Education Topic 1: Responding to parental anxiety

The schooling landscape in Australia has always been fluid. The past three decades have seen growth in private schooling, triggered by shifts in the political and funding landscape and rapid social change. However, most of the decisions that been made have been ad hoc and produced by short term political expediency rather than any longer-term vision about schooling and its contribution to national identity and growth.

This has fuelled growing concern about the sustainability of the schooling structure. Can it address the conflicting demands represented by individual and family aspiration; and what of the equitable access and opportunity for every student? This growth in private schooling has contributed to a shift in attitudes towards education as a private and positional rather than a collective good.

There are many reasons given for the growth of private schooling. Social researchers such as Hugh Mackay point to broader family concerns about well-being, personal security and the future. Working parents want to secure a set of values, beliefs and even a peer group for their children. Mackay refers to the outsourcing of parental roles to schools, particularly to those schools which create a culture of control through the mechanisms of discipline, dress and even curriculum.

Whatever the reasons, the growth in private schooling in Australia has created a very different landscape of schools with significant social impacts. These impacts are starting to resonate in communities and are starting a debate about the types of schooling policies that can accommodate an element of choice, while honouring values such as freedom, citizenship, ethical responsibility, fairness, and stewardship, which the Centre for Policy Development has identified in ‘Our Common Wealth’.

That debate needs to acknowledge and confront the level of anxiety within society. Often this anxiety bears little if any resemblance to reality. There is an almost inverse relationship between the incidence of crime and the expressed fear of crime indicated by opinion polls. A well-publicised death in a public hospital will boost private health insurance.

In schools there is also mismatch between anxiety and reality. There is negligible movement of students to private schools once they commence in high school; there is noticeable movement in the opposite direction. Parental concerns about old-student networks and employability should be more than addressed by the disproportionate success of public school students at university and by the highly valued and successful vocational education and training programs.

It has never been good enough for public educators to scoff at alleged irrationality in the choices some people make about schooling. Over the last 30 years public education advocates have been too slow in waking up to the fact that education has shifted from being a community good to a private good. For years the field was left open for private providers to fill the gap between peoples’ changing expectations of schools and the perceived capacity of public schools to meet these expectations.

To some extent the expectations gap has been slowly narrowing: while resource levels remain relatively low, even in centralized jurisdictions public schools are gaining greater local autonomy and a capacity to compete on fairer terms with private providers.

But while some public providers are able to close this gap there are limits imposed by the very charter of public education. Public schools cannot move too far away from their existing public obligations, especially the obligation to enroll every student. As a consequence they have to include the very students and families that determined parents are prepared to pay money to avoid.

This means that the focus must shift to the conditions under which public funds are given to private providers. At the moment private schools are able to combine public and private resources and operate with considerable flexibility, including choosing their own clientele. It is this flexibility, unencumbered by the need to enroll anything like the whole range of students, which creates one of the most uneven competitive environments in the OECD world.

The inevitable result is the creation of hierarchies of schools, with the ranking ultimately determined by the capacity of families to pay the levels of fees demanded — levels not reduced by public funding. The much vaunted choice of schools in such an environment substantially becomes choice of students by schools using mechanisms such as school ethos, parent control, academic selection (not exclusive to private schools) and school fees.

While this structure might cater for the anxieties of those with the resources to exercise choice, the impact on various communities is becoming a cause of great concern. We now have separate faith schools of all persuasions. We have created de-facto black and white schools in much of inland NSW. We have whole suburbs of children transported from one community to another to avoid kids in head scarves.

In communities already substantially marginalized we have islands of middle class private schools surrounded by a sea of under-funded public schools struggling to cater for a remnant population. Australia has an equity gap in the achievement of children which is not found in many other countries.

Delivering what parents expect

Parents have a right to quality schooling and a measure of choice, but not at the expense of equitable access and opportunity for all families and students. What changes are required to enable schools to deliver what parents expect without exacerbating what is emerging as an equity crisis?

Firstly, it is impossible to escape the fact that public education as the universal and inclusive provider is under-resourced relative to private providers. Public schools (and many private schools) are losing out in the inevitable ‘resources auction’ which characterizes our relatively deregulated landscape of schools. Poorly resourced schools can’t meet the expectations of parents.

Secondly, needs-based funding formulas must take the existing resources of each school and its community into account and must not be corrupted by top-up deals and guarantees for some schools or systems. This is about creating a fair and equitable framework. In doing this, however, we must acknowledge that parents will want to pursue opportunities and advantages for their children outside of this framework, but this cannot be allowed to distort the framework.

Thirdly, there must be some regulation of student admissions which accompanies public funding. It is overwhelmingly differences in enrolment profiles which create hierarchies of schools. Schools which are in any way government-funded should not be able to discriminate to the extent they currently do in Australia. Leaving aside the details, at least the recent Blair Government school ‘reforms’ sparked a debate about equity, access and admissions. There is no such debate in Australia.

Finally, if it isn’t acceptable to provide public funding to meet the demands of some at the expense of others, there must be far greater agreement about the obligations which should accompany public funding. This funding needs to be linked to a carefully defined charter of obligations, accountability and operation. A number of writers have offered various definitions of what should constitute a public charter. Most definitions are far too narrow and threaten to give public respectability to any school in exchange for certain stated values or curriculum content.

Public educators would overwhelmingly prefer the first option. In their ideal world this would combine with other reforms to re-establish the competitiveness of public education and shake out a large number of private providers. With the shrinking education market, this might happen anyway as schools are forced to close.

More likely, though, is that private providers will always enroll between a quarter and third of all students. Any moves towards establishing a public charter and related obligations for private schools will almost certainly raise the issue of whether this should be achieved within an integrated framework of schools.

The Centre for Policy Development asks you to consider the following ideas put forward by the author:

1) Public education is relatively under-funded relative to private education;

2) Needs-based funding formulas should be implemented and must not be corrupted by top-up deals and guarantees for particular schools or systems.

3) Admissions should be regulated for all schools in receipt of public funding.

4) Charters should be developed to clarify the obligations that accompany public funding.

Read more about the Education Policy Development Series.

Previous articles in the series

Desperately Seeking Safety, Jane Caro, 10 May 2006

Curriculum for public confidence, Bruce Wilson, 24 May 2006

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