‘…education policy became money for new buildings, new equipment; if questions of quality were raised they were expressed in the mechanical question of ‘staff student ratios’, a measurable matter, like the exact proportions of metals to be used in making a special steel.’
Donald Horne, from Money Made Us, writing in 1976
An outsider tells the true story of the world. Whether self inflicted or not, to stand beyond the four walls of an established pretext is a path to great and prescient vision. After all, one who is on the fringe receives a much wider aperture. They might see cities where others see streets; hypocrisy where others see rules and conventions. In traditions they are apt to spy relics; and in long forgotten stories, hidden away gems. But it comes at a cost. They must remain disparate, for their observations do not always bear repeating. And if they should choose to speak, suffer all the distaste that goes with it. We might invite them in, the better to soak up their stories; but burn at the stake so much as a single harried observation. For any closed loop, the outsider will always prove contentious, no matter the value of their observations.
I would hesitate to call myself an outsider. To look at me, I am most certainly not. I went to private school, then acting school, and have a milieu which I could safely say I inhabit. A tendency to introversion is not really enough of a counter to these points. And neither is a personal feeling of remove from the dependencies of that privilege. In so many ways meaningful to my life and work, I am on the inside.
In Australia, there are two educations. One for those who have, and one for those who have not. Admission to the former is the beginning of a great upwards curve, should one choose to ride it, into the dimensions of power from which almost all of Australia’s elite class emerge. The blazer is a suit of armour. One goes into battle well equipped.
To belong to the latter, however, is to wade into the denigrated spirit of education, flip the coin of fate, and pray to some god that the teachers present on that journey are the best in their field. Even if the ideal conditions should all line up in perfect symmetry, someone who is educated in the public system will still lack access to the contacts, attitudes and rhetorical patterns of power. They will always be seconded by a large wall. Why should a child be expected to care about his or her future if they fell on the wrong side of it?
The Commonwealth sets its own target for the ideal level of funding per student. It’s called the Student Resource Standard, or SRS, and at the time of writing, stands at around ten thousand dollars for primary students, and thirteen thousand dollars for secondary students. Special loadings are applied on a per student basis, and reflect factors such as disability and socio-economic status, which helps to increase the lot of students who are in most dire straits. The SRS is meant to be a fixed, equitable factor, and this means that there is very little room for maneuvering outside of the funding target, as there had been in the past. The cost of the public system is enormous. As such, the Federal government only pays a small amount, a rate that is now set at twenty per cent. The respective state governments are obligated to fund the rest.
Curiously, however, the full SRS requirement is also paid to private school students, whose parents are already charged substantial fees as a condition of entry. Unlike in the public school system, federal funding to the private sector accounts for a significantly higher amount of the overall obligation, or eighty per cent, with the state government covering the remainder. For whatever reason, the Commonwealth has decided to act as a guarantor to these particular schools, and spends more money on the private sector than the public system. The principled equality of the SRS means that private students are, in effect, up to three or four times better off than their public counterparts, and would still be substantially better off even if the government did not subsidise their education.
At this point in the proceedings, one might begin to ask a very reasonable question, and wonder as to why private schools receive public funding in the first place. Prior to 1972, no private school in Australia received any sort of public funding whatever. Almost no other schools in the OECD use government money to assist private schools. And they certainly don’t do it whilst at the same time refusing to expand public funding in the university sector, with the distinct exception of the United States, whose tertiary example is risible, for reasons that do not need to be explained.
I attended private school in Melbourne, at Wesley College. Shan’t stoop and call it a school, given the expense involved. College is the preferred demonym. Our campus had wings, like a prophet, reaching out over a great expanse of cricket ground. Two towers with parapets watched over the outside world. Lions stood by the gate. Our blazers were the colour purple, and we were often reminded to behave ourselves in public, as the uniform was a dead giveaway, being such a rare colour. It has always been a rare colour; purple dye was scarce in the classical antiquity, and was worn by patricians as a sign of wealth – a tradition that continues to this day up St Kilda Road and High Street.
Cast a quick glance over the House of Representatives chamber, honourable faces all, and the percentage of those who were educated in a private school would number in the high ninetieth percentile. Do the same in a board room or a committee room. Do the same amongst the academic staff of a university. Do the same on the shores of a secluded Pacific beach. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam.
No one who understands the Australian polity – and who has the money to do so – would dare send their children to public school. My parents decided it was the case, possibly even against their economic self interest; and yet acquiesced nonetheless. A simple economic factor like the SRS can’t do justice to what goes on in those places, and the sorts of things a young mind can be exposed to beyond the textbook and the NAPLAN obligations. Parents don’t pay to augment a number. They pay for a star of privilege that only exists for the people within its orbit.
Take the drama department at Wesley. Our campus provided for four major productions in a year, two for the middle school and two for the upper. It was a play and a musical for each. In my six years there, I was party to at least ten productions, mounted at great cost, and with professional lighting and sound design. I know they were professional, because I now pretend to be a professional actor. We rehearsed after class, and went before a paying audience in a five hundred seat theatre. It certainly couldn’t make a working actor out of anyone, but experiencing the production cycle ten times over, learning the language of theatre, and figuring out how an audience works was a cultural turning point in my life that simply cannot be represented by a number.
For all the banality of the aphorism that a fish cannot climb a tree, an oft repeated criticism of standardized testing, it at least has the benefit of being true. For some children, the education system will never be a safe harbour, even if they are intelligent and well meaning. I enjoyed Wesley well enough. With the passage of time, I even remembered that I have some fond memories of my experience there. I did not, however, take to the education system. It was the expectation of a certain type of learning which tormented me for those thirteen years. I was convinced, and still am, that the education system is a machine, precision engineered to make children and young adults despise the passage of learning.
It is inconceivable that a student of a fee-paying private school would receive a better base level education. The only real academic advantage that Wesley can effect is in offering the International Baccalaureate. If you don’t choose to take it, you might as well be lumped in with the other sad sorts. If grades are not up to standard, the bell-curve of the marking system will do the lumping for you. Private schools do not meaningfully outperform public ones. Study after study has shown this to be true. The parents of private students know this. They just do not particularly care. If it were the point, the whole system would be put out of business.
Private schools are totally subject to inelastic demand. There are a limited number of campuses, regional proximities and student places. They cannot be established quickly to corner a market and do not need to ever reduce their prices. When this form of inelastic demand is present in a system, people will buy that thing at about the same frequency, regardless of its price. Think of an essential commodity, like petrol. It is not subject to competition in the same way that other products are. The institutions in question have nothing to fear from having their public funding extinguished. Most of the elder statesmen, like Wesley, have gone longer without public funding than with public funding. The only thing that could really affect the earning power of a private school is the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of children.
There is no moral argument for providing extra funding to private school students. Our public education system is already one of the most compromised in the OECD. For those who can afford it, private fees at the elite institutions begin at around twenty thousand dollars. That is far beyond the Commonwealth standard. And a private institution that was set up with fees below the SRS should be allowed to fail, like in a regular market economy. We must be the only nation on earth that trumpets the virtues of the market and then actively gives its biggest proponents state financial sponsorship.
Those who send their children to private school wish to ensure for them a certain sort of future. That is the state of affairs in this country, and must be acknowledged. Those who send their children to private school can afford to do so. That is the nature of their lives, and must be acknowledged. Those who wish for their children to join the closed loop should be allowed to do so. That is an incontrovertible fact of civilization; there will always be an ivory tower, far above the plateau of the masses, and it cannot help but be acknowledged, because it will exist whether you care for it or not. Let them have their little loop. But do not let them have any government money in the process. A parent should not have to choose between two disparate possibilities of their own child’s future.
The national education discourse is a self actuating fiction of underwhelming disappointment. Self actuating, because we all set the terms of the argument in the image of an apparently egalitarian system. And fiction, because we always fail to live up to our own standards, and do not appear to wish to reverse that fact.
To engage a private service is a matter between the client and the provider. But private education has somehow generated a concrete immunity to this market logic. The private school system has benefited from the greatest lobbyist of all – its own students – who now and for the foreseeable future will determine its fate in Parliament. And so, for any argument against public funding to private schools, the plaintiff will automatically be cast in the outsider’s light. The internal logic of great wealth could make an outsider out of anyone; choosing to argue against the state of affairs is, therefore, tantamount to self imposed exile. The old collegian’s association badge will not save an alum; the pin on the back makes for a very poor sword.
I can choose to speak freely in my capacity as an insider, or someone who was on the inside. But in the end, even I must be rendered an outcast in this argument. The system cannot help but to cast me aside. Its survival depends on it. With the perspective of time, the state of affairs has become readily apparent to me, where once it was merely a running joke. Look at our wealth compared to their poverty, we’d laugh, dusting off our blazers, half expecting the irony to be a salient point, and not the crux of the most devastating argument in the national polity.
And god forbid that such an argument come from one who never went to private school in the first place. The rhetorical excoriation would be acid in the extreme. They are merely the products of envy, they might say, or that their parents wished not to sacrifice for their child; that they are impostors in an intellectual discourse; that they are the fiends of the underclass, savage in their alacrity; and that they should continue to scrape, and glean, on the bottom of the heap where they belong. The sense of civilization, possessed of them not, is an omission so great they could never hope to partake in such a discussion, and let that be the end of it. Then beat them back like intransigent children, with a stern word at the dinner table, and watch them sulk off, back to the miniature table with fifty centimetre legs.
The economic cruelty of our civic life has no better standard than the public funding of the private system. For a nation obsessed with the building of capital and the expansion of the coffers, no interest seems to be paid to the growth of the public good. Much like all our systems, public good is an expedient, whose own expansion is expected to occur at the behest of a growing economy, and not vice versa. Nothing exemplifies this better than the education system, which, if it were truly egalitarian, would be focused on providing the absolute best service of teaching to its majority cohort. A country that prides itself on its principled fairness should not set the barrier to a good life at thirty thousand dollars a year.
Paying to assist the private sector is a tacit admission that public students are a lost cause. There can be no other reason to this logic. If the argument is allowed to stand that private schools need all this money to provide the best education for its students, they are, by default, admitting that the Commonwealth standard is too low. And if we allow that argument to stand, then we should also say that the Commonwealth system needs all the money it can get. This is not a question of taking money from the private system. The system never deserved that money in the first place. Once again, we must stress the state of affairs. Almost no other OECD nation does it. For a long time, neither did we.
Australia, as one of the wealthiest nations on earth, should endeavor to create the world’s finest education system. The lumped masses, that great remaining percentage, should not have to flip the coin of fate. To be born without the resources to attend an elite institution should not consign a child from birth. To suggest that there is no alternative is specious argument of the highest order, and truly terrifying – because it has dressed whole generations in burlap, when their peers were afforded silk and gold. The beneficiaries of this life now walk an elevated path, and are, incidentally, quite fond of insisting that the path should remain elevated.
The Australian polity should be a robust and discursive thing. What went wrong?
BARRY LYNDON – PICARESQUE VIEWS
A great and tragically obscure film. Is it the greatest depiction of a life on celluloid?
WOMEN AND POWER – NEW WORLD ORDER
A book for the remaking of the world. The old boy’s club is torn to pieces.