Curiouser and curiouser: The Marketing of Private Schools

Jan 22, 2019

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. The Marketing of Private Schools

In its recent newspaper advertisement for a Director of Advancement, a long-established Sydney private school for Catholic boys described itself as “an inclusive, non-selective, school, with students attending from all walks of life”. This is a school with exorbitant upfront fees and resource levels to match. Such an audacious attempt at re-branding suggests that there is more afoot here than semantics.

Schools such as this have always borne gladly the epithet of ‘leading’ and ‘exclusive’, regularly bestowed on them by the press. Questioning whom these schools were excluding was dismissed as the ‘politics of envy’.

Because of ‘neighbourhood’ effects beyond the control or influence of education policy, very few schools could claim that their student intake is drawn from “all walks of life” and this is certainly not one of those few.

For a school with upfront fees that exclude all but a small number of families to describe itself as “inclusive and non-selective” is as preposterous as it would be were a school like the public James Ruse High with entry contingent upon an academic selection test to describe itself as being open to students across all levels of academic ability.

The Commonwealth has established a basic schools resource standard that reflects the recurrent resources needed for a student with minimal educational disadvantage to achieve a high standard in reading and numeracy. This particular school charges a fee of close to double that base amount. It is both exclusive and selective on that ground alone, not to mention that it discriminates further in its enrolment policy on the grounds of sex and religion.

Its SES measure of 124 and an ICSEA value of 1176 mean is that it enrols students from the most privileged end of the spectrum based on measures of socio-economic circumstances and school-community educational advantage. This school has the second highest ICSEA score of NSW Catholic secondary schools and is in the top eight of NSW non-government secondary schools.

In a self-congratulatory tone, the advertisement describes the provision of bursaries to 90 boys as a ‘testament to the generosity of spirit of its community’. In fact, just 6 per cent of its enrolment comes from the bottom half (Q1 and Q2 quarters). Indigenous students are among those who receive bursaries, of which some are funded from external sources and are based on selection criteria. Almost 80 per cent of its enrolments come from the top quarter (Q4), a proportion that has been maintained for some time. This school would have to reach out to far more medium to low income families to come within cooee of being inclusive.

Whatever lies behind this advertisement, it is not the only example of curious messaging emanating in recent times from the private school sector.

The Catholic sector, in particular, has had problems about where to position itself in the changing map of Australian schooling. But its identity crisis began in earnest with the funding changes introduced by the Howard Government.

The private school sector consists of around 94 per cent of faith-based schools, but the Independent Schools Council of Australia advised its members last year that the steady rise of secularism meant that they may need to think about how they handle religious education and how they market their schools. Already, references can be found in advertisements for Catholic and other independent schools that make rather vague references to their religious purposes in terms of ‘ethos’ and ‘tradition’ .

The original rationale for the entry of the Commonwealth as a funding partner in schooling – to increase equality of educational opportunity among all social groups – was abandoned by the Howard Government in favour of increasing public funding to stimulate private consumer choice.

This simply fueled the strong market forces that are endemic to schooling. Parents generally tend to avoid placing their own children in schools where they will be competing for their share of teachers’ time and effort with less educationally advantaged children. And, while many teachers resist it in favour of teaching those children who are most reliant upon their schools for any chance of a decent or rewarding life, there is an underlying gravitational pull towards those schools where student achievement and success are easier to achieve.

Despite various attempts to make public schools more like private schools through creating ‘self-governing’ and variously ‘selective’ schools, the necessities and obligations of public schooling act to dampen market forces and to keep these schools more necessarily attuned to changing social and political realities. Public schools cannot refuse students entry on the grounds of parents’ inability or unwillingness to pay upfront fees. They must conform with anti-discrimination law. The legalisation of same-sex marriage has not sent them into a frenzy.

But, without this discipline, private schools are exposed to an increasingly fickle market, driven far less than in the past by traditional cultural and religious loyalties.

The public is now more informed than previously about the gap in resources and achievement levels between those schools serving the most educationally advantaged students and those that do more than their share of the heavy lifting.

Being an ‘exclusive’ school may no longer be the selling point that it once was. High-fee schools are operating in a market where educated and informed parents are aware of growing concern about inequality and are questioning whether high private fees schools represent value for their own money in terms of educational outcomes; and finding it hard to justify public funding to schools operating at resource levels beyond the dreams of avarice can be justified.

In its advertisement for a Director of Advancement this particular school recognises that it needs to help parents feel good about the choice they are making at vast personal expense.

On first seeing it, this reader assumed the school was seeking an educator to advance the quality of its teaching and learning. But it turned out that ‘Advancement’ was code for “Fundraising, Alumni Relations and Marketing and Communications, building donor relationships and securing major gifts”.

Does any of this matter? Is it the business of anyone outside the school itself if its new marketing strategy is to brand itself as “an inclusive, non-selective, school, with students attending from all walks of life”. Is this simply a bit of harmless, even amusing, posturing?

Does it matter if private schools show signs of losing their bearings and market themselves through mixed or misleading messages?

After all, schools that exclude students on the basis of parents’ capacity to pay fees, their cultural or religious background or personal circumstances are a fact of life. Their curious marketing strategies should not distract attention from ensuring that our public schools have the resources to meet their obligations to their students and to the wider society, since these are the schools that provide the foundation for universal, compulsory schooling.

Here are some of the reasons why it matters.

It is hard to believe that there are many educators in leadership positions who would be so ignorant of the prevailing realities of the Australian education system that they would describe high-fee, lavishly resourced schools as inclusive or non-selective.

This advertisement displays a lack of respect for and an indifference to the teachers and the students who actually do work and teach in ‘inclusive, non-selective’ schools.

Carelessly appropriating the mantle of schools which are open to all-comers in their local areas can only add to the bitter and divisive politics that have long bedevilled our school system. It will be more difficult than ever to achieve the mature and informed debate we need about schools funding and planning policies if young people who are highly educationally privileged are being taught that the circumstances of their schooling are the same for children from families in ‘all walks of life’.

Whether or not the claims in this particular advertisement were made to alleviate any qualms some parents may have about the exclusiveness of the school, they are an

insult to the intelligence of those parents whose children are excluded but whose taxes the school accepts towards funding its operation.

Treating your fellow-citizens as fools: is there a Latin motto for that?

Lyndsay Connors AO  was the co author with  Jim McMorrow  of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

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