Selling out our school system to profit multinationals

May 30, 2023
School building and lettering Public school on blackboard. Hand drawn sketch.

It was a shock but no real surprise to read that the multi-national company Inspired Education, which owns Reddam House school in the Sydney’s eastern suburbs, now plans to set up more fully for-profit schools in other areas (Sydney Morning Herald, 27/5). Who thought it would come to this? Where the inexorable march of the privatisation of schooling in this country would reach a point where even schools in the private sector begin to sound the alarm.

For Australia has surely made itself a magnet for such providers.

NSW even offers a process to fast-track such an enterprise — the “State Significant Development”.  This appears to be a process which enables private school and other kinds of developer to evade the pesky planning requirements which might be imposed at the local level – such as traffic and other community concerns.

For the benefit of readers who have never heard of this process, I consulted Google. (What I read is reproduced here, replete with an overuse of capital letters which serves to create deep suspicions about the bona fides of the process itself.)

The State Significant Development process provides an alternate approval pathway for projects or sites that are considered to be of State Significance. At its core, the State Significant Development (SSD) process enables the assessment of significant projects at the State level, rather than at the local Council level.”

The ease with which private school places can be established in this country is reflected in the fact that the Australian school system is one of the most privatised in the world. Since 1977, the cumulative effect of government policies has resulted in an ongoing transfer of student enrolment share from public schools to a growing array of independent, private schools. This hybrid system is now characterised by geographical and socio-economic divides, an inequitable distribution of resources (most significantly of teachers) and very ordinary academic outcomes overall.

It does not take much inspiration to work out that a good profit can be made from a school charging annual admission fees of $40,000. Presumably it was clear to the owners of Reddam College that relinquishing the $5m a year in public funding in 2019 was a price worth paying to shed its previous not-for-profit status.

Governments have established a policy climate in which non-government school communities – the private providers and the fee-paying parents – believe that they have a right to decide the size and location of these schools in their own best interests, free from any regard or responsibility for the effects on the operation of other schools…not on other providers, nor on other people’s children and their opportunities, nor on the distribution of the most vital resource – teachers. And not on the overall equity, quality or efficiency of the school system overall.

The Commonwealth’s New Schools Policy introduced by the Hawke government was the only serious attempt by the major funder of private schools to challenge the idea that the expansion of these schools should take account of the effects on existing schools. But this was applied only to the provision of Commonwealth funding and only for a decade. Its abolition was one of the first acts of the Howard government, with its determination to allow market forces to shape the school system.

The toxicity of debate over public funding of private schools has distracted attention from the nature of the regulatory framework for their establishment and ongoing operation, whether or not they attract public funding. Their shared responsibility for maintaining a sensible balance between supply and demand in relation to the overall school population must be built in at the point of registration.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), it has taken a submission from a private girls’ school, Wenona, to raise concerns that go beyond the legitimate question of traffic congestion in North Sydney for the 1560 student campus planned by Inspired. Wenona has asked the more fundamental question of whether there is enough demand to justify another high school in the area.

That is the very question that the State government should be asking.

What happens if the proposed Inspired, for-profit school in North Sydney does attain the status of a State Significant Development (!) and does create a number of school places excess to overall student demand in that area?

It will take political courage to ask this question. For there is all too much evidence of the unacceptable answer to it.

What will happen is more of the same. The excess places will increase the freedom for better-off families to move their children to schools with a concentration of such students. These schools will have the level of enrolments and resources to provide students with access to the full range and depth of the curriculum. Children from families at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum will be relegated to smaller, less stable schools unable to provide these benefits and where teachers are battling against the odds. These schools are over-represented in an under-funded public school sector.

The public school system will continue to be left with the heavy lifting of the school system as a whole, including the responsibility of demographic planning to ensure there is a place for every child.

If we believe that all children and young people have an equal entitlement to the highest quality of schooling this country can afford, then the primary obligation of the state is to a public school system which is widely accessible, universally affordable, secular and which conforms with anti-discrimination legislation. This means that in every area of the state, the public school must be the first to be established and last to be closed.

Reddam School is reported as claiming that its waiting list to enter year 7 is five times the number of students it can admit. Meanwhile growing numbers of families with children are suffering financial hardship which affects their physical and mental well-being and even their attendance at school.

The NSW and federal education ministers have signed a pledge to overcoming the persistent under-funding of public schools by ensuring every NSW public school is on a path to reach 100 per cent of their Schooling Resource Standard entitlement.

In the light of current and predicted economic circumstances for families, a further responsible decision would be to ensure that any additional schools or school places needed to meet population growth are provided in the public school system, where they can be accessed by all.

Now that would be a State Significant Development!


You may also be interested in this article from ABC News:

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