Discrimination recriminations in the debate about private schools

Nov 7, 2018

Debates about discrimination in schools need to go much further, argues Chris Bonnor

The war of words about real or imagined discrimination by private schools doesn’t look like going away soon. Latest skirmishes are between Anglican schools and their mainly ex-students. The former say that current protections are needed so that schools can “maintain their ethos and values with regards to core issues of faith”. In Fairfax newspapers John Collier attempt to explain it away But Cathy Sherry suggests that banning LBQTI teachers might shrink their pool of quality educators. This debate can be never-ending … but it can still go much deeper. 

Schools are characterised by inequitable discrimination at a number of levels. The right of some schools to reject gay kids is just one oddity in a school system plagued by an unequal mix of obligations, responsibilities and accountabilities. Although unintended, the Ruddock review may yet place this oddity under the spotlight. 

The oddities are especially noticeable between the school sectors. We know that public schools must be open to all students from all backgrounds in all places, but private schools have long been considered to be just … private, with no such obligation and free to serve who they like and where they like.

We now need to ask what public obligations should really accompany public funding of schools, regardless of sector? It is a fair question to ask: taxpayer funding of private schools has reached a level where they receive almost as much funding as do similar public schools. In financial terms, and high-fee schools aside, most non-government schools are now government schools. For them to be government funded and private is neither logical nor sustainable. Equivalent countries such as New Zealand don’t allow this; neither should we. 

We need this debate. Last year’s marriage equality plebiscite demonstrated that when it comes to sexuality the public mood has changed. The penny has dropped in Canberra that a public that supports marriage equality is hardly likely to turn a blind eye to discrimination around sexuality in schools. In a similar way there is now much greater awareness of issues of equity and a commitment to a fair go within and between schools. 

The reality is that while the funding has risen the legislation and regulations surrounding private schools largely hasn’t changed. There has been some convergence between the school sectors in areas as curriculum, assessment and teaching standards, but significant differences around their operation, accountability and obligations remain. 

Examples are easy to find. We don’t, for example, really know how many gay students private schools have expelled. In fairness, probably not many, but non-government schools simply don’t have to tell us. Notwithstanding their substantial public funding, private schools are not ‘government agencies’ under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. 

The biggest difference between the sectors is created when students try to enrol at school – and the biggest act of discrimination is the charging of fees. The very existence of school fees at different levels guarantees that we end up distributing children to schools on the basis of family income – creating a socio-economic hierarchy of schools, something which makes an almost unique Australian contribution to our overall mediocre student achievement.

Other enrolment discriminators play their part. While most fee-charging schools claim to be non-selective they can routinely ask for some or all of non-refundable fees, reconfirmation two years prior, full family details, referees and additional details at interview. Schools are variously able to apply additional discriminators or incentives in the form of selective fee exemptions, scholarships, entry tests, previous school reports and test results and other restrictive (including religious) criteria. 

Some government schools are also able to employ some of these discriminators. Despite enrolment regulations, high demand public schools can be quite selective in who they let through the gate – a process which is institutionalised in the case of selective schools.

We are constantly told that it is about choice by parents and the capacity of schools to create a preferred ethos, uninhibited by the intrusive need to enrol “certain cohorts” – as less desired students were once described by a prominent politician. But the downside of this discrimination is huge as some schools accumulate the social, cultural and even financial capital of some families – leaving deficits to pile up in the schools of the less fortunate.

Maybe we’ll quite successfully reduce the discrimination faced by LGBTI students. We need to celebrate this achievement, but the headlines will fade away and that’s as far as we’ll go. There aren’t many headlines in the slow and grinding impacts of discrimination across the rest of our system, just big problems that continue to accumulate.  

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

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