Bio: Hannie Rayson is the writer of successful plays such as Life After George, Hotel Sorrento (which was made into a feature film), Scenes from a Separation and Two Brothers. Her child attended a public school.
We are at a dinner party and my girlfriend launches into a story about going on a tour of one of Melbourne's most prestigious grammar schools. "In the school tuckshop" she tells us, "there is a sign: 'Hundred dollar bills will not be changed at recess.' " My husband and I laugh hysterically. Everyone else is quiet. They tinker with their cutlery, dab their mouths with their serviettes. It transpires that their children go to that school.
Discussion about education - so where do your kids go to school? - is far more contentious than politics, religion or sex. But not only in polite company. In the public arena, the debate over funding for independent schools is one site in which the two major parties have clear ideological differences.
Last week, in a shock move for the non-committal Kim Beazley, the Opposition leader waded in to shark-infested waters and pledged to abolish the funding increases to 58 private schools benefiting from Dr. Kemp's funding deal last year.
"We don't want investments in privilege," declared Beazley, " we want investments in education."
In Dr. Kemp's scheme, a new formula for funding non-government schools was introduced. Where once the financial capacity of the school was taken into account, so that the wealthiest school received the lowest form of government assistance, Kemp replaced this with a new socio-economic status index (SES). This disregards the wealth of the school but focuses on the financial resources of the families whose children are enrolled. The school provides the education department (DETYA) with the postcodes of all students and using the ABS census data, parents' income is deemed to be equal to the average income for their postcode. From this an SES index for each school is obtained which determines the level of funding.
The upshot of this is that the wealthy category one schools received an extra 57 million dollars a year. Wesley got $3.9 million, Caulfield Grammar 3.5 million and Geelong Grammar 1.7 million. Just to put this in perspective each government school received an average of $4000.
So, regardless of how many playing fields, swimming pools, computer centres, boat sheds and tennis courts a school might boast, none of these resources are included in Dr. Kemp's assessment of neediness. Melbourne Grammar has its own contemporary arts studio and gallery space and a music school large enough to house a symphony orchestra. Geelong Grammar occupies grounds the size of a small English village and has an Equestrian Centre so that you can bring your own horse to school. Do these schools deserve the annual funding boost of a million dollars or more? Compare that to some inner city local schools where there is nowhere to kick a footy.
At my friend's dinner table, the accountant and his wife feel strongly that they should have a choice. After all they pay taxes. Shouldn't they have the right to have government money spent on the education of their child?
That's my view. If you do not elect to use the public services provided by taxation, you are free to go the route of user-pay education. That is your democratic right. But don't expect government subsidy. It's akin to saying I don't like public transport. I expect the government to subsidise my BMW.
However the fact is that all non-government schools are dependent on public money in far more ways than are publicly admitted. The wealthy schools which cater for 10% of children absorb a large share of the money available in our society for expenditure on education, in the interest of a minority.
I think that's wrong especially given that our government spends a paltry amount on education anyway, compared with other OECD countries. (Australia ranked equal 24th out of 28 countries in 1997 in the percentage of GNP spent on education.)
More illuminating is that we came near the top, 3rd out of 26 countries in the proportion of public money we give to private educational institutions. This is prior to the Howard government 's recent funding boost to the independent sector.
What this means is that education, like all other things, is to be regarded as a commodity. A commodity to be bought. The rhetoric of "choice" is about consumerism. In an education market the consumer (parents) must be free to shop around for the right product (and brand name) best suited to their individual needs. The fact that it could cost anything up to twelve thousand dollars per year to attend an independent school is probably why most families are not in a position to go shopping for education and exercise their so-called choice.
I have been reading the prospectuses for a range of independent schools. They feature groups of happy, clear-skinned teenagers and there is usually an Asian student in the mix. The girls often wear straw hats. And every independent school is keen to foster learning and leadership. But more importantly every school is hell-bent on catering to your child's individual needs.
The debate about education seems to have shifted. In the market place the individual needs of the customer is paramount. Emphasis is always on the benefits a school will confer upon the individual. What happened to the idea of education having a civic and democratic purpose? And given that 70% of our children attend government schools, what happened to the idea that the most valuable thing a society can do is to produce a well-educated populace?
I look at my fifteen year old boy who goes to University High. I have the same hopes for him as any other mother. I look at the principles which underpin the private school's educational philosophies as stated in their marketing brochures: the opportunities for self discovery, the breadth of life skills, the adventure, the environmental awareness and sensitivity, the international understanding, the academic rigour and I think is my boy getting all that at our local high school?
Is our $4000 funding boost from the Coalition government (an average of $5 per student) equipping him for the future?
At the end of the day, as an "education consumer", I cannot overlook one fundamental fact. Public schools (and I mean schools open to the public) comprise a diverse cross-section of the population of their communities. A public school is a place characterised by plurality and diversity. I read where many parents choose private schools because they want their kids to mix with "decent kids" and be introduced to the "right people". I love the mix of kids that traipse through our house and the normality which accompanies difference. In my view, it comes down to this: any schooling system which is organised to separate out, rather than mix young people from a variety of backgrounds is not actually equipping children for the future. And more than anything, I want my child and his generation to stride into the future with their eyes open.
Printed in “THE AGE” in October 2001.