Monday, February 06, 2006

Private education

There was an opinion piece on private education in the SMH in Spectrum on the weekend, which I can't find online. Unfortunately, I've thrown out the paper, too, so you'll just have to cope with my rantings informed by unreliable memory.

The author starts by saying that private education in this country is now unquestionably superior to state education. She doesn't believe that that was the case in her generation. She proves this with a few anecdotes about her children's and her own education (I hate anecdote formed analysis - here is a link that would have made the point much more strongly - in NSW over four years 93- 96, the average HSC mark for government schools in english, maths and science was 5% lower than the average mark for the state as a whole*).

She then goes on to blame a few things for the gap. Her main culprits are

  • feminism (implied, not stated) - now that women can access lots of good careers, and not just teaching or nursing, all those women who would have become teachers 30 years ago have gone off for better paying careers
  • the state sector's overwhelming beauracracy that makes it impossible to reward good teachers (examples given were of an acting deputy principal who couldn't be confirmed even though the school wanted him because it wasn't yet his turn, and a very good maths teacher who got made head of her private school department while still in her 20s).

I think she has a point about careers for women (although I now know quite a few women with school age children who have decided to retrain as teachers as the career has a comparatively good work life balance), which would suggest that the answer is to pay teachers more to make it a more prestigious career for women and men. Of course there are so many teachers that this would be very expensive and difficult politically.

To me a major issue is the number of children who have been taken out of the state system. There is quite a lot more being spent on education, but it's being spent privately rather than publicly. Certainly the people who have taken their children out of the state system want to have more control over how their money is spent, but this means that politically, those who care most about the education system and their childrens' education and have the political and financial resources to do something about it are, on average, in the private system. So the people who are left are the ones who don't campaign enough to get the state school system fixed up well enough to give parents more say in how their educational dollar is spent.

The Economist had an article a week or so again arguing, in effect, that it was snobbish to imply that only middle class cared about their children, and so school vouchers would work for everyone because everyone would take the time to choose the best school for their child. This ignores the very real issue that not every parent has the english language skills (particularly here in NSW), let alone the bureaucracy-navigation skills to find the right school for their child. I'm sure every parent cares about the education their child is getting, but many don't have the sense of entitlement or skills to try and achieve the best education possible.

It does seem very big-brother-esque to force people to stay in the state system to keep their political clout. But Australia does seem to be one of the few countries which funds the private system to such a large extent. Most other countries, if you want a private education, you have to fund it all yourself. I would rather that we tried to capture the dollars that people are spending privately and use them to improve the whole system.

For myself though, just like many of my well-off, state educated peers, I will not sacrifice my children to ideology. I would much rather use the state system if possible, but if it becomes clear that my children would get a better education privately, I would move them privately in a heartbeat. I can afford it, and I wouldn't hesitate.

* Yes, I know that this analysis ignores the possibility that it's only the kids who would have done well anyway go to private schools, and the state schools are left with the ones that are never going to succeed in the first place. Nevertheless, it's better than an anecdote about one child, and 5% is a very big gap, particularly when it's a gap against the whole state (including state school), so the actual gap with private schools is more like 10%.


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