Summer: heat, cicadas and rising fees in private schools

Jan 19, 2024
School student.

Private school fee rises are as intrinsic to an Australian summer as the screech of cicadas. And instead of relaxing in the holiday heat, I find myself plagued with questions about whether or how to respond to the former. Do these fee rises even matter?

Should I be pleased to see that prohibitive fees in these schools enable them to provide at least some principals and teachers with the level of remuneration that should apply to the teaching force across our entire system? Why not leave it at this and go back to reading my novel?

I try to convince myself that there may be a good case for doing just this. For a start, this year’s news of fee hikes in the ‘top’ private schools (reported in the SMH on January 9 and 11) is much the same as for the past twenty years or more. Year after year, their fees rise. Whether there has been high or low inflation, increases or decreases in their public funding, the fee rises are inexorable. On a more serious note, headlines about prodigal fee rises, plunge pools and Scottish-castle-like libraries draw public attention away from the entire school system and the toxic features of its operation. The recent expert panel report to the Commonwealth to inform a better and fairer education system spelled out that “the quasi marketbased nature of the Australian education system entrenches disadvantage”.

From a personal perspective and in my private life, I can’t seem to avoid being grumpy about an increase in salaries to principals and teachers whose choice is to work in schools that are not doing their fair share of the heavy lifting of our school system. And this mood darkens as I read the pronouncements from private school authorities and lobbyists that their fees have to rise in response to an agreement reached last year that will make beginning and top-of-scale teachers in NSW the nation’s best paid teachers in public schools and deliver increases to all others. These are teachers in the schools that are doing far more than their fair share of the heavy lifting.

Hoping to avoid having to spend any more time thinking about this issue so that I can get back to some light reading, I try again to convince myself that there may be some good reasons to ignore news about fee rises in private schools. I recall past conversations with teachers from high-fee independent schools which suggested that their working lives were not always a bed of roses. During formal consultations earlier in my working life as a member of Commonwealth consultative and advisory bodies, I heard their complaints that the pressure from parents could be crippling. (To quote one teacher, “they expect us to turn every goose into a swan”). I also tell myself that it is possible that to pay attention to fee rises in private schools charging around $50,000 could be to give them the kind of attention and publicity on which they thrive.

As a mature-age citizen, I recognise that the actions of those private school authorities which charge exorbitant fees are being taken within the policy framework set by governments in this country.

I live several blocks away from one such school where the local traffic and ambience has been disrupted by the construction of a cavernous underground parking facility. An abundance of heavy earth-moving and other building equipment has been working on this site for more than a year as part of what the school describes as its program of ‘education renewal’. However irrelevant to educational outcomes an underground parking facility may be, the fact is that this school is working within the scope afforded to it by governments. The fact that this equipment is working at this school site rather than on the construction of affordable housing and support for devastated areas elsewhere reflects flaws in public policy frameworks arising from cumulative decisions by successive governments.

Should we simply accept the fact that, in our democratic society, people with the financial capacity and desire to do so are entitled to spend it on high private school fees? And that these schools will spend their untypically high level of resources on lavish buildings and facilities to compete with each other and with other schools for student enrolments drawn almost exclusively from high income families? Yes, I believe that we must. The reality is that there is barely a country in the world that does not have some tradition of schools of this kind and their existence precedes the advent of democratic governments and their provision of public schooling by centuries. The answer to the question of why Australian governments further expand the coffers of these institutions lies in the realm of base politics.

I accept the realities of living in a democracy, where shared decisions require compromises to achieve the consensus necessary to progress. Compromise between different sets of values and priorities is necessary, but too much of it can compromise the entire school system, undermining the democratic values on which it should be based and, in the end, weakening democracy itself.

Playing fields, well-being centres, swimming pools and theatres are one thing. But there is a clear line to be drawn between the entitlement of parents to invest privately in the education of their own children and an entitlement to schools which can use their financial capacity (drawn from a combination of exclusionary fees and recurrent grants from governments) to pay above-award salaries in order to attract a disproportionate share of the nation’s teaching force.

The independent school sector may not have caused a teacher shortage but it has certainly contributed to it. Stand-alone schools lack the capacity for efficiencies and economies of scale which are available to systemic schools. Taken as a whole, the private school sector already consumes more than its fair share of teachers and, as Chris Bonnor has demonstrated, if Australia’s teachers were more equitably distributed then the current teacher-supply problem would be significantly eased.

Governments need to recognise the nation’s teaching force as a national asset. It is teachers who provide students with access to the understandings, knowledge and skills built into the school curriculum. Teachers are to the nation’s school system what the waters of the Murray-Darling river system are to the environment. Democratic governments surely have an obligation to protect the human rights of all Australian children to a fair share of the quantity and quality of the nation’s teaching force and of access to the benefits of the full range and depth of the curriculum.

One option for governments, both Commonwealth and state, would be to make public funding for all non-government school authorities contingent upon full transparency of their private incomes from all sources (including trusts, foundations, etc), and to withdraw all public funding from those which pay over-award salaries to principals and teachers.

A further and more rational option, in my view, would be for the two levels of government to work together to achieve agreement that the registration of private schools by states and territories would be contingent upon their paying school leaders and teachers in strict conformity with the relevant salary awards—no higher and no lower.

Reflecting again on past career experience of national consultations, I recall that years ago — when computers were first being introduced into the school curriculum — the then director-general of education in one state found that it was impossible to get a teacher of computing studies to a public school outside the capital city because they were all snapped up by the wealthy private schools.

In concluding this essay, I need to confess that I have sometimes found the issue of fee rises in cashed-up private schools quite amusing. I may from time to time and in the company of family and close friends have gloated at the fact that, on some measures of HSC success, the public high school attended by grandsons outranks the aforementioned school with the subterranean parking. This is unworthy when I know some of these ranking measures are a bit dodgy. I have definitely been guilty of expressing incredulity at the contradiction between the statements and actions by some of these schools and the religious values which they profess. While this form of amusement may provide personal therapy, it is not appropriate to the gravity of the situation.

For it is chilling to read in the report from the expert panel referred to earlier that Australian schools have some of the highest levels of social segregation among all OECD countries and that this trend is only worsening over time…and that the 98 per cent of the nation’s public schools are still being funded below their Schooling Resource Standard agreed as appropriate by governments, while the bulk of non-government schools combine their public and private resources to operate above that standard. Providing some students with an impoverished schooling puts them at risk as individuals. It also entails risk to the wider society, through planting the seeds of social division.

It is not acceptable that a democracy allows principles that can only be described as a form of social Darwinism to drive any part of its school system.

In the context of teacher shortage, it is unconscionable that Australian governments should be licensing and enabling a small but powerful group of cashed-up private schools to behave like apex predators, capturing more than their share of teachers at the expense of schools where they are far more sorely needed.

I live in hope that we will elect a Commonwealth government that restores the principle that existed in legislation from the Whitlam era until it was erased by the Howard government:

… the primary obligation, in relation to education, for governments (is) to provide and maintain

government school systems that are of the highest standard and are open, without fees or religious

tests, to all children.

But I am now of an age where it will need to happen before too long, if I am to have any hope of having enough time left to relax and read my way through the books piled up on my bedside table.

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