Independent Schools: Aspiration for the few, desperation for the many

Oct 16, 2022
Coins and cash, a black graduation cap, a certificate

Local councils should have no role in setting enrolment caps which force private schools to turn away prospective students (and the fees they bring in). This was the claim put forward recently to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) by a group of five principals of high-fee Anglican schools in Sydney, backed by the Association of Independent Schools of NSW (AISNSW).

These ‘exclusive’ schools argue that it is for them to decide which students they exclude and the circumstances in which they exclude them – and not for any regulatory authority, in this case local councils.

The scant recognition by these principals that their schools are part of the nation’s school system seems almost accidental. It is mentioned only to claim that they are being denied ‘a fair playing field’ in that system; and that free rein to expand their facilities and enrolments as they please could only benefit the system as a whole.

In a bravura performance, this group of principals and the AISNSW put forward claims that are astonishing to read, even in the unique and topsy-turvy world of schools funding and planning in Australia.

The AISNSW complains of the “expensive and time-consuming process” for schools applying to increase their enrolments. Their peak body is unhappy that schools are ‘having to turn students away’, including some with siblings already enrolled, causing distress to parents.

Another principal questions the planning rationale behind the cap for independent schools on the grounds that “government schools do not require a cap”.

Building upgrades, including new performing arts, tennis and aquatic centres as well as an exam centre, feature prominently in the arguments by the principals as the rationale for expanding the current enrolment levels of these high-fee independent schools.

The principal of an upper north shore school provided the SMH with details of its master plan, described as a necessary response to an increasing demand from parents for co-education. It entails increasing its current limit from 2420 students and 339 staff to 2850 students and 480 staff. This would mean an 18 per cent increase in students and a 41 per cent increase in staff – reducing its staff to student ratio of 7.1, already beyond the dreams of avarice, to 5.9.

The fact that schools funding did not feature as a key issue in the last federal election deprived private school interest groups of their customary display of political muscle in pursuit of preferential Commonwealth funding. Having had a good run from successive Commonwealth governments on the funding front, these high-end schools appear to see the approach of the NSW State election as an opportunity to get rid of pesky regulation, and to invoke the pressure on the NSW government to deal with overall growth in the student population as a rationale.

Or is there another explanation for the timing of demands from the AIS and the group of five principals? I recall, in the course of my past working life, reporting on whether de-regulation led to innovative practices in schools. I visited a private school which had introduced a split day, with junior students attending in the morning and seniors in the afternoon. It later emerged that the motivation for this innovation was not educational but financial. The school needed to expand its fee income significantly to deal with a problem of over-capitalisation. The ‘innovation’ was later abandoned, presumably after excessive borrowings were repaid.

Whatever their timing or motivation, the complaints of unfair treatment from these five Anglican school leaders do not stand up to scrutiny.

The complaint from the AIS that the application process for highly-resourced schools seeking an increase in their enrolment caps is expensive and time-consuming is absurd. After all, both Commonwealth and state governments provide public funding to private schools as a matter of entitlement, regardless of the magnitude of their private wealth or income. For schools generally, both Commonwealth and states have adopted a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). This is an estimate based on evidence of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. But public funding is provided to private schools operating above this standard, even to those whose income from high private fees alone exceeds this standard. Pork-barrelling?

The AIS and the heads of the group of five Anglican schools told the SMH of their distress at having to turn prospective students away due to their enrolment limits. But surely schools which set fees that exclude the children of the vast majority of parents in the country would be inured to this form of distress. Their argument seems to be that the distress of parents who would like to enrol their children at these schools is greater when imposed by the local council than by the schools themselves, through the decisions about their fees, enrolment criteria and optimal size.

In describing a ‘demand for co-education’ one of these school leaders tried to put a positive spin on the declining popularity of wealthy private boys schools. (The heads of the two private girls schools reported in the SMH were not seeking to enrol boys!) It is not uncommon, in my experience, to find parents who want it both ways for their own children: co-education for their sons and girls-only schools for their daughters.

It is difficult to avoid the spectre here of principals conducting raids on schools attended by ‘other people’s children’, to seize even more staffing for their own schools in the face of a serious and growing teacher shortage; along with girls to reduce their levels of toxic masculinity.

They attempt to justify their own expansionary plans by invoking current pressure on the NSW government to provide school places and infrastructure to cope with overall growth in the student population. But history tells us that, even if the local or overall school population were static or declining, these schools would still insist on their own entitlement to expand. The Hawke Government introduced a New Schools Policy in 1985 to restrict Commonwealth funding for the establishment or expansion of private schools in areas where this would damage the educational viability or economic operation of surrounding schools, public or private (and all publicly funded). One of the first actions of the newly-elected Howard Government in 1996 was to abolish this policy in response to political pressure, mainly from Anglican and other faith groups wishing to enter the market.

To argue that independent schools are being denied a “level playing field” because “government schools are not subject to enrolment caps” is specious. The NSW Department of Education site sets out the rules that apply to enrolments in public schools.

These were revised several years ago to deal with the negative social, financial and educational costs of allowing schools and parents that are strong in the market to have free rein. The reality is that while independent schools may choose to increase their enrolment at times of overall population demand, they are under no obligation to do so, whereas children have an entitlement in their own right to schooling in the public school system and state governments have an obligation to see that a place is available.

Despite their somewhat bloated claims about their academic excellence, there is no credible evidence – either international or national — that enabling increased enrolments and expanding infrastructure in private schools contributes to raising the performance of Australia’s school system in terms of student achievement overall or of equality of opportunity. The evidence, both national and international, points to the opposite.

One week after airing the complaints of the AIS and the five Anglican school principals, the SMH published research on the effects of the rapidly increasing degree of socio-educational stratification in the NSW school system. This showed that academic ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ are increasingly concentrated in high and low socio-economic status schools — to the disadvantage of those students from families and communities least able to protect and advance their educational interests.

This is not to suggest that stratification and inequality is solely attributable to the growing public investment in the privatisation of schooling. Factors outside the control and influence of education authorities play their part as well. For a start, the families and communities most able to give their children a head start in the education system are not evenly distributed across all geographical areas. And the concentrations of advantage and disadvantage generated by Australia’s anti-social housing policies feed straight into the school system.

Added to these factors, the schooling policies adopted during the Howard Government era, in particular, sponsored the privatisation of schooling but without commensurate regulation. These policies not only failed to achieve the stated purpose of raising educational outcomes, and reducing costs to governments through choice and competition, but they have left a legacy of damage to our education system.

Schools are shaped by society and contribute, in turn, to shaping it. The actions of individual schools, regardless of whether they are public or private or of their sources or level of funding, have an impact on the options available to other schools and the opportunities they are able to provide for their students.

More startling than the recent claims made by the five Anglican school principals and the AIS, in my view, was the revelation that it is being left to local councils to regulate the planning and growth of schools on the basis of their effect on traffic in their local areas. This is not to deny that the large private schools whose heads are currently up in arms can and do create traffic and other problems which reduce the safety and well-being of their neighbours.

But what about the effects on education? What about the need for a system that provides all students in all schools with equitable access to the quality of curriculum and teaching to which they are entitled so that they can achieve their personal best?

A key purpose of the public school system in a democracy is to manage the distribution of essential resources to make this possible. But this principle needs, surely, to be applied to the nation’s hybrid school system as a whole – not just to the public school system, but to all schools that are registered or publicly funded within it. Such a system will need to protect the liberty.

Surely it is unacceptable in a democracy for governments to continue allowing market forces to drive the distribution of teachers among schools, especially in the current situation of teacher shortage. We need a system where for the majority to flourish will require the restraint of some others.

What is needed now is a period of re-construction of our national school system to repair the damage done by an era of neo-liberalism. It must be fit for the times in which we live, but it must be based on democratic principles which balance freedom, equality and solidarity. This will require the establishment of a national structure and processes to develop arrangements for schools planning which are equitable as well as educationally and financially sustainable.

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