Dr Kevin Donnelly, one of Australia's leading education commentators and Director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute, writes...
Australian crime novelist Shane Maloney argues that non-government schools are elitist, over-resourced and exclusive and that only government schools are free and open to all.
What critics like Maloney conveniently ignore is that many government schools are even more exclusive than many non-government schools and it is no longer the case that Catholic and independent schools simply represent the top end of town.
Entry to many of our capital city state schools is only open to parents wealthy enough to afford the real estate. Take the example of Melbourne’s highly sought after eastern suburban government school, Balwyn High. Instead of being open to all, enrolment is only available to those families who can afford million dollar-plus real estate in the school’s enrolment zone.
Every weekend during the auction season it’s common to hear as a selling point that the house in question is in a particular school’s catchment area and that the school is widely known for its academic excellence.
NSW has long led Australia with the number of selective secondary government schools only open to those students who can pass entrance tests. In Victoria, government schools like Melbourne High, McRobertson Girls’ High and the more recently established Nossal High, Cory High and John Monash High School are all selective schools that discriminate by only enrolling students who pass stringent entrance requirements.
Such is the popularity of state selective schools that specialist coaching clinics and tutors have mushroomed to meet the demands of those parents who can afford to pay in an attempt to give their children an added advantage.
A second myth relates to the allegation that non-government schools only serve the top end of town and that they are awash with state and federal funding. Again, the truth proves otherwise.
In relation to funding, the current socioeconomic status (SES) model is based on need. Wealthy non-government schools only receive 13.5 per cent of what it costs to educate a student in a government school, what is known as the Annual Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC).
Quite rightly, it is government school students that receive the greatest amount of state and federal funding. As noted by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library Background Note (November 2010), on average, state school students receive $12,639, while non-government school students only receive $6,606.
Instead of being a drain on the taxpayer, the fact that approximately 34 per cent of students now attend Catholic and independent schools, with the figure rising to over 44 per cent at years 11 and 12, means that governments save billions each year as they do not have to meet the full cost of educating non-government school students.
While well-resourced and privileged non-government schools like Melbourne’s Scotch College, Xavier College and Sydney’s the King’s School are easy targets for critics, the reality is that many Catholic and independent schools serve similar communities and families to those of government schools.
Based on 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, one third of independent school parents are from families with less than average full-time earnings. Many Catholic schools, especially parish primary schools, serve low SES, disadvantaged communities in metropolitan Melbourne and regional and country Victoria.
In relation to school funding and when she was education minister, Prime Minister Gillard argued there was no time for the old politics of sectarian division and class war. On one occasion she stated, “… we have left the debates of public versus private behind us. They are yesterday’s debates”. On another occasion she argued, “I want to reiterate the government’s support for the full right of parents to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child”.
While critics like Shane Maloney mistakenly seek to feed the fires of acrimony and class envy, Julia Gillard’s advice is sound. Parents’ rights to educate their children according to their beliefs are guaranteed by international conventions and given that non-government school parents pay taxes for a system they do not use, it’s only fair that they receive some government support.
Non-government schools also deserve support because they are so successful at achieving strong educational outcomes. Studies by the Australian Council for Educational Research suggest, even after adjusting for socioeconomic background, that Catholic and independent schools achieve better literacy, numeracy, Year 12 results and participation rates.
When explaining the success of non-government schools, the research also suggests that it is because such schools have the autonomy and flexibility to manage their own affairs and to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their local communities.
There is no doubt that non-government schools are increasingly popular with parents, especially low fee paying schools in many of our cities growth corridors. Their popularity explains why over the years 1998-2008 enrolments grew by approximately 22 per cent, while state schools flat lined at 1 per cent.
Instead of responding to the success and popularity of Catholic and independent schools with envy and arguing that funding should be withdrawn or cut, it would be better if critics examined more effective ways to strengthen and support government schools.
In the US, President Obama has called for more charter schools and the British Government’s White Paper on education signals a move to more City Academies and Free Schools
Such innovations are based on the premise that autonomy, diversity and choice are what is needed if schools are to succeed and that all schools, government and non-government, deserve to be properly funded.