1 Apr 2008, Comments Off on Don’t Fuck it Up part 2: We can haz some secondary schools?

Don’t Fuck it Up part 2: We can haz some secondary schools?

Author: Helen

Exodus! screams this newspaper article.

Official figures released yesterday showed 66.4% of the nation’s 3.4 million full-time students were at government schools last year, falling from 66.8% a year earlier and 70% in 1997.

In Victoria, which has the second highest proportion of students in non-government schools after the ACT, just over 35% of students, or 297,970, now go to non-government schools, compared to 262,948 a decade ago.

It’s articles like this one that have me holding my head and whimpering “wrong way, go back!…” I’m not referring to the government schools, but the State and Federal governments who should be supporting them. Given the level of neglect, they are actually surprisingly good, if you have the opportunity to look beyond the media hysterics and private prejudices. Sixty-six percent, as a letter writer pointed out the next day, would be seen as an overwhelming mandate if it was a government majority. And given the onslaught of scare propaganda we’ve had from the private schools, their advertising companies and their lobby group, telling us we really don’t cut it as parents unless we can cough up the money for private, I’d have expected the “independents” to do better, quite frankly.

Girlchild is starting year 11 and Boychild is in year 5. So for the next two years I’ll have my youngest in the pointy end of primary school, with the associated decisions to be made about secondary school, and my eldest at the much pointier end of VCE. My mood gets gloomier by the day as I contemplate the lack of an actual, well, revolution, post-November ’07.

I’ll just gloss over the perfomance of our State government, which according to this quite incredible headline a few weeks ago, has increased in popularity, apparently. Evidently Victorians have no wish for social justice, vital infrastructure (as opposed to, for instance, car races and encouraging more imports), environmental survival – or decent public education. Teachers in Victoria are paid 10 percent less than their counterparts in NSW and other states, which makes life interesting for parents of kids on the Vic/NSW border.

Not that I had immensely high hopes for fundamental changes from the Federal government side, leading up to the election. Since then, I’ve heard Julia Gillard stating their intent to improve the dire situation of higher education, which is pleasing, but their attitude to secondary schools seems to be “don’t say anything that might frighten the aspirationals.” Pre-election, I heard Rudd declaring in a radio interview that he (hand on heart) wouldn’t think of getting in the way of a parent and their “choice” of education, and expertly deflecting the question of whether the government should continue to fund private schools. Since then, he and Julia Gillard have been talking up the national curriculum and a computer on every desk- nothing about the relative funding of public education and the death spiral that’s resulting.

It’s the weasel word choice which makes me recoil every time I hear a government or private lobbyist pronouncement. It’s the deliberate misinterpretation of “choice” which has our education system becalmed in a third-rate system.

A commenter on a post by Mercurius Goldstein at LP, The true story of the Education Revolution, demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with this “choice” shibboleth:

I think there is an unecessary prejudice against [a voucher system] amongst the Left. The last time I was in a left-wing political organization (2 years) discussing these aspects of policy the issue of choice was met with an obtuse insistence in bolstering up the public system. The person bringing up choice was not advocating a voucher system merely bringing up his own experience. He grew up in a small town with two schools: a “working class” Catholic school and a non-functioning state high school. He said: if I’d gone to the public school I’d be unemployed.
The response was a condescending request that he not show up to the Education policy discussion the following night!

It’s the commenter and his friend who are obtuse. This isn’t choice; this is the absence of choice. Or, the kind of choice we call “Hobson’s”. Attend Catholic or private school and have a job, or a substandard public school and be unemployed.

Families who are sacrificing beyond their means to send their kids to private schools, or families who are sending their kids to cheaper private schools of dubious quality, aren’t really exercising choice – they’re being railroaded. They’re straining their family lives and increasing their debt risk because, with the combination of genuine poverty in the public system, plus a “values” moral panic, plus the guilt and fear being whipped up about children competing with each other for jobs and tertiary places, they feel they have no choice. (Just as an aside, how much of the “sacrificing” that the lower and middle income families do consists of getting even deeper into the debt trap? What will happen when the credit party ends, as there’s every indication is about to happen? What impact does the debt have on the rest of their lives?)

If you read the first linked article in the paragraph above, and you’re a parent and you live in Australia, did you find it as disturbing as I did? Without actually having a child enrolled at a government secondary school, you’d think only the most poverty-sticken misfits and sad cases would stay there. Fortunately for me, when I go to fundraising meetings at Girlchild’s school, I meet some awe-inspiring parents and teachers (as well as some very nice and, yes, brainy kids.) It’s a very good school. I have no fear that Girlchild will miss out on a tertiary place because of the school she attends. But one day, out in the workforce, will a HR person scan her CV and cross her off the short list simply because of the hotbed of drugs and crime Government school she went to?

What should the Rudd government do about it? The fact that responsibility for education mainly falls on the states, but is tinkered with by the Feds, doesn’t make things any easier. But teacher salaries need to be increased. Hugely. The teacherly career path needs to be made attractive to gifted individuals again. The SES system needs to be scrapped and the richest schools weaned off their government subsidies. That money, and more, needs to go to the public system. We need well-paid teachers, buildings and grounds which are in good repair, decent libraries and other facilities such as science labs (yes, computers, of course, but they’re not the be-all.) Long story short, we need to make the notion of choice a reality, and that can only come from restoring the public system so that it’s an excellent and viable alternative. In every suburb. Oh, and to achieve this, we need to kiss goodbye to this fetish for tax cuts (Federal) and yearly budget “surpluses” (State).

Cue the screams of “But but but, that would mean more tax!” Yes quite. It’s a matter of priorities; instead of insisting on tax cuts and upper-class welfare payments to elite schools, the new Federal government should be biting the bullet and doing the infrastructure spending that the previous government wouldn’t do. And they should be prodding their state counterparts to wake the fuck up and do the same.

I think there’s a silent majority of parents out there who would rather pay a few hundred more in tax every year than go into debt for ten thousand plus, per year, per child, and before incidentals. Or who, at least, would be amenable to the idea if the picture wasn’t so distorted by advertising and media panic.

But, you know? this isn’t going to happen. Not only has education failed to score its own category in the 2020 talkfest, but the move to private schools has been reframed now by the media as white flight. Because, you know, parents aren’t worried about public schools because their most able peers are being poached or scared off, the facilities are worn and grubby and the teachers underpaid. Nothing to do with any failure of government policy. It’s because they’re all so racist, don’t cher know.
Crossposted at Road to Surfdom

Comments (0)

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    I promised myself that I wasn’t going to comment….. but here I go. We just decided that girlchild #1 (year 5 this year) is going to go to a private high school near us (eastern suburbs).

    Not an easy decision, and one that we worked through slowly. It helped that we’ve been saving for it since she was born. In one way you could say that we already decided, I guess.

    For me the deciding factors are two-fold: the fact that parents are willing to invest in a private school suggests that they care about their children more, and will keep a closer eye on them than other parents. Girlchild #1 is quite subject to peer pressure, so this was something we rated more highly than we might have. Secondly, there is considerable doubt about the future of the local secondary schools in our area – lots of wild proposals floating around. And this is already reflected in the good teachers moving (mainly to private schools). This is a consensus of a group of us parents making the decision.

    It was also easy to steer away from the expensive privates as well – my bosses kids go to these, and we never felt any inclination to go to them, even if money was no object.

    What I actually wanted to comment on was computers in school: I am very computer literate, and girlchild #1 has had a computer in her room since she was 6 (an old spare). Now she’s just got her own laptop, another hand-me-down from work.

    So I paid careful attention to how the schools used computers. And you know what? Most of them see them as an expensive gimmick. “Oh, the kid’s don’t always bring them…”. The school we chose, everything revolves around the computer as the delivery platform. No computer? Go home and get it, cause you ain’t no good at school. And the impact on education was obvious.

    So, sure, get all the kids a computer. But it’s a waste of money unless the schools re-orientate to build education around the computer instead of paper. And that seems to be a generational thing.

    As for public schooling: I believe in it. I would happily pay more taxes to get better schooling. But I think Victorians are still so shocked by the Kennett era that we’re happy to have a non-entity as government, however bad it is.

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    Oh yes, and as for government funding private schools? With support comes control…. it’s a two way street.

    And they won’t change this because the current system would collapse under the weight of change. Just like they won’t change negative gearing, even though it sucks for most in the long term, because the change process is so scary.

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    And the media are wrong to call the exodus to private schools “white flight”. You just have to go visit one to see that’s not true.

    I’m going to stop now. Really.

  • tigtog says:

    the fact that parents are willing to invest in a private school suggests that they care about their children more, and will keep a closer eye on them than other parents

    Wow. Your other points are well-made, but this is pure prejudice.

    The most expensive private school wouldn’t provide the level of ancillary support that my high-functioning autistic son gets from his public high school. It’s a school that does well in academic rankings too, along with its sister school which my daughter attends, and their extracurricular activities are stellar.

    And the media are wrong to call the exodus to private schools “white flight”. You just have to go visit one to see that’s not true.

    I suspect that the exodus is better described as “middle class flight”, but there’s no doubt that private schools have fewer Muslims and Aborigines than many public schools.

  • Helen says:

    the fact that parents are willing to invest in a private school suggests that they care about their children more, and will keep a closer eye on them than other parents.

    I, also, found this highly offensive. Sorry Ozzie, but I do, and a closer reading of the original post would have made it clear I find this offensive and also inaccurate – a key part of the moral panic / advertising blitz from the “independent” side.

    I do not love my daughter less or care about her education less because I cannot afford to send her to private school.

    Seems being a good mum or dad is now also a positional good that can be bought.

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    Both of you mis-understood my point. Firstly, it’s not that the school cares more or less (though they generally have the resources and motivation to care more at school – but I don’t think this overly significant).

    I do not imply that parents who cannot afford or choose not to send their children to private schools do not care for their children. Not at all. And I agree that claiming so would be offensive.

    Perhaps it’s a outer eastern suburbs thing, but there’s a lot of kids out here who run free. Drugs, alcohol… The causes for this are not simple, but the consequences for the kids are. Girlchild #1 is evidently prone to peer pressure, and we worry about this. We’d like to do all we can to keep her away from this pressure. Logic and observation tell me that the parents who invest time and money in their kid’s education by choosing a private school have a much lower percentage of kids like this. And interestingly, I find that I have to exclude the expensive private schools, since they do attract a set of kids like this (rich ones, where the parents fund the drugs and alcohol. So I am told by parents whose kids go to these schools).

    The majority of parents do care, and try their best. Whether they pay for private schools or not. And given the cost (ouch!) I’m surprised that so many go to private schools. And I worry about it long term. It’s wrong, and not good for society to have so many kids in private schools. Which was a big part of our deliberations.

  • Chris says:

    I have no fear that Girlchild will miss out on a tertiary place because of the school she attends. But one day, out in the workforce, will a HR person scan her CV and cross her off the short list simply because of the hotbed of drugs and crime Government school she went to?

    I think its very rare that an employer would care which high school you went to once you’ve completed a university degree. In all the interviews I’ve been involved in of graduates, where they went to at high school has not been a factor at all. Even TER scores don’t matter by then.

  • kate says:

    Helen, tell the Girlchild that “VCE 2009” is probably sufficient on the cv. Unless she’s going for a job where they’re really interested in her academic success, it’s not very important compared to what else she’s done. I never put Western Suburbs Cheapskate Catholic Ladies College on mine. I’m happy to put University of Melbourne in at any opportunity though. If she goes to uni, just put the course she’s doing/has just graduated from. VCE is kind of assumed once you’re at uni.

    Oz Ozzie, there are a lot of kids running free everywhere. Many of them because both parents work silly hours trying to pay for private schools. It doesn’t matter what kind of school you choose, or how much money you have, teenagers need supervision. The motivation and capacity to provide that aren’t financially based. How you find a school where other parents are prepared to say ‘no’ to their kids is beyond me, I’m still at the childcare working bee stage.

  • Oz Ozzie says:

    Perhaps there are kids who have parents working stupid hours to pay for private schools. This seems so evidently backwards to me, but I guess that was Helen’s original point.

    I went to a bog standard public school. It’s never been an issue, and I have fond memories of it too.

  • Jennifer says:

    I’ve seen and heard of real people being looked down upon in Graduate hiring processes because of their school – mainly by the investment banks. Personally, I tend to up my opinion (add another 0.5 to a TER) because I know how well private schools teach to the TER compared with the public schools.

    But the more I think about this question, the more it is a problem of fundamental differences in assumptions. Is the assumption that all children should have a right to an excellent education? Or that the parents who can afford it shoudl be able to choose an excellent education for their children?

    You can tell from how I framed the question which side I am on, but this whole debate is starting to feel like the US health care debate – the world view of each side is so different that they are never going to meet.

    Excellent post.

  • mugwump says:

    We all went to school. I’ll never forget the year 11 teacher who used to turn up stoned to class. Completely protected by the unions. Would never have been tolerated in a good private school (mine was a supposedly “good” public school).

    Get rid of the teacher unions and I might consider sending my own children to a public school.

  • Helen says:

    Based on one anecdote! By that logic, I’d have to exclude the elite private schools, because you know, Kiddie fiddlers.

  • mugwump says:

    You want all my anecdotes? That would make for a very long post. I am not sure your readers would thank me.

    Needless to say, the inability to fire teachers for poor performance and the lack of reward for good performance is a big part of the reason people choose private schools. And the teacher unions are the root of the problem.

    I have to laugh when I read all the self-serving teacher union arguments about how teacher performance can’t be reliably measured. Do they really think parents are that stupid? Every other profession manages to promote the good and cull the weak, why are teachers soooo special?

    The kiddie fiddler kinda proves the point: he went to jail. In the public sector that’s about all you’ll go down for (no pun intended); anything less than gross moral turpitude and you’ll keep your job.

  • pdev says:

    We earn $200k+ per annum and choose to send our kids to a state secondary school. State schools in inner Melb & eastern suburbs are full of middle class kids-guess what good VCE results, reasonable facilities, good programs. Outer burbs totally different-aspirationals send their kids to low cost Catholic/christian schools. Most state schools perform poorly in VCE in these areas-High levels of low income, few parents with degrees etc. Melb/Syd are big cities with highly stratified soci economics-schools reflect this.

  • Jack says:


    I think God approves of you.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.