8 years working full time as a Cadet and doing an Engineering Degree part-time. I dont know how much better they could have gone if they went to a private school...?

      I have plenty of friends who blamed everyone but themselves for their lack of success academically but they were in the same situation as I was growing up - Middle-Class with tertiary educated parents.

      Commenter
      Maicat
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 9:03AM
    • Your argument is essentially an argument against private schools. If there was no such thing as a private school, the rich ambitious girls (who probably had rich ambitious parents) would have been studying and socialising with girls from less advantaged backgrounds. They would have demonstrated that it's OK to be smart and hardworking, and girls from less advantaged backgrounds who might not have ambitious parental role models, could have been influenced by their ambitious schoolfriends and their parents. It's a bad thing if our society's decision makers have never had a friend who was from a disadvantaged background because they only ever went to private schools.

      Commenter
      Karen
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 9:23AM
    • Deciding - the article is not misleading it claerly points out that non govt schools receive funding. It points out the growth in the funding, it doesnt try to claim they receive more but argues they shouldnt receive any. That does not take away the choice of parents to send their children to priveate schools. It does however allow the money allocated to non govt schools to come back to the vastly underfunded public school sector

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 10:28AM
    • I agree with Karen: also, the money parents put into a school if they have it is reflected in the public schools in rich areas: heaps of funding/fundraising by parents, which stops at high school level when they send heir kids private. Essentially, the argument is whether a kid should be left out because they happen to have poor/unmotivated or incapable parents. Those who send their kids porvate think it's fine to buy an "advantage" (as they see it) for their kids: it's not academic, it's a social group for life, and making sure they only pay for their own kid. I'm happy to help other kids too. Sponsor a kid's education through The Smith Family, education is SO important.

      My father was unemployed most of our childhood, and we went to the local public high school. We are now a surgeon, a barrister & 3 teachers. We got into arts and science and swapped to law and medicine via great marks. We put ourselves through uni and were lucky enough to have the brains and drive to do it. It was bloody hard, I never had a weekend or holidays off due to jobs, and I had bugger all time to study. I guess Cam just didn't want it enough?

      Commenter
      Maleficent
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 12:01PM
    • I guess Cam just didn't want it enough?

      That must have been it!!! Damn these lazy genes of mine......

      Commenter
      Cam
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 1:32PM
    • I went to a private Catholic school in a regional area. Why? Because the public schools in the area were so poor, full of bullying and had no interest in really encouraging students to achieve- thus students were resigned to their shitty lot in life. I did really well in the HSC and have done really well at uni. This may be, in part, as a result of my private school education but really I think my success is due to my mum constantly ensuring I was studying and doing my homework from a young age- she taught me to love learning. She would help me with my work and always encourage me even if I didn't do well in an assessment etc. I think my school encouraged academic ambition and provided excellent study options and co-curricular activities. But in terms of networking as a regional school I don't think it offered anything near what a private school in Sydney would offer. I get tired of the argument as to whether there should be private schools etc- I think the public system requires more funding to ensure all students receive a world class education so that everyone is given the opportunity to succeed and achieve their dreams regardless of where they came from.

      Commenter
      toucs
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 1:33PM
    • Cam, University education doesn't automatically mean you are remunerated well. I have a law degree and an arts degree, work at a law firm in Melbourne and earn, after tax, $639 a week!

      Commenter
      Malibu
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 2:35PM
  • Well, it all depends on the individual school. I went to North Shore girl's private school for 13 years - the only school I every went to, and it probably 'scarred' me for a very long time. There were good things about it, but I felt that my spirit was being suffocated there. It was ridiculously strict, with too many stupid rules, largely mediocre teaching and it felt like the 19th century. I don't know whether any other school would have been better for me. Things have changed now and many private schools are much more modern. But state schools have improved too and many non-selectve ones do well. I am a strong believer in co-educational schooling with ethical but not religious values being taught. All kinds of very successful people have done very well at state co-ed schools (such as my own children) because of their family background and personal motivation. These are the things that make you successful, not having marvellous 'facilities'. As a ex-English teacher who coached all kinds of students, I can tell you that there is a lot of 'dross' at private schools too. Lazy, unmotivated students who think the world owes them a living. So once again, it is the individual personal circumstances that are more important than a particular type of school.

    Commenter
    lola
    Date and time
    December 18, 2012, 8:21AM

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