Private v public: when parental fear comes up against the research

In the anxious race to get our children ahead of others, the local high school is collateral damage. Neoliberalism might be unravelling, but its legacy lives on.

What is more important to your child’s educational achievement: keeping your home stocked with books or tipping $250,000 of your after-tax income per child into the coffers of your preferred private school?

Answer: it’s the books. A home stocked with books is more likely to ensure that your child does well at school. As is socioeconomic background.

For years, a growing body of research has been pointing in the same direction. Typical of that canon is a 2015 report published in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics which found that sending children to Catholic or independent primary schools has “no significant effect” on a range of cognitive and noncognitive outcomes. The report used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, which has been gathering extensive data about 10,000 children and their families since 2004.

Notwithstanding the research, politicians and parents have not been deterred from pouring enormous sums into nongovernment schools. The Howard government encouraged and accelerated the shift by disproportionately allocating funding in favour of nongovernment schools.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of Australian schoolchildren enrolled in government schools fell steadily from 79% in 1977 to 65% in 2016. The remaining 35% share is made up of children attending independent schools.

If the debate about climate science has shown the difficulty of fighting simple lies with complex facts in “the age of unenlightenment”, the flight to private schools has shed light on the struggle that ensues when profound parental fear comes up against the research.

But after years of degradation and neglect, the wheel might be turning for public education.

Recently published ABS data suggests the exodus to nongovernment schools has stalled. Between 2013-2016, the proportion of children attending nongovernment schools remained unchanged. Journalist Ross Gittins argues it’s either a case of parents heeding the research or else running out of money to fund rapidly increasing private school fees in an era of wage stagflation. The former prime minister Julia Gillard credits the “MySchools” website.

It is far too early to declare that equity and reason have triumphed. The lull in “white flight” may not endure. The forces that have driven parents to abandon local schools, namely competition and anxiety, are strongly entrenched. They are inextricably linked to profound, global economic changes.

The rise of a particularly aggressive form of capitalism, propelled by globalisation into developed economies over the last 30 years, has been overwhelming. US philosopher Michael Sandel argues that the west has been fundamentally transformed from a market economy to a market society, relegating morality and civic responsibility to the margins.

Market values, including intense competition, have displaced community values. Our culture has been radicalised by neoliberalism and its celebration of economic growth over all other values. In this realm, growing inequality is routinely and stridently defended.

Baby boomers with multiple investment properties and large superannuation balances have pulled up the ladder rope behind them. The 10% of the population with negatively geared property protests loudly at any suggestion that the other 90% of taxpayers might cease subsidising their wealth maximisation strategies. The same malaise applies to the wealthiest superannuants when it comes to threats to their tax concessions.

Low-income taxpayers subsidise the deductions, allowances, concessions and outright tax avoidance of wealthy individuals and multinational behemoths like Chevron and BHP.

In the same vein, the notion that elite private schools should lose the financial support of ordinary taxpayers who could never afford their fees has been anathema for decades, prompting fiercely comical cries of “class war” to be flung about.

In the anxious race to get our children ahead of others, the local high school is collateral damage. If it’s not a private or independent school, parents are muscling into selective state schools, bumping out children who live in the housing commission flats.

Behind the veneer of parental civility, a war has been raging out there.

We want our children to have a competitive edge and we fret obsessively about their development and future opportunities. If you harbour any doubt, spend some time in the playground at drop-off, where parents talk about their children’s 14-hour days juggling school and seven extra­-curricular activities, which only the wealthy can afford.

Echoing the tenor of the 2013 Gonski report, the OECD has continued to report that the “highest performing educations systems across OECD countries are those that combine high quality and equity”. Education experts have documented the consistent decline in Australian international education rankings and what writer Julie Szego describes as the tendency of “politicians to feed the hand that bites them” by pouring ever greater amounts of public money into elite private schools.

Australians rank second in the global wealth table and yet we are more anxious than ever before. After all, what’s not to be anxious about? Climate change, terrorism, an unprecedented global refugee crisis, the driverless truck, online bullying, sexting and predictions that the era of meaningful, secure work is over. The middle class is acutely aware that even a stellar law degree is not enough to guarantee an offer of a job in the legal profession for a young graduate.

All the while, private schools’ marketing efforts have fanned the fire. There is intense competition to display the best sporting facilities, to showcase the $17m dollar state-of-the-art recording studios and the year 9 overseas trip to visit the Dalai Lama. For time-poor, inner-city parents, schools now even offer boarding during the working week. It’s called the Learning In Residence Program. Your taxes subsidise it.

On the other side of the world, it’s a case of much the same.

Last September, French economist Thomas Piketty unleashed a furious critique of the French education system, declaring “the level of social segregation seen in secondary schools is reaching indefensible levels”. The most upmarket French schools teach only 0.3% of pupils from poorer backgrounds. Middle-class French parents, like their Australian counterparts, have shifted their children out of local schools and into socially segregated school communities shielded from children from poorer families.

Although neoliberal economics has started to unravel, its legacy lives on. If the teenagers living in our leafy street all opened their front doors and walked in the right direction, they would arrive at the local high school in under one minute. None of them attend it.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs that all is not lost. The introduction of needs-based funding started the process. The halt in the exodus has followed. More recently, the conservative Turnbull government has led the way in starting to tackle the problem of “overfunded” private schools.

But before the local state school is to be embraced again, much more is needed. The objective of an equitable, well-run education system is too important to surrender.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.