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Wendy James posts the thoughts

January 30th, 2004

Wendy James posts the thoughts on public schools of pseudonymous teacher S. Whiplash, who says

If the figures are to be believed, increasing numbers of Australian parents are choosing to send their children to private schools. I believe this is happening totally – well, maybe not totally, but damn near – because parents are unhappy with the values being taught in public schools. Some of these values are taught overtly and some covertly. Either way, parents don’t like the values package on offer and are voting with their children’s feet.

As it happens, my opinion piece in yesterdays Financial Review (subscription required)was on this very topic, making the point that economists would look at the issue rather differently

Consider first the premise, shared by Howard and many of his critics, that the shift in enrolments from public to private schools must reflect increasing dissatisfaction with the public system. An economic appraisal suggests a much less abstract explanation.

Thanks to changes in Commonwealth government policy, subsidies to private education have been steadily increasing. Meanwhile the effective subsidy to publicly educated students has remained constant or declined in recent years. Standard economic analysis suggests that when a service is subsidised, its consumption will increase.

The analysis even works when comparing Catholic and other independent schools. Under Labor, the Catholic system received fairly generous assistance, but aid to the wealthier independent schools was limited. The Howard government has greatly increased aid to the wealthiest schools and enrolments have followed, with both government and Catholic schools losing market share in recent years.

From this perspective, in fact, the surprise is that the increase in attendance at private schools has been so small. In 1963, before the Menzies government began the provision of government aid to private schools, around 24 per cent of students attended non-government schools. After 40 years of steadily increasing public assistance, the non-government share has reached only 32 per cent. This suggests either that parental preference for non-government schools is very weak, or that the perceived advantages of private education have been declining over time.

I should observe that one reason for high attendence at private schools before 1963 was the effective subsidy provided by the voluntary labour of members of religious orders in Catholic schools. The gradual disappearance of this group and its replacement by lay teachers, paid out of public subsidies, has greatly reduced the differences between Catholic and government schools.

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  1. January 30th, 2004 at 19:45 | #1

    spot on

  2. Jill Rush
    January 30th, 2004 at 20:05 | #2

    I read the article and was impressed by the arguments before reading the author’s name. Well done in presenting the arguments so cogently.

    There is a great deal to be said for the economic argument that if parents wish to help their child it will be of far more value to forego private schooling and put the money towards tertiary education.

  3. S Whiplash
    January 31st, 2004 at 00:07 | #3

    JQ,

    Economics could well be a major factor. But, in my experience, parents are choosing private schools becuase they perceive that private schools, that is, the non-catholic non-government schools, stress academic achievement and discipline. Whether or not this perception is correct I can’t say but I can say that, at the school where I teach, many students do little or no work, often behave inappropriately and nearly always refuse to accept responsibility for their behaviour. Parents really believe that children who learn to work and can exercise sel-control will do better in life ,and such attributes can best be acquired at private schools.

    There are no private high schools in the area where I live. Children who attend such schools must travel a minimum of 30 minutes by bus, with one-way commutes of up to an hour common. Such travel times are not undertaken lightly – a parent night, for example, would be a pain in the butt. There are probably a number of factors interacting in subtle ways to influence parents’ decisions but based on what parents say to me, public school are believed to be producing slack trouble makers.

  4. James Farrell
    January 31st, 2004 at 05:27 | #4

    My children attend Northmead Public School. The teachers are dedicated and diligent, and there is a distinct ethos of learning and consideration for others. I have never heard a parent complain about any lack of values or about left-wing brainwashing (I think they mostly vote Liberal). This is a sample of one, but at least it shows that not all state schools are the same. I have the feeling that while the heterogeneity of private schools is recognised in this debate, any defect in a particular state school is seen unreasonably as an indictment of the state system as a whole.

    Acquaintances of mine who send their children to private schools do so because they have more resources for music, drama and so on.

  5. derrida derider
    January 31st, 2004 at 16:57 | #5

    I seem to recall this proposition (that the drift to public schools is largely – or even wholly – a product of changes in the relative costs) was covered in an article in the Economic Record in the late 1980s (sorry – don’t have time to chase the ref further at the moment). The relative price variations explained, IIRC, virtually all of the variation in relative enrolments.

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