For over three decades we’ve suffered the debate about the relative merits of schools and why my brand of school is better than yours. The debate has been noisy with loud and persistent claims by advocates for both public and private schools. People got exhausted and retreated into their cherished beliefs about what works for them.
Then along came My School.
I confess to having a love/hate relationship with this website. The first version, released last year, was seriously flawed and claims about its usefulness almost fraudulent. I’m still waiting for an apology from the Gillard Government to the hundreds of schools whose reputations were trashed thanks to comparisons with schools that were not, despite the website’s claims, enrolling similar students.
But My School 1.0 was starting to show us interesting features, not about individual schools, but about our framework of schools. It was showing us that the differences between schools are overwhelmingly the product of who walks in through the front gate each day.
My School 2.0 tells us this and more — but in the process it might bury many claims made about schools. We’ve long been told that private schools and especially Catholic schools also cater for the poor. Instead, My School data shows we have a cascading social hierarchy of secondary schools with high-fee schools at the top — then Anglican, Catholic, Christian and government schools in descending order.
Lower socio-educational status (SES) students are disproportionately found in public schools, the schools which are required to be available for all students in all locations. Public schools also enrol most of the high-cost students, including those distantly located or otherwise disadvantaged. We know that if only because, in a particularly grubby exercise, the Independent Education Union told us so.
Perhaps some private school advocates knew that all this would become very public knowledge. They certainly did their level best to discredit My School 2.0 before it appeared. When the penny dropped that the new website would more accurately show the socio-educational profile of school enrolments they slammed the measure being used with some talking of a dark conspiracy — aided and abetted by Christopher Pyne who recycled the conspiracy line last week.
On the day before My School 2.0 went live the Association of Independent Schools (NSW) claimed that public schools enrol more wealthy families than independent schools do. Highly likely: there are many more public than independent schools — there is also a good chance that they enrol more redheads.
My School 2.0 has opened up another front in the ongoing debate: how schools are funded and the amounts involved. For years we have been told that private schools save governments money because parents fund a significant part of their costs. We’ve also been told that Catholic schools represent better value because they cost less to run.
It is true that the income that public schools receive from governments is, on average, 37 per cent more than received by Catholic schools. It certainly seems that Catholic schools cost us less.
But just like comparing the performance of schools, we get a different story if we try harder to compare financial apples with apples. If we take groups of public and Catholic schools with similar enrolment profiles the funding differences narrow considerably — to as low as 10 per cent. It is likely to be even lower than this because the SES of Catholic school enrolments is almost certainly higher than My School suggests. The index used in My School to enable school comparisons is still significantly flawed.
Suddenly the argument that governments save money by subsidising students in Catholic schools looks much weaker — and we have recently read about the Catholic schools that receive more public funding than some government schools. While these comparisons are not apples with apples, it still isn’t a good look.
In reality, the cost to government of educating students comparable to those found in Catholic schools is likely to be about the same. When all costs and enrolment variables are considered, including the cost of small schools and duplicated provisions, there are almost certainly no savings to government in the recurrent funding of Catholic schools.
Of course those private schools which receive less government funding than the Catholic system might be closer to fulfilling this generous and selfless gesture of saving public money. And we do have to consider the capital cost of private schools which substantially comes from private sources, Catholic schools being a part exception, with half the capital funding coming from government.
Inevitably this will renew the timeworn argument that public schools wouldn’t cope if they were swamped by students currently enrolled in private schools. But such an unlikely event would release substantial funding for public schools which would then also be able to achieve greater economies of scale.
All this said, it is time we viewed the debate about cost from another perspective. If we properly see education as an investment rather than a cost it makes sense to invest in students who can make the greatest gain and "pay" the highest dividend. This especially includes those who are currently under-supported and underachieving. It is not a sensible investment to continually top up, especially from the public purse, those students who are already achieving at a high level. Even apart from the host of social justice issues involved, it isn’t the way to cut the length of our under-achieving tail and create a high achieving and high equity system of schools.
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