More students than ever before are being enrolled in Australia’s private schools, according to new data on school choice from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Most states and territories have experienced a similar trend. Even before current increases Australia had among the highest proportion of kids enrolled at non government schools in the OECD.
Why are private schools growing in Australia?
The growth tends to be concentrated in what’s called the lower-fee sector although that can still be a burden – two or three children at school at $5,000 per child before tax income, so it is still quite an expense. By far the highest growth has occurred in the newer, non-elite non-government schools. This group of schools is heavily funded by governments.
I think there is a mystique around private schools – parents feel that they’re doing the right thing by their children by sending them to private schools. I get asked a lot about values.
What does ‘values’ actually mean?
Public schools have very good values, the most important of which is their fundamental mission to welcome all children. When people talk about values in relation to private schools I get quite irritated because I think of all the reasons why you might choose one school or another, ‘values’ are not really the reason unless you are thinking about a particular religious set of values and religious beliefs.
The majority of private schools belong to the more traditional Christian churches, the Christian denominations Catholic or Protestant. So in terms of values, the schools that have the strongest anti-discrimination values, for example, are actually the public schools. Those are values. Anything else is a myth.
When it comes to school choice, does it benefit someone to go to a private school or public school in the long term, in terms of either earnings or job success?
The big difference is to do with other factors: social class is the big factor statistically that shapes people’s outcomes. Success comes in all sorts of different individual experiences.
Some people from very modest backgrounds go on to the highest offices of the land. Former Prime Ministers John Howard, Julia Gillard, Scott Morrison all attended public schools. Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese went to a Catholic school.
The correlation between class and schooling success
And some people from extraordinarily privileged backgrounds go belly up. Statistically speaking there’s a very strong, long-term and robust correlation between family wealth, or social class or whatever measure you’re going to use, and schooling success. In a wealthy country like Australia, that’s pretty shameful. It’s much stronger than it should be.
It’s very easy to blame the media. I think media report things that are interesting, and that have conflict, and the discussion about sending your kids to which school you send your kids is a bit of a backyard conversation, a topic among parents. People have arguments about school choice. People hold passionate views, they disagree about it. Sometimes parents disagree with each other. Sometimes grandparents disagree with their children about where the grandchildren are sent. It’s a cause of struggle and interest and so I think that’s where the media interest comes from. There are also widely publicised issues public schools face, such as teacher shortages, which may contribute to parents considering private options.
There has been a long-term disparagement of public schools, there’s been many people talking them down. It is very hard for public school leaders. If they don’t talk about the crisis and the resources, how are they going to get anything done? On the other hand, if parents hear about teacher shortages, they’re naturally going to get very worried.
In a sense, Catholic schools have Catholic offices to lobby for them–as a day job. The private schools have various peak bodies to lobby for them.
Who lobbies for public schools?
No one has the day job of lobbying for public schools yet they still enrol the majority of Australian kids and presumably the majority of Australian parents are pretty happy with their local public school.
We are currently undoubtedly facing a crisis in the nation’s public schools. Now, that’s not all public schools. It’s very much determined by certain localities and certain sort of clusters of areas where there are problems.
Public school people are in a real bind. If leaders of public schools say nothing, and they say everything’s fine, how are the problems ever going to get addressed?
And yet if they talk about how much they need more resources, which they do then it has this effect of implying that the education that they’re offering is below standard and one thing we know about parents is that they are absolutely risk-averse.
That’s their job description, parents’ job description is to be risk averse. If you’re reading in the newspapers, if you’re listening to the radio or you might even see the local public school with, you know, demountable walls or falling-down buildings, your natural instinct is to do what you can to to send your child somewhere else.
Those thousands of unstaffed classrooms across the nation have an impact on parental school choice. How could it not? If you’re hearing that your child might not have a maths teacher, what are you going to do?
What impacts school choice?
Of course, you’re going to make a certain set of decisions. I would say to parents, have a look at your local school and see how your local schools are going, because it may well be that you’re not in it in an area where there are those shortages.
But yes, of course, people are going to be worried about that. And that’s not to say anything about the abiding quality of public education or the dedication and commitment of public school teachers. It’s to say that it’s shameful that a wealthy country like Australia cannot find it in its coffers to properly fund public education.
We know that public schools are the only schools that systematically enrol all children, they enrol all children in an area, they enrol all children, no matter how savvy their parents are, no matter how wealthy their parents are, no matter what kind of connections that parents have. And so it absolutely is critical to all of us, whether we send our own kids public or private to have a really strong public sector.
It’s a question of national importance.
Helen Proctor is a professor of education at the University of Sydney, with a research interest in how schools shape social life beyond the school gate. She uses historical methods to examine the making of contemporary educational systems by focussing on the changing relationships between schools, families and ‘communities’.