Two Nations Under John


I have stolen my title from a novel (which I am ashamed to say I have never read) by Benjamin Disraeli, the prolific Victorian novelist who was also one of Queen Victoria’s longest-serving Prime Ministers. ‘Two Nations’ was his take on the huge social divide in Victorian Britain between those with money and those without. Unfortunately, the title now seems equally appropriate for Howard’s Australia.

In this week’s BRW (August 25–September 14) there is a story entitled ‘School for Status’. I know it well because I am quoted in it and my photograph appears beside it on the page. The journalist who wrote it, James Thompson, has done quite a good job of looking at private schools as expressions of status for parents, rather than as vehicles for educating their kids. He has quoted me correctly, both as an advertising practitioner and also as an advocate for public schools, describing such schools as brands. As he says, ‘unlike obvious status symbols such as expensive cars or diamond rings, private education is guilt free — people might know you can afford $17,000 a year to put your kids through school, but they cannot accuse you of wasting money on education.’
Unless they are bolshie, difficult bitches, like me, that is.

My only quarrel with James’s story is what he has left out. While the article does a nice job on demolishing the pretensions of status-seeking parents, he does not point out the real scandal behind our collapsing education system, even though I was at pains to point it out to him. It is, of course, the extraordinary amounts of taxpayer’s money that go into supporting this blatant social climbing.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

‘Just as it is impossible to justify buying a BMW instead of a Hyundai on price alone, there is no practical reason for paying $20,000 each year in tuition fees to a prestigious school when a public school teaches the same basic curriculum,’ he says, and he is right. But at least we don’t subsidise the car buyer who chooses a BMW over a Hyundai. I would have no quarrel at all with parents wanting to waste their money in this way, if, like the BMW buyer, they were not subsidised to do so.

Meanwhile, in that other Australian nation, the one occupied by those at the other end of the economic scale, things are going from bad to worse. The editorial in this week’s Sun-Herald (August 28) is headlined, ‘Looking after schools more important than politics’, and it trenchantly ticks off NSW Education Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, for being so pre-occupied with her bid to win the seat of Marrickville, that she has failed to approve PAS (Priority Action Schools) funding for 2006.
Seventy four of NSW’s most disadvantaged public schools rely on this funding to address the often quite overwhelming difficulties that face many of their students. According to the editorial, the results of this funding have been quite extraordinary:

The PAS program has provided up to $16 million a year for the past three years and, in the hands of skilled, dedicated and grateful school principals, the results have been incredible. Across almost all the key markers — attendance, literacy, class sizes, behaviour and numeracy — there has been a vast and often staggering improvement.

So says the editor of the Sun-Herald.

Principals are planning industrial action in the next few weeks to draw attention to Tebbutt’s tardiness, and good for them, I say. But what concerns me most is what these two stories reveal about the two nations we are rapidly creating in this country.
$16 million a year shared between seventy four schools is not an enormous amount of money, yet so adept have our public school principals and teachers become, that relatively small amounts can make a huge difference to disadvantaged kids’ lives.

Compare this with the Federal Government’s States Grants Funding Scheme to private schools. As I have pointed out in New Matilda before, this funding is calculated on the census codes of students who attend our private schools — where they live, in other words. In many cases, already luxuriously resourced schools charging annual fees of between $10–$20,000 are receiving Federal grants of as much as $2.5 million dollars per year that they don’t share with anyone.
Imagine what miracles could be achieved in disadvantaged schools around Australia if the Federal Government showed them even a small part of the largesse it offers our private schools.

Instead, Minister Nelson gives 70 per cent of his funding to demonstrably well-resourced schools that can pick and choose which kids they will educate. This is done to increase parental choice, apparently, yet none of the millions of dollars received from taxpayers has lowered the fees charged by these schools by as much as a dollar. Such schools famously increase their fees year after year.
No, what we are doing is generously funding status conscious parents to choose a BMW over a Hyundai.

Further evidence of the two nations emerging in this country is the talk of cutting the top rate of personal income tax at the same time as we talk about cutting the incomes of single mothers, not to mention, of course, the new Industrial Relations legislation. It beggars belief that such things can be happening under a government that loves to witter on and on about values. The only values it seems to me they genuinely espouse are a belief in giving more to those who already have more and less to those who already have less, even when we are talking about kids, or, perhaps, especially when we’re talking about kids.

The story in Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald that the principal of North Sydney Girl’s High has been poached by Ascham at three times her public school salary is gob smacking. Why are we pouring public money into such schools, when they can afford to pay $350,000 salaries? If it was stated government policy to destroy public education in this country we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.
The great shame is that while some stories get written up, no one tells the whole story. And it is a hard story to tell, both our State and Federal education funding formulas are complex and obscure — complexity and obscurity being a boon to governments because it allows them to do whatever they like while most Australians remain in complete ignorance. When I am able to explain how our funding system works to ordinary Australians they are genuinely shocked.

At the moment, we have all been brilliantly distracted by the idea that the two nations we are creating are Muslim and the rest. What a lot of nonsense, the sheer lack of numbers of Muslims in Australia makes this little more than a furphy.
Bronwyn Bishop’s latest fatuous remarks about banning the hijab (traditional Muslim head-scarf) further highlight the weird way this Government divides up our schools. She wants to ban the hijab in public schools while her Government continues to pour money into private Islamic schools that are perfectly at liberty to make such a garment compulsory. How does that work, exactly, Bronwyn?
Even in Britain, where there actually have been a couple of serious Islamic terrorist incidents, I don’t believe multiculturalism has been proved to have failed. It’s simply a convenient thing to blame. When Irish Catholics were busily blowing up British pubs, hotels and underground railway stations, I don’t recall any calls to deport the Irish or to police the propaganda taught in Catholic schools.

The two nations we are creating in Australia are starkly illustrated in our schools. If you doubt me, take a walk around The Kings School in Parramatta one afternoon and then drive out to Mount Druitt or Airds High School. You’ll have crossed the border from a nation of haves, who demand and get more and more middle class welfare, into a nation of have-nots who are expected to be pathetically grateful for every crumb that falls from their master’s table.
Indeed, even John Howard’s recent rhetoric seems to be returning us to the era of Disraeli. What was it he called our top income earners? ‘The brightest and the best’, wasn’t it? Strangely reminiscent of ‘our betters’ don’t you think?

‘Schools for Status’, James Thompson, BRW, 25th August-14th September, 2005.

‘Looking after schools more important than politics’, Editorial, The Sun-Herald, 28th August, 2005.

‘Ascham lures headmistress with shining record on results’, Linda Doherty, Sydney Morning Herald, 30th August, 2005.

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