Mar 20

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Independent schools get a caning

Independent schools have copped a bit of a caning in the press lately.  Elizabeth Farrelly wrote an article in The Sydney Morning Herald (20 February 2014) titled, ‘The private schools add little to the mix’.  David Gillespie has been granted a lot of media time for his thesis that independent schools do not offer value for money.  His book, ‘Free Schools: How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune’ suggests it is not cost-effective to send your children to independent schools.  Now we have Rebecca Huntley and Verity Firth (the latter the Chief Executive of The Public Education Foundation) releasing a paper saying that all Australian children should go to government schools.

As with many such contributions, there is sufficient in them that is fair and accurate to make that which is not, seemingly acceptable.

Farrelly dismissed private schools as ‘Porsche swill’.  (If anyone had dismissed government schools as ‘povo swill’, there would have been outrage.)  She damns private schools because they ‘suck public funding’ whilst blithely ignoring the fact that the taxpayer’s burden for educating her daughters at a selective state school was more than twice that if she had sent them to a private school.

David Gillespie wants to be ‘an inspiration to mass action’ and get parents to abandon private schools in favour of public schools.  He’s going to be disappointed:


  • Australians like choice.  If all children were forced to go to government schools, there would be a back-lash.  We like to be able to select the schools our children go to.  We don’t like being forced to accept a government monopoly on education.


  • Politicians like money.  If we took the children currently in private schools and placed them in state schools, it would cost the government many billions of extra dollars.  In short, it would be fiscal suicide.


  • Schools like efficiency.  If all schools came under the thrall of unions and centralised bureaucracies, and if competition from private schools was removed, our school system could sink alarmingly on international tables of educational attainment.


To his credit, Gillespie suggests that educational attainment is largely determined by school leadership and teacher quality.  I agree.  Where there is rigorous selection of teachers and strong accountability of heads, you are going to get a good school.  Therefore, it is unwise to get rid of schools that employ rigorous teacher selection and demand strong accountability of their heads.

Now we have Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley writing, ‘While the trend is definitively towards greater investment in private education, Australians remain ambivalent about whether private education is in fact better quality’.

Hello!  If there is a definitive trend away from government schools – we have a picture of Australians remaining anything but ambivalent about private school education. Many want it.

Unlike Farrelly, Gillespie, Firth and Huntley, I have a great deal of respect for the judgement of Australian parents.  If families are going to part with thousands of dollars to educate their children, they are going to do careful research.  The ever increasing number who choose to pay independent school fees should not be dismissed as making ill-judged decisions.  They have weighed the relative advantages carefully.  There are many thousands of reasons why they do.

Yes, there are non-trivial problems in some government schools.  Yes, more money is needed for disadvantaged schools.  Yes, government schools need greater parental input and autonomy.  No, the answer is not to close down independent schools.

Some enemies of independent schools recognise their views would be seriously on the nose if they campaigned to close independent schools.  Half of the secondary schools students in Australian cities go to non-government schools.  That’s a lot of influence.  Therefore, the anti-independent school lobby usually say they are happy for independent schools to stay open but don’t want them to have any government funding.  That is like saying I’m happy for you to live, but I don’t want you to have any oxygen.  Without some government funding, a large number of independent schools, particularly the low-fee schools and Catholic schools, would close.

That more needs to be done to support disadvantaged schools is beyond doubt.  That the answer is to close independent schools is beyond understanding.

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