Teetering over the great high school divide

first published in The Age in 2006.

EVERY country has its taboos. In France one can vilify Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, at a dinner party without raising even the most thinly sculpted eyebrow in the room; however, discuss religion and it could be the last taste of creme caramel under that roof. In Australia there’s a different taboo, one whose name we dare not speak – not if we’d like to be invited around for another glass of shiraz.

Our family had been living in Australia only weeks when I witnessed my first school-choice casualty. Around the coffee table, someone – thank god it wasn’t me – mistakenly raised it. Boiling point was reached at the suggestion that a swimming pool was the key difference between the local public and private schools. A wall materialised, slicing the room in two.

Education, normally unifying the community, has become a huge middle-class dilemma, carving its jagged line between family, friends, and neighbours. With no strong allegiances and a muddied sense of direction, we have been forced to wade through the Valley of the Undecided. We soon discovered that both sides have developed an impressive catalogue of arguments to prop up their position:

A just society offers everyone the same chance to advance, not only those whose parents can afford it.
And yet, do we want our own kids potentially “left behind” by our commitment to idealistic principles? This is a tough nut to swallow for parents.

You have to give your kids the best chance in life – so we sacrifice everything to send our kids private.
But all (or very nearly all) parents want to give their kids the best. The problem is that many lack the means to have access to private schooling, eroding principles of equal opportunity. Should those who can buy privilege and a leg-up for our children be allowed to do it?

Private schools are elitist – I don’t want my kids in that kind of sub-culture.
Not all private schools cater only for the rich. More than a third of students in private schools have family income less than $41,600 and more than half earn below $62,400. But these figures are skewed by the large number of Catholic schools typically charging low fees.

Private schools help low-income kids by leaving more government resources for them.
Private-school parents do pay for education, both through taxes and school fees. By not using a state school, these parents are “claiming” fewer education services. However, when many students of middle or high socio-economic status abandon the public system, there is a loss in positive peer group effects, decreasing the school’s overall academic achievement.

My children can get equally good academic results going public.
Everyone wants to know whether, six years on, their child will emerge with higher VCE scores if they attend Private School A than Public School B. Without cloning them and sending one copy to each school, it’s hard to separate the school’s impact from factors such as socio-economic status, parental education and peer effects. Looking at raw scores, on average independent schools score highest, Catholic next and then government schools, though the differences aren’t vast.

When it came time for us to attend open days, one of our sons fell head-over-heels for an independent school because its science lab included snazzy audio-visuals of a sheep’s heart dissection. Another was sold on the private school with the state-of-the-art sporting facility. Meanwhile, back at the public school, my youngest wondered why every toilet in the block we visited was broken. Why indeed?

Of course, flash toilets and flat screens don’t generate genius, nor do gyms and photo labs create character. In our suburb, anyway, teachers on both sides appear motivated, curriculum disparities are not enormous and hard-working parents are found in all schools.

And yet many middle-class families hesitate at the door of our local public school. It may be concern over VCE, though they’re regularly dismissed as unimportant. Possibly it’s a tenacious tie to a private alma mater or a personal need to complete our picture of success. In every family that can afford private education, a motivation can be found to pay: my child is too shy, too unfocused, too bright, not bright enough, super athletic and so on.

On the other side, we know parents who are making a deliberate choice to support the state system, believing it’s the just decision, represents a healthier cross-section of society, or because it provides a good enough education.

As for our family, our indecision may yet determine our choice. Private school friends tell us we need to let go of our home country prejudices and preconceptions – “it’s different here”, they tell us. And so it is.