The challenge to choice

Dr Mark Merry

30 January 2018

We are accustomed to the annual media flurry over the cost of a private school education. This year, the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) countered the self-serving hype of educational financial product sellers with a warning and some comprehensive facts and figures, including:

  • The median fee of all Australian metropolitan independent schools is $6,441 per annum
  • Nationally, 70 per cent of metropolitan independent schools charge fees below $10,000 per annum.

While the misleading picture of independent schools that is so often drawn by the media is annoying, far more concerning are some of the comments and opinions media reporting has elicited.

Research undertaken by ISCA in 2016 and released last year found that the most common reason given by parents for choosing an independent school for their child was educational excellence, followed by a supportive and caring environment. Research undertaken in 2014 by Independent Schools Queensland found the top three deciding factors in parents’ choice of an independent school were: the school was perceived as preparing students to fulfil their potential in later life; it had good discipline; and it offered high quality teaching.

Apparently the views of parents on what drives their choice of an independent school are deemed irrelevant. According to one newspaper article, ‘experts have trouble pinpointing why so many Australian parents are prepared to pay for private schooling when there are publicly funded options available of high quality by global standards’. The article includes the comment of an Associate Professor of Economics:

‘My sense is that the main thing being purchased is not actually academic excellence but networks – the people that students will know going out of high school that could help them in future [. . .] It's much more of a social choice.’

The same article carried the opinion of a think-tank policy analyst:

‘The fact that it has become so prevalent in Australia to send secondary school students to private schools takes it beyond what we might think of as a purely rational economic decision [. . .] For a lot of the population it has become the default thing to do.’

Why are parents’ own views on their reasons for choosing independent schooling challenged in this way? Why is it easier for ‘experts’ to believe that parents are either irrational or ruthless in choosing an independent school for their child rather than that their choice is the result of careful consideration of the child’s needs and the family’s circumstances?

Of even greater concern are the views expressed in letters to the editor written in response to the article. They reveal a bitterness and resentment of choice in school education that we rarely see expressed in relation to other sectors such as housing, transport, health or even childcare and tertiary education.

We are familiar with claims that non-government schooling is socially divisive, but would removal of government funding for non-government schools – or removal of any choice at all in school education – be a guarantee of social cohesion?

Social cohesion does not depend on uniformity, but it can depend on how much respect we accord those who make different choices to our own. In the case of school education, a start would be recognition of the care and love for their children that informs parents’ decision making about the education of their children, irrespective of the school finally chosen. It is then just a small step to finding respect for parents who choose to send their children to independent schools.

Dr Mark Merry is National Chair of AHISA. He is Principal of Yarra Valley Grammar School, Victoria.

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