CHRIS BONNOR. Wealthy parents flock to public schools

The results of the 2016 census are continuing to roll out. This time it is the turn of school education to grab the headlines, most recently with Fairfax telling us that wealthy families are turning away from elite private schools.

This trend has been building for some time but it probably hides as much as it reveals.

At one level it is hardly surprising. For some time now we have known that the results coming out of schools largely reflect which students walk in through the front gate each day. This is well illustrated whatever the achievement measure: it’s a few years since Bernie Shepherd and published such findings in relation to NAPLAN and the HSC. There is always a time lag but presumably parents are increasingly asking what they are actually getting for the fees they pay.

On a national level the fee amounts can hardly be called an investment. In fact Australia over-spends $5 billion each year on schools where there is no measurable achievement gain compared with the government school down the road. About $3 billion comes from the taxpayer, the rest from the parents – many of whom seem to be having second thoughts.

Of course some people still see it as an investment and private school peak groups mumble worn clichés about the facilities, quality programs and educating the whole child – the implication of the latter being that public schools don’t.

In recent years Independent schools have stretched statistical credibility to the limits to say something about the trends – but it gets harder and harder. This time around, Michelle Green, longtime chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria tells us that the figures challenge the myth that Independent schools are the sole preserve of the wealthy.

But the figures say nothing at all about the family income breakdown of the enrolment of Independent schools. They simply show that many wealthy parents, as has always been the case, send their children to public schools.

According to the media report Michelle Green also said “In fact more than half of the students at Independent schools are from low and middle income families.” Some certainly are: the equity trophy schools for the Independent sector are the more recent smaller ones, often in remote regions. Many do a great job and enrol some of the strugglers, but such schools are the exception, not the rule.

The reality is, as My School attests, that in just about every community in which they are located, Independent schools enrol a more advantaged segment of the student population than do any other local schools. In fact I’ll cheerfully give a dollar for every Independent school that Michelle can name where this is not the case. Sure, student educational advantage measures on My School are not the same as family income measures, but they are a very good proxy. There are 1132 Independent schools in Australia. The bet might cost me $10 or $20. It would be worth any cent!

The media report itself recycled a few myths, saying that the (shifting enrolment) pattern “is set to heap pressure on already-stretched state public school systems”. But the public funding of private schools is now so high that the “pressure” created by reversing enrolment trends may not be that great. Earlier this year I did an analysis of Goulburn’s schools (where state aid began) to discover that there would be a small saving if all the Catholic kids in town flocked (as they did for a few weeks in 1962) to the public schools. Perhaps Catholic school authorities might keep this in mind as they ramp up their threats to close schools.

In the meantime of course the Fairfax revelations about the apparent school choices of the wealthy might excite the Centre for Independent Studies to resume its campaign to make wealthy public school parents pay high fees. They trot this out every few years; it’s their little blow for equity (gosh, everyone’s doing it!).

I should put money on that happening this week as well. Of course it always falls over as people gently remind them that public schools are for everyone, places where kids learn side-by-side. And anyway, parents already pay through our mainly progressive taxation system.

Finally, and getting back to the Fairfax revelation, any movement of wealthy parents from one sector to another is just a niche part of the movement of students between schools. Again we have demonstrated that there is a nationwide student commute towards schools with a higher socio-educational enrolment, regardless of sector. It is making our school framework quite unworkable and costing the nation as the strugglers – increasingly in a class of their own – find it harder and the students who change schools do little better.

But that problem is too hard to resolve so we essentially don’t bother. It’s much more fun fantasizing – one way or another – about elites.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.   



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3 Responses to CHRIS BONNOR. Wealthy parents flock to public schools

  1. John Thompson says:

    I live in a middle class Melbourne suburb centred around a public primary school. Some time ago on my morning run along the street to the local park, I pondered on the number of buses picking up both primary and secondary school kids from about 7.30 am and taking them to private schools in other places in Melbourne. The buses deliver them back home some time between 4.00 pm and 5.00 pm. Why were these kids, particularly the primary school kids, leaving this community for other schools? (There is also a highly regarded public secondary school about 1 kilometre from our suburb.)
    I checked the NAPLAN details for our primary school and clearly the school was doing well. There must be another reason so I asked some of the parents of these primary school kids that were being taken away. The responses were not very consistent or coherent. It seemed to be that if you could afford to send your kids to a private school, then you should do so. When I asked how they chose the private school for their kid, many referred to the advertisements in the local paper. Every week, the local free newspaper features highly professional and presumably expensive advertisements for private schools showing well dressed and immaculately groomed smiling children in school uniforms happily doing clever things, and the advertisement features phrases such as “realising potential”, “creative learning”, “individual care”, and so on. Nearly every week, too, there is a full page feature article prepared by, or in consultation with, one of the private schools listing the school’s advantages and benefits, and noting its various resources. (Wellness centres seem to be all the rage these days.)
    So I went to the primary school and spoke with the principal, asking him why his school was apparently not meeting parents’ expectations. He began his response by asking me why I might be interested in this matter as I had advised that I had no children at the school. (I am at the grandfather stage and my grandchildren do not live in this area.) I said that I considered local schools to be key social institutions in our community, bringing people of all ages together – important hubs of community interests and actions. I suggested that schools had an important community development function and noted that in my days (the Good Old Days) the term ‘citizen’ in Parents and Citizens Associations had a particular importance.
    It turned out that the principal and I shared concerns about the kids foregoing his school, but he felt powerless to prevent it. Well, we chatted for some time and explored how the school might reach out and seriously involve the local community – not just the parents – in its activities and directions. We agreed that, with the current national debate on the future of education and its implications on our economy and way of life, schools should be key organisations in helping their local community participate. Public schools have a very important role in this discussion because of the need to ensure equity in our social fabric as technology and other forces widen the division between the haves and the have nots.
    I enjoyed the discussion with the principal and looked forward to taking part in the community outreach program that we talked about.
    Unfortunately nothing was done about it. And the buses keep coming…

    • Melvyn Dickson says:

      Very interesting John, thanks for your contribution.

    • Dorothy Hoddinott says:

      Public schools do not have large budgets for employing PR specialists or for the very expensive advertising used by private schools. They also have to justify all expenditure to the state auditor, so tend to focus resource on the education of the children in their care and the employment of additional staff to enhance opportunities for the students, where possible. Realising potential, individual care and creativity happen in public schools: private schools do not “own” these things exclusively, but the constant barrage of negative media commentary on public education and the lack of positive publicity lead parents to believe their children will be better off in private schools.

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