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.