14 Apr 2009, Comments (32)

The Home ATM is out of order #2: Thinking about schools

Author: Helen

So, to revisit my “Home ATM is out of order” post, I think that while subprime mortgages have been getting a lot of attention with regard to the Great Financial Crisis, the problem we have here in Oz is more to do with all debt and how our whole economy has become dependent on spending more than we earn. Mining home mortgages for their equity, because house prices always rise, don’t they? has been a very popular way to do this for people who are relatively well-paid and settled, but it can’t go on forever. What happens when it stops?

Where did those home equity loans and lines of credit go? Irvine Renter points out that the situation went really toxic when people realised that they could take out money, not just for renovations – which would then increase the house’s value – but for consumer spending. Boats, cars, holidays, that kind of thing. But I can see that many people who would balk at spending on these kinds of things might consider using their home equity for something they consider more important, more reasonable, more of an investment.

Back in the Australian context, I’m wondering how many households have been mining their home equity for education.

Under the previous government, a culture was built up whereby private education has been valorised at the expense of public, and (because of poorly designed funding systems) rewarded disproportionately. At the same time, the public school system has been starved of resources to the point where even parents who would rather choose a properly constituted public system feel compelled to go over to the private system simply because the local high school is too run down.

The peak body of the “independent” (private) schools has relentlessly pushed the line that private schools aren’t just for the super-rich, and that many parents of modest means are “making huge sacrifices” to send their children to private schools. We used to have the apocryphal taxi driver trotted out: “We have taxi drivers’ children at our school!” It’s difficult to prove or disprove the industry’s claims that our elite schools are filled with the happy offspring of taxi drivers and process workers, whose parents are forgoing the second and third car and the annual holiday to Tuscany in order to fund their childrens’ education.

I think you can see the holes in this argument. I have been looking around in vain for the second and third Mercedes which I can hock, and the Tuscan holidays, and the beach house which I can sell, but sadly, they are not there.

The marketing spin skirts around the unspoken ideas “if you really love your children, you’d go private” and “education is a competition, and private education will give your kids an edge”. And of course there was the idea, enthusiastically kicked along by the last Federal government, that private schools espouse values whereas public schools don’t. It puts a great deal of psychological pressure on parents. I’m thinking that many parents – and this is conjecture only, mind you, and this is a blog, not the Fin Review, so… many parents may have been doing the equity mining thing to put their kids through private school.

Recently articles like this and this have begun to appear about school fee defaults and home reposessions. Note that the second article describes a mother who contemplated suicide when she was forced to consider taking her kid out of private school. Moral panic can be a dangerous thing. Note also that the Christian Values of the private system, the superiority of which has been rammed home to us by marketers and the Howard government, seems quite a flimsy facade when they start behaving like the businesses they are.

The articles cite job loss, loss of bonuses and the effects of declining interest rates on grandparents as the reason for the defaults. The writers don’t mention the effects of the credit crunch and the end of the home ATM bonanza. They are talking about people losing houses. It’s just my guess that housing credit is contributing to the situation.

The outcome, of course, is rising enrolments in the previously despised public system. You’d think I’d be pleased, because surely it’s possible that a genuine crisis in the private system might lead the Labor government and State governments to re-think the current neglect of the public school system and decide to fund a system which will educate all comers, whether they’re headed for the boardroom or the coolroom. Well, it’s possible. But it’s very probable that before any such desirable policy change takes hold, I’ll see the same effects on the public system as I saw on the public transport system after the rise in petrol prices: severe overcrowding and overstrain on the system without any commensurate action by State governments to respond to the increased demand. All just as Exploding Boy is beginning his secondary school career. Lucky us.

Comments (32)

  • Chris Grealy says:

    Let’s not forget health either. Often a mortgage is the only way to finance urgently needed health care – eg you can’t work because you’re undergoing chemo – so how do you pay the bills?

  • Helen says:

    That’s possible even here in Australia where illness takes you out of the workforce for lengthy periods, but I’m focusing on schools here. This is not to discount illness as a topic, but that wasn’t my focus.

  • M-H says:

    Moral Panic is so evident in a lot of this debate, along with a thinly-veiled racism (I think it is believed you get a ‘better class of foreigner’ at private schools – ie Asian rather than Lebanese or Polynesian). However, I’m afraid that the idea of education as a purchasable commodity is the one that worries me the most in all this. As I work in a Uni I am hearing stories of parents (and students) who have the idea that the fees are paid in order to gain a pass mark and eventually a degree. Of course, what you are purchasing with your fees is the opportunity to pass or fail, but that’s not how it’s coming to be viewed. e.g., when my partner was a HoD a few years ago, a father threatened to report her to the Office of Fair Trade because his daughter had failed her exams, and he’d paid good money for her to get a degree.

  • Helen says:

    Yes M-H I read about that case too. I think that’s a danger, with the more expensive end of private education. You put your life in hock to that extent, dead right you’ll want results.

    But we need those bright children in the public and private schools, of course. And that’s another topic and one you’re sure to have explored before yourself 🙂

  • armagny says:

    “At the same time, the public school system has been starved of resources to the point where even parents who would rather choose a properly constituted public system feel compelled to go over to the private system simply because the local high school is too run down.”

    Tell me.

    The likelyhood of governments failing to invest to meet the present boom terrifies me now. We will end up with the kidlets on 3 or 4 waiting lists I expect, though it’s only 1 so far and that’s a backup in Canberra (!). We are also shamelessly (and forensically) researching the public schools where we are looking to buy houses with a view to doing our best to be close to one that’s got it’s act together. Thankfully, perhaps due to less parents there using private schools or something, the slightly cheaper areas we’ve recently shifted our house hunt towards actually appear to have more good public schools around.

    Good luck…

  • armagny says:

    it’s its it’s its nang nang nang *slaps head*

  • Chris says:

    Similar to people funding private school fees through housing equity, its also getting increasingly common for people to spend quite a bit of extra money to buy a house in a specific area just so they get into the catchment zone for the public school they want to send their child to.

    I wonder if it would be more equitable to ban zoning and make it first come, first serve or a lottery instead. Public schools in rich areas can get quite a bit of private funding through donations (a colleague of mine donates a few thousand a year to the school his children attend).

  • Chris says:

    Sorry comment crossed with armagny. From what I’ve heard most of the public schools in Canberra are pretty good and reasonably well funded especially compared to public schools interstate. Lots of students from over the border attend Canberra public schools.

  • armagny says:

    Chris I’ve heard good things. Reason was partly that the school in question (NOT Cgrammar) is the only high school, public or private, which I’ve known a number of people to attend and all enjoy- jocks, artists, et al.

    We’re doing that which you note regarding zones. I wish it didn’t have to be so.

    The problem with ‘lottery’ being ‘equitable’ is that parents aren’t completely passive players in this and it will put even more pressure on them to secure private places if they can’t have any control over the school their kids go to. Personally I’d be happy accepting whatever was offered as long as it covered my non-derogable basics:

    – Comprehensive music teaching
    – Languages
    – Plenty of History, literature and other humanities
    – An emphasis on the intellectual and artistic for their own sake
    – Minimal issues with violent bullies or gangs
    – Sufficient numbers of students going on to higher studies, without needing to compete with the McKinnon-type figures, to suggest that my kids will have that chance at that school.

    Probably about half the govvie schools in the area we are scouring for houses appear to substantially meet my requirements, so I’m not asking the earth. Just happens they all use a ‘zone’ because of high demand.

  • Helen says:

    Yes, I’ve heard really good things about Canberra schools too.
    Footscray CC has really rocked for Girlchild. It ticks all the boxes above, except that a friend of hers switched schools because of being bullied, but GC herself has not experienced any bullying. She is powering ahead.
    We are currently undergoing VCE year 12 (Girlchild) and 6th grade, so, High school transition (Exploding Boy). *Shudder*

    I will be on the turps but good by the end of this year.

  • It’s hard to believe that a school that has fees of $10k – $12k AFTER tax could have many taxi drivers and cleaners kids attending considering that the fees don’t feed or clothe the kids nor do they put a roof over their little headies or buy the laptop and school excursions to the French campus.

  • Caroline says:

    I experienced both, the exclusive Ladies’ College and the local High School. I categorically refused to go back to the former when the hypocrisy there became too much to take, I also knew that the budget was tight to non-existent at home so my chances of wriggling out of an unhappy situation at the Ladies’ College, (whose motto we all knew was actually ‘win at all costs, girls’) was good. Interestingly they didn’t turn out women who felt they had any right to what as expected of them, rather it was a finishing school for well educated wives– a truly dysfunctional place.

    At the High School our dux was a girl whose mother was herself a teacher (but not at that school) and I credit this girl’s continuing academic success in life, (she has gone onto publish 30 books) largely to the undying support she got at home, not the milieu she found herself in at school. Sure a bad school doesn’t help but a strong, supportive home life where parents take an interest in what the child is actually learning will make the world of difference. Too many parents choose schools based on their own vanities and insecurities and having made their choice then cease to be terribly interested in what actually goes on there. An overly-involved parents can be a sign of a deeply rooted neurosis aside from being merely annoying, but the quality of love, interest and encouragement at home has a far greater bearing on the happy outcome to schooling i.e, learning the three Rs and a love and enjoyment of life. Too often school is nothing more long day care for adolescents and for some, simply a prison. If parents don’t have the time or energy to instill values, broadly educate and thereby nurture their own offspring then they probably shouldn’t have become parents in the first place. (Hey, I know, wildly idealistic).

    Private schools consider their own reputation of far greater importance than the needs of individual students and they achieve better academic results simply through the application of extreme pressure. Some ‘kiddies’ respond well to being pressured into achieving, while others simply question why. I don’t doubt where the child is simply ‘hopeless’ the pedigree and personal wealth of the parent or parents, and whether they have more little sprogs in the pipeline has an influence on end results.

    I also fail (again) to understand why private schools should be funded by the government at all.

  • armagny says:

    “hard to believe that a school that has fees of $10k – $12k AFTER tax could have many taxi drivers and cleaners kids attending ”

    I’d like to see that brochure. While the Canberra option we’ve enlisted with is in that sort of range, Melbourne seems to average around $14-$16K per year in high school. Even Eltham College, which at first got me a little excited as they are secular and appear to want to do things differently, is up around 20K along with the more aggressively snooty places.

    When I think of the beautiful places we could take Bear and Mitt Mitts to visist, the things they could do and experiences they could have for that sort of money, it gives things some perspective…

  • Helen says:

    Good point. Of course, I’ve done the Private School What If numbers; who hasn’t? Thing is, those fees aren’t the whole of it, as you say. There’s the whole Thing of the uniform for a start. Then there are the extracurriculars and trips and cultural enrichment add-ons as you describe. If we bootstrapped one of our kids into private, that kid would be the one with the second hand uniform and missing out on school trips, camps and cultural enrichment extras. Then we’d have to do it all over again for the second kid.

    I might mention that one source of less affluent students to the private system is grandparents – and that’s drying up, too, with the GFC, because of financial losses and declining interest rates.

    Also, supporters of the private system say, “Well, not all private schools cost 12,000 (or 14-15 K as you say Armagny, and I haven’t even mentioned the ones over 20!) Well, quite so, there a plethora of cheaper ones which sprang up in the Howard years; but is Upper Bumfuck Girls Grammar going to be any better than a well run, properly funded and constituted public school? And do I also want to send them to Upper Bumfuck Happy Clappy Christian / Muslim / Crystal Woo School?

    When I think of the beautiful places we could take Bear and Mitt Mitts to visit, the things they could do and experiences they could have for that sort of money, it gives things some perspective…

    That’s right!

    Caroline, your trajectory was the same as mine. I left the private system at the end of year NIne as it is now when my parents moved to Victoria. What year did you make the move?

    As well as “extreme pressure”, Private schools maintain their edge by expelling or nudging out students who don’t perform, because unlike the non-selective public system they’re not required to take all comers. So it’s not a level playing field by any stretch.

    As for private schools being funded by government, that’s part of the “poorly designed funding system” I referred to. Let people have their private schools, but put our tax dollars into a (let’s say it again) properly funded, well run, properly consituted, excellent public system!

  • armagny says:

    “Upper Bumfuck Girls Grammar going to be any better than a well run, properly funded and constituted public school? And do I also want to send them to Upper Bumfuck Happy Clappy Christian / Muslim / Crystal Woo School?”

    No and no. I went to a cheaparse catholic school for 7-10 and it was for the most part an anti intellectual dump.

    Then I went to Abbott’s refinery in Sydney for 2 years and I can confirm if you send your kid to a poshe school and don’t also buy them the right sneakers etc they will live in hell.

    TB: http://tinyurl.com.au/x.php?1rry

  • Chris says:

    armagny – we considered school zoning when we bought not so long ago, but there was a difference of about 100-150k in house prices to get into the school zone we’d like compared to just a couple of kilometres away. Just in interest alone that would be a pretty big contribution to school fees or educational trips.

    Instead (and we have a few years before it becomes urgent) we’ll look at the public and private schools nearby that fit the criteria we’re looking for. Pretty close to what you listed though I’d also add good maths/computing/science support as well as wanting to know what sort of support programs they have for students who academically significantly different from the average (eg those who really struggle and those who do really well). I had a pretty good experience at a private school so other than wanting to spend the money elsewhere I don’t have any big objections to going the private route if I can see a big enough benefit.

    Caroline – good point about the home environment being very important. One of my friends from uni was the only person to go onto uni from her high school in her year. 3 of her siblings who went to the same high school and also went onto university. Its unlikely that its due to just luck (and neither of her parents were university educated either).

    Helen – I don’t know about extreme pressure, but more pressure than the average was one reason I ended up a private school as my parents thought I responded well to it (and the teaching culture here was very different from where they came from). In retrospect I think it was the right choice for me, but I realise its not for everyone.

  • Kris says:

    Helen, I really enjoy your posts on public education, and they have absolutely challenged my assumptions, and changed my approach to schooling options.

    In particular I’ve become aware that so many people’s starting position is ‘we will send our kids to a private school unless there’s no other choice’, rather than ‘we’ll send our kids to public school unless it’s proved to be not okay’. (Though the approaches in these comments don’t bear that out …)

    We were the same, and once we switched our starting point we were able to see clearly how great the local school is, because we took the time to investigate it beyond listening to a bunch of classist comments on the catchment area. It’s been a revelation and offers so much freedom to us : more opportunity for travel, easier transportation to school (they’ll be able to walk), no need for two jobs, small mortgage … it’s brilliant. We are lucky in that for idiosyncratic, community and structural reasons, the particular school has countered the rundown of the system generally.

    I sound like a convert. I am.

  • Cristy says:

    I went to several public schools in Canberra and they were fine in terms of resources, etc… But I always felt as though there was an underlying mistrust and, well, dislike of children that ran through everything – from the teachers to the reception staff. Then I attended a small alternative private school in the States (because people were being shot at my local DC public school) and it was The Best experience of my life. The staff – teachers, admin, principals -made it clear every minute if the day that they liked and respected us and really wanted to be there to help us in any and every way possible, not just to learn, but also to develop into balanced adults with a sense of social justice, commitment to community service, the arts, and an understanding of moral philosophy.

    My family had always been utterly committed to supporting the public education system and I find it really hard to move away from that, but now I find myself dreading the idea of sending Lily to a place that doesn’t respect children. Resources not really fuss me, but disrespect does…

  • R.H. says:

    Caroline has it right; home life can make private or public school choice a non-issue. It may be a surprise, but many parents have no ambition for their kids whatsoever.

  • Caroline says:

    Helen I defected when I got into Senior School (as an 11 year old ‘senior’). By then I had my sister’s teachers who were stunned, shocked and mortified that we were so dissimilar. It was around this time however that I learnt what the word hypocrit means. It was a revelation and I was incredulous, jesus man, they were fucking everywhere, nobody told me this was going to happen! It was a lesson for which I must however credit the Ladies’ College, but it sounded the dealthknell for our continuing association.

    I now wish I’d been to a Steiner school. School was an ordea and I have largely blotted it out from memory.

  • Cristy says:

    “not really”, should read “don’t really”… Typing on an iPod amplifies my tendency towards typos and poor spelling etc.

  • armagny says:

    ” School was an ordea and I have largely blotted it out from memory.

    Ditto, and this largely underpins my and Beloved’s biggest concerns.

    “Typing on an iPod ”



  • blue milk says:

    I found this post and the discussion it prompted absolutely fascinating. Still not sure where we’re headed exactly with our child/children.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    This is, as the understatement of this entire blog article and comments, a tough one.

    Our wee one is in year four this year and, having just moved to Melbourne, within TWO DAYS of her starting I had the ‘So what college are you going to send her to?’ question from four different sets of kids’ parents. All with anxious eyes, as if my answer might influence their decision and vice versa.

    Answer is – we don’t know. We have Debney Park high school in our street, but despite the inclusion in a story in the Saturday Age yesterday, it is not the cultural mix or the year 12 results that concern me, it is how utterly crappy and tiny the school is. It is virtually a three-storey block of flats, some littered bitumen that is frequented by drunks and druggies out of hours and never cleaned up and a scrappy patch of grass that isn’t big enough for a game of french cricket, let alone the real stuff.

    I am already in knots about whether to ‘sacrifice’ a child to what seems like a poorly equipped school with a lot of social problems – is such a decision going to be worth that smug dinner party conversation in future?

    My ex boss (who is a nationally recognised academic on work/life balance issues but has none herself and is the worst, most insecure and nasty person I’ve ever worked for – let’s just call her Professor Bulldog Peacock) used to brag endlessly in staff meetings that neither of her two teenage kids were going to private school.

    …..yeah, that’s because she and her partner had sold up their modest house in the Adelaide hills for a home in the ‘catchment area’ for Adelaide’s three finest high schools that cost them an additional $400,000. When I put it to her that such a decision might be out of the realms of, oh I don’t know, the ‘low paid poor’ that she likes to witter on about publicly, the look on her face pretty well asked me if I wanted an oak casket or straight cremation.

    However, do I bear to ignore my distaste about being too competitive and instead of mortgaging my left arse cheek to get into the right area, try to see if C can get into the much-discussed-but-never-seen ‘University College’ in Parkville? Legend has it that the school is so severely zoned that they even visit you at your home to check that you’re not lying.

    We can’t afford to live in Parkville (and nor do we want to) but *I’d* be the one telling a fat one if I didn’t say that, when the time comes, we won’t be encouraging young C to sit their much-discussed-so-therefore-must-be-very-important selection tests.

    Hubster Love Chunks and I are both products of large, unruly and disheveled country high schools and I don’t wish that on my daughter. Having seen a student passed out in the toilets (in year 9) due to aerosol inhalation and the police deciding to send in sniffer dogs to our the lockers on a regular basis, I can only thank my parents and mates for keeping me focussed and sane. Even then, if my father wasn’t an actual teacher at the same school *shudder*….. That’s not to say that drugs, stupidity, bullying and lack of focus on studies won’t happen at Poncy College or Groovy Govt, but it seems sadly very likely that such schools are better equipped and ‘luckier’ in landing building grants, large donations, interested parents etc.

    Paying for college is the utterly last resort for us. Having only one child means that we could afford to do it, but the righteous self-entitlement I’ve seen in the children of parents who did it (the richies in our home town were packed off to boarding school) made me sick. I want C to enjoy the company of a range of people; not just rich knobs or brainiacs offered scholarships to beef up the VCE rankings.

    What is the answer here? Let the kid decide??

  • armagny says:

    Looking at where you live, I would not go to parkville but Strathmore. There’s some well-researched inside info for you. Strathmore High is one of the best high schools in the state and although house prices nearby reflect this to an extent, you are not talking parkville or $400k to do it. Nearby Pascoe Vale South is nice, green and hilly and muchly within ‘teh zone’.

    Or come up north/ northeast to Viewbank territory…

  • kate says:

    Kath Lockett, I grew up in the Debney Park area and went to St Brendans primary (good in the early 80s, then not so much, haven’t heard anything lately), followed by Ascot Vale primary (excellent, and the only two years of school that really worked for me) and then Ave Maria in West Essendon, which was crap. It was neat and tidy, but the general air was that students should work a bit and play netball, be well behaved and not aim too high. I had a few good teachers, but on the whole I was miserable. My primary school friend who went to Moonee Ponds Central and then Strathmore had a much better time of it, because those schools were better at dealing with diversity in the student population. They didn’t object in the strongest possible terms to students having ideas and wanting to implement them. Debney Park has disadvantages in resourcing, but it does have teachers who like students, and who enjoy a challenge. Probably the best way to work out what your kid needs is to go to the schools for a tour and talk to the teachers as well as the principals. Then watch the way the teachers talk to the students. Walk past at lunchtime if you can, wait at the tramstop for a while and see how the teachers are dealing with the usual yard duty stuff.

    I hated school, and it took me several years of uni to recover from it, which is why I feel a little ill at the idea of sending the kid to school at all. Hearing local teachers in our playgroup, who have older school age kids as well as the playgroup age ones, talking about what’s wrong with our local schools hasn’t done much to help. However, there’s a new principal in town and things are looking up.

  • I’m a bit torn on this issue. We’re at that cusp of primary to high school, and we’ve had a really frustrating time with the public primary school that Bumblebee has gone to (Armagny, it’s in the inner north, starting with L. Do NOT go there.) We’ve heard good & bad things in alternate years about the local high school, and now find ourselves making decisions based on not just public or private education, but on issues we think are important, like proximity and community. We have a Catholic college with a reasonable reputation very close to us, and we think it might be a good option (even though neither of us ‘does’ religion) for his needs at the moment. But if the fees get too much for us, I wouldn’t think twice about sending him to the public high school. The private fees will be a struggle, but not as much as for other ‘independent’ schools in the region — that word makes me laugh, truly, when you factor in how much of our taxes go to them — but I’m doing this because the school is close and I think he’s strong enough to deal with having second-hand uniforms in exchange for some of their facilities. Our lives will be enriched by the extra time we all get to spend together and the reduction in worrying about ferrying and lifts. I wouldn’t send him off in a bus way across town to give him ‘the best’. Maybe I’m just lucky having two good schools, public and private, to choose from. But I find that ‘suicidal’ thing in the second article very offensive and over-reactive: surely public school with a parent is *infinitely* better than private school and dead-parent trauma? Makes me feel ill, truly.

  • Helen says:

    But I find that ’suicidal’ thing in the second article very offensive and over-reactive: surely public school with a parent is *infinitely* better than private school and dead-parent trauma? Makes me feel ill, truly.
    It is quite OTT and silly, isn’t it? It makes me angry that some people have got to this stage. At bottom it’s commercial marketing, kicked along by a conservative government, but as Monty Python says you are dealing with human life. Not products on a shelf.

    Thing is, a lot of the problems are caused by middle class flight and, I think, that will go a long way to improving matters if a mass movement back to public does happen. (Remember it’s my speculation.) But it’s sad to think how her fears are so OTT.

  • armagny says:

    &Duck, noted. In return I offer you R…. for a private school that sounds like its generally friendly and balanced.

    “I hated school, and it took me several years of uni to recover from it, which is why I feel a little ill at the idea of sending the kid to school at all. ”


  • […] AnneE at Elsewoman writes a brief and pointed post about race, gender and unemployment in New Zealand. Here’s a thoughtful post from Helen from Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony. It’s called The Home ATM is out of order #2: Thinking about schools and is on home equity, education and the economy in Australia. At The Radical Radish, rayedish talks about Australia’s wage gap and an opportunity for discussion that just shouldn’t have been missed. Presenting Can we talk about this (wage gap) civilly, please?. Race […]

  • Jet says:

    Great post, and interesting comments.

    I did high school and college in Canberra, and for the most part had good experiences … though my high school was on the rough side. I loved the public school college system, as distinct from the high school system in the rest of the country. It treated students as able to make their own decisions, which made for a much more enjoyable final two years than they might otherwise have been.

  • Helen says:

    Another happy Canberarrian. I love your blogname, Jet!
    And thanks, Chally!

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