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Australia’s obsession with private schools is only adding to a deepening democratic deficit

My old high school recently commissioned a slick marketing video. I won’t name the school, but the video is titled The Big Pictures. The website tells me that COVID-19 provided “a unique opportunity to work with professional filmmakers, fresh off the set of films like Mortal Kombat and StormBoy”, when “under normal circumstances they would be out of our reach”. The accompanying statement – ​​replete with words like “journey”, “brave”, “innovative” and “synergy” – explains that “what started out as a bold plan for a new video to tell a story about [the school] turned into an event that says much about the [school] community”.

Perhaps it does. The video shows a lot of uniformed, mostly white students being co-opted into a promotion that shows glimpses of the school’s 3D printers, private buses, technology centre, multiple theaters and Olympic-sized swimming pool. Hundreds of students carry around big blue cards until (spoiler alert) they hold them above their heads on the main oval so that a camera positioned above them can take footage of the marketing slogan they spell out, and the school’s crest. “Be part of something that becomes a part of you” reflects the vacant emptiness of the message the video conveys. The slogan could have easily been: “We have lots of shiny things that will hopefully impress you enough to send us your children – and your cash.”

Marketing is important: the school is now the tenth-most expensive in its capital city. For the privilege of accessing its three sporting ovals, two swimming pools and various indoor and outdoor courts, its 700-seat auditorium, its 230-seat “versatile theatre”, its lecture theater with 100 “flip seats” and “integrated technology”, its “fully equipped fitness center with personal trainers and dance studio” and its soon-to-be-opened $13.5 million “Discovery Precinct”, parents fork out nearly $120,000 for each cherubic Year 7 student they want ushered through to graduation.

Why on earth, then, does 35 per cent of this school’s revenue come from state and federal government coffers? Put another way: why are taxes being redistributed upwards, into this preserve of exclusivity? There’s a straight-faced justification, of course. That proportion – 35 per cent – ​​happens to be just about equivalent to the proportion of Australian students who now attend non-government schools. Their parents pay taxes too, at least allegedly (and before minimization). Why shouldn’t some of their hard-earned tax dollars go to supplementing the education (or personal training) of their own progeny, rather than being poured entirely into the crumbling concrete state school down the road?

The vast bulk of government funding for “independent” schools – the term refers to their governance setups, not their financial relationship to the state – comes from the federal government, a consequence of Robert Menzies’s successful 1964 wedge and the unwillingness or inability of anyone – despite David Gonski’s blueprint, now 10 years old – to remove it in the half century since. Following an extensive review, Gonski arrived at the radical idea that schools that are able to select their own students (mostly those predisposed to behave in classrooms and return marketable scores on NAPLAN and university-entrance rankings), that can charge their parents small fortunes and offer fully equipped fitness centers with personal trainers, don’t actually need any public funding – especially when government schools are being stretched to breaking point. Gonski recommended that public dollars be distributed on the basis of need. That is, actually, objectively assessed need, not the kind of fantasy need constructed by the upper echelons of the middle classes.

If Australia’s democracy was a simple numbers game, there wouldn’t have been a problem: the 65 per cent of parents whose children went to government schools stood to benefit. But it’s not a simple numbers game, at least at the population level. Julia Gillard gave an assurance to the Catholic Church, and the policy her government sold as the “Gonski reforms” included the very un-Gonski pledge that no single school would lose a dollar of its public funding. Malcolm Turnbull’s government passed what he called “national, consistent, needs-based funding” with his so-called Gonski 2.0 reforms, but Labor and the Greens voted against them for a reason. Scott Morrison’s government then managed to funnel an extra $10 billion to private schools to help them “transition” to Gonski 2.0, while leaving state schools underfunded by $6.5 billion every year. Over the decade to 2020, Australian governments increased their funding to well-endowed private schools at five times the rate they increased their funding to chronically underfunded public schools.

By sheer coincidence, the proportion of federal parliamentarians who send their children to private schools seems to be significantly higher than the national average. when the sun-herald surveyed them a decade ago, most didn’t respond. Of those who did, around 40 per cent admitted to patronizing private schools. (Christopher Pyne did respond, but only to make a point of refusing to answer the question.) All Coalition senators who responded to the survey kept their kids away from state schools.

This might look like corruption: elected representatives making funding decisions that benefit themselves and their children rather than the public interest. And perhaps it is. But more than that, it’s evidence of a class stratification we’ve allowed to creep back into Australia’s school system. The high-water mark of public education in Australia was the mid 1970s, when four in every five students went to a government school. That proportion has declined ever since. It’s becoming less and less common to find public school alumni among social, political and commercial leaders.

The first episode of the Nice White Parents podcast series follows what happens when a group of middle-class white parents enroll their children in a New York public school whose students have until now been predominantly Black, Latino and Middle Eastern. “Families have that kind of fear,” parent “Rob” explains to journalist Chana Joffe-Walt when he and other parents from a similar sociocultural background are deciding whether to take the plunge. “You know, what if I look around and nobody else came with me?” Rob calls it a “collective action problem.” A similar anxiety has taken hold in Australian middle-class households, among parents who say they would send Branthony to a public school, but they just want to give him the best opportunities, or they want him to network with the right people, or they’re worried he might get stabbed or start taking drugs. Parents seem to be less concerned about the private school sector’s real-life scandals when they’re weighing the pros and cons. The Horror High of the middle-class mind is mostly a construction, of course, to express anxiety at the prospect that Branthony finds himself “alone” (in class terms) amid the sons and daughters of tradies and JobSeeker recipients.

The deleterious effects of the middle-class flight from public schools – a flight that our education policies have allowed and encouraged – creates all the problems that accompany the absence of what sociologists call “cross-fertilisation”. Friendships across the divides of class (and ethnicity, culture, gender and ability) is what makes and sustains a civic community. Walling kids with means inside bubbles of privilege generates entitled adults whose relationship with most people’s lived realities is entirely abstract – which may not be the best launching pad for these students’ future clients, patients and customers.

As the middle-class flees public schools, plenty who can’t afford to do so are being swept along. It turns out that only half of all private school fees are paid out of disposable income. The other half gets paid any way people can: credit cards, personal loans, mortgage redraws. NAB’s venture capital fund launched Edstart last year as a kind of Afterpay for school fees.

Private schools may offer “school choice”, but there’s nothing democratic about them. The state high school I could’ve gone to – which has one oval and no swimming pools – takes up half the space and caters for 40 per cent more students than the “independent secondary college” I attended. My tertiary entrance ranking may have been about five points lower (based on published studies) and I wouldn’t have captained a First XI, but I’d still have sailed into the same university course and I’d still never have played cricket for Australia. Curriculum is standardized. How on earth is it that we’re collectively comfortable with locking up enormous tracts of land amid a chronic housing crisis so that the children of society’s decision-makers can be shielded from the social consequences of their decisions?

The flight to private schools hasn’t arrested Australia’s declining performance on international student assessment indicators. Indeed, given that government schools recorded slower declines than non-government schools between 2009 and 2018, it may well have contributed to it. When Sweden introduced private schools under the rubric of “school choice”, its own very high student-assessment scores began to plummet. What private schools do contribute to, beyond any doubt, is a deepening democratic deficit. Each child who skips public schooling is one less family invested in its success, and one more family who learns that its consumer choices are more important than the basic needs of other families who can’t afford to make them.

It’s abundantly clear that Australia’s private schools don’t need public funding. If we’re really serious about seeing “the big picture”, though, we should insist that Australia doesn’t need private schools at all.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015).

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