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Academic apartheid

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 5 August 2010


Prime Minister Julia Gillard has told us she expects great progress in the next few years. Let’s see how Australia will be “moving forward” in education in the next 20 years or so.

Federal government aid for private schools began in Australia in 1963 and has increased steadily since then. More aid was promised by the Whitlam government but only on a “needs” basis. Now aid flows to all private schools, whether they need it or not.

There are many ways in which private schools are assisted. In New South Wales assistance with funding travel to the school of choice has been just one way in which parents have been assisted with their choice of schools. But generally speaking, parents have more choice if they have the money to pay for it. And governments assist them.

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As a consequence, we have lost the 19th century idea that there was a local parish school which took in the Catholic kids, while a state school took most of the rest. We now have a stratified system of schools. I am talking substantially at the secondary level.

The first group comprises elite private schools, established for the most part many years ago by churches and supplemented by more recent offerings.

The second group contains a range of religious schools: these include Catholic systemic schools. These days this group also contains a vast range of Islamic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox and other schools.

The third group contains various specialised schools: music, art and drama schools.

The fourth group is selective government schools.

And finally we have comprehensive schools.

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Thus we have a system in which where you go is determined by how much you can pay, and how far you can get the system to select you out for special needs. At the top end, there are elements of selectivity and choice. At the other end, comprehensive state high schools have become schools of last resort. By 2030 we will have more of the same. For most schools, it will be a pattern of private affluence and public squalor. And instead of attacking privilege, Federal Labor governments have entrenched it.

The merits of selective schools have been debated, but Damon Clark’s UK research (PDF 460KB) shows substantial long-term effects for students, including better entry to university and higher lifetime labour market earnings. Selective schooling in New South Wales has increased significantly since the small offerings that were once provided at schools like Sydney Boys High School. There are now many schools in city and country centres, as well as schools which have a selective stream.

Chris Bonnor, a former principal, says: “Schools which can do so are hunting out bright kids through tests, scholarships and interviews with parents and avoiding kids with learning difficulties.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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