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Education: Choice? What choice?

By Jane Caro - posted Friday, 31 July 2009

The final test of whether 30 years of investing public money in private schools has been unconscionable or not is to look at whether that investment improved our education system as a whole. Not just for our most privileged students, but for everyone.

So what exactly have we got in return for our money in terms of retention, results, equity and choice?


According to data from the NSW Dept of Health, Year 12 retention rates have largely stalled and in some states have slipped backwards. We know leaving school early has a very negative effect on a young person’s life chances, particularly on employment prospects and earnings. Given our poor achievement in this area, no wonder there is so much nervous talk about raising the school leaving age.



But what about the results of the kids who do stay at school? Given the billions we have invested, surely they are improving?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, on June 22 this year, in a major speech in the US, Federal Education Minister Gillard “fessed up” about how poorly our students are doing, even, apparently, the best of them. “Our performance at the higher levels of achievement is static or declining. And our persistent tail of low achievement, associated mostly with socio-economic disadvantage, is too long.” In a nutshell she said, “our results could be summarised as performing satisfactorily, but could be doing better, especially at the bottom of the class”. What class could she mean? Social class, perhaps?

Yet, only two days before Gillard’s speech, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the following headline on the front page “Wealthy schools win cash bonanza”. According to the article “Sydney’s wealthiest private schools are being given as much as $3 million each from the Federal Goverment’s school building program while making annual surpluses of up to $3.6 million. The bonus is on top of the $13 million in government funding some already receive.”

Students in the elite private schools mentioned in the article - Cranbrook, Malek Fahd Islamic School, SCEGGS Redlands, and Kings - already enjoy results and retention rates far above the national average (but, according to Gillard, not above the international one). If these schools need such huge sums - presumably to improve their static or declining results - surely really low achieving schools need even more help?

But they are not going to get it. Public high schools, even those struggling to shorten Gillard’s “long tail”, will receive a maximum of $200,000 from the BER stimulus package. (No wonder public school students refer to themselves as attending the “pov” schools - that’s short for poverty.)

But what sort of return on our 30-year investment is this? It doesn’t appear to be improving results at all, even in the private schools that are so lavishly funded.


Worse, it doesn’t sound like our investment is being distributed very equitably either.


According to researcher Barbara Preston, in 1996, for every13 students from low income families in the playgrounds of our public high schools there were 10 students from high income backgrounds. By 2006, this already unconscionable ratio had risen to 16 low income students to every 10 high income students.

To put that another way, 26 per cent of students in Independent schools are from high income households, compared to 16 per cent at Catholic schools and a terrifying 8 per cent at government schools.

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Presentation at the IQ2 debate on June 25, 2009 by Jane Caro, third speaker for the affirmative.

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About the Author

Jane Caro is a Sydney writer with particular interests in women, families and education. She is the convenor of Priority Public. Jane Caro is the co author with Chris Bonnor of The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, published in August 2007 by UNSW Press.

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