Sunday, May 20, 2012

The case for educational veganism

I live in a part of Sydney with a strange selection of high schools. We don't have a local co-ed public high school - what we have is 2 public boys' schools (one with a good reputation and one with a bad one), a public girls' school, a 100% selective public school, a partially selective public school, a visual arts public school, a performing arts pubic school, about 4 Catholic schools and a couple of very expensive independent (religious) schools. Thus, it is written, that whenever two or more parents of primary school children shall gather together, they shall discuss Which High School Are You Sending Your Child To? Yesterday's instalment involved a number of people advocating one of the very expensive independent religious schools, and I realised (and of course tweeted) that I am an educational vegan. I believe that private schools are morally wrong, and I probably can't get past that.

I believe that private education should not only not be funded by the state, but should be banned completely. There's not a lot I want to ban in this world, so it's an unusually extreme position for me, but I really don't think there is an ethical way to run private schools.

This is not a question of choice, because only wealthy people get to make the choice. Also, the choice they are making is to segregate their children on the basis of class or religion (or both). The closest private school to us costs $30,000 a year, per child, in year 12 (it starts at about $18,000 in year 3). The argument that such a school can provide better resources for your wealthy child is a very weak one. Imagine how much better any local public school's resources would be if all the families who could afford that kind of money donated even half of it to the school and sent their kids there? By allowing children to be stratified based on parent income, we are ensuring that wealthy children have access to more resources than poor children, and thereby reducing the choice and options of the most disadvantaged kids in our community. That's wrong.

Australia makes claims to multiculturalism, but allows kids to be segregated on the basis of religion for 13 years of their young lives. Understanding is crucial to successful multiculturalism, but it's hard to achieve if you have little contact with people from differing backgrounds. School is the primary source of social interaction for most kids, and should involve a diversity of people. If we're going to live together, we should be learning together.

Private schools promote themselves as a better choice, providing a better education. The truth is that the range of educational experience is as great in private schools as it is in public schools, however I've never heard a public school graduate argue that they would never consider sending their child to any school other than the one they attended. There is a fine line between pride in your school and the smug belief that your school is inherently superior to all others. I'm not arguing that all private school graduates believe this (I know that is patently false), but a system in which schools are competing for students is going to breed an increased rate of superiority complexes.

Educational outcomes are highly variable across both the public and private sector, but the private sector faces a significant roadblock to good education - they are a commodity. Parents are paying for education as a service, and as such are far more likely to demand the outcomes they want, as opposed to those that their children have earned. This happens in the public sector too, but the demanding parent doesn't have a financial hold over the teachers and the school. Education is too important to be caught between a teacher and the finance department.

Education as a commodity also has the potential to undermine education at the systemic level. If schools are competing for the educational dollar, it's in their interest to make their school look the most attractive. A tried and tested method to do so is promoting year 12 examination results, but to do that, a school needs results that look good. One way of doing so is to only allow students to take courses they will do very well in, rather than those in which they may be competent, but not outstanding. For example, a student working at a fair to middling level in an advanced level maths course may be required to take the intermediate level course so they get a high mark in lesser course, which looks better on the school's published results. I am certainly not arguing that all private schools do this, but some do, and it wouldn't happen if education was not allowed to be bought and sold.

Other systemic problems can arise from a school's marketing department. A great way to get good exam results is to teach students how to pass exams. While I understand the usefulness of that skill, it should always be secondary to learning how to learn, fostering a love of learning and promoting independence. We don't spend all this public money on education for exam results, we spend it to have an educated society that is able to continue learning their whole lives. These qualities, however, are very hard to measure, so it's easy for a school to claim to promote such values, while spoon feeding their students to pass exams really well and make their self promotion that much easier. Same caveats apply - not all private schools do this, quite possibly some public schools do this, but if education was not a competitively sold commodity, it wouldn't happen. Public schools are explicitly told they need to compete with private schools and market themselves to the community. This is wrong.

Perhaps the most abhorrent argument in favour of sending a child to a private school is that they'll make connections that will make it easier for them to get ahead socially and financially. It's probably also the most accurate - at least for the very expensive schools. Schools should not be a government funded and sanctioned process for ensuring rich people look after other rich people and maintain the divide between rich and poor. I really would have thought that was self evident. Of course, our government is largely made up of people who have benefitted from that process, which probably explains the bipartisan support for maintaining the status quo.

This is one of the greatest issues of equity in Australia at the moment. It gets no press. Occasionally there might be mention of funding, but it's quickly swept under the rug (how many media owners went to public schools?), and nobody ever questions the continuing existence of education as commodity. It's not an impossible dream (however unlikely), Norway (brain fail) Finland did it. They have no private schools (and almost no standardised testing) and they consistently rank in the top 3 education systems in the world. The changes they made were driven entirely by equity, but in the end, they didn't just bring up their tail end, they improved education standards for every kid in the country. It's not a zero sum game, there doesn't have to be losers.


  1. And of course if your fancy private school doesn't get you the marks you believe you deserve, then you can always use the over-developed sense of entitlement instilled in you by private schooling... and sue them.

    1. Certainly the sense of entitlement can happen, although to be fair, sometimes the students bring it with them to the school, rather than coming from the school. Sometimes, no doubt, they feed each other.

  2. We had three choices for my son’s secondary school years. (I live in a rural centre of 12,000 people). We could go public, we could Catholic or we could go private (Anglican in this case). There was no way we could have afforded to go private (and I didnt want to anyway) and the local public school is not an appealing option at all. So we went Catholic, despite the fact we aren’t Catholic (I am Pagan actually and the school knows it). If we had other public choices (more appealing ones) then we probably would have gone there. But we didn’t have that choice. It costs under 4k per annum to send our son to that school (same up to year 12). I agree with many of your points here, most of them in fact but as I said, we had those 3 choices and Catholic was the only viable option.

    1. I can understand why you made the decision you made, and I think it just highlights exactly why there should be no private schools - your choices shouldn't have to be based on how much you can afford, and no school should represent such an awful option.

  3. I've only heard about the Finnish system, not the Norwegian one, but it sounds essentially similar to what you are saying (link... although it implies that Norway is not like that). I would love for that model to be adopted more widely, a sentiment shared by at least one prospective teacher that I have spoken with.

    I'm rather pessimistic about it happening, though; there's the problem of getting there from where we are. In Finland in the 1970's there was the strong impetus of an educational system acknowledged to be in bad shape; but in places like America and Australia the system is producing results that are "good enough" (or perceived that way) that attempts at reform will struggle to get traction.

    1. Pah - Norway, Finland.... same country! (Brain fail, not sure why I morphed Finland into Norway - will edit). And yes, the way we report on our education system means that people think our system is "good enough". It's interesting, because everyone knows that some schools are much better than others, and most people can tell you a story about a principal that has had a profound impact on a school (either good or bad). So the knowledge that "bad" schools can be improved by running them better is out there, if only the general discourse encouraged people to join the dots.

      However, because we focus only on the top end of our results, which are "good enough" (but could almost certainly be better) and no attention at all to the tail end, people have no understanding of just how dire the situation is. And of course, the vast majority of the people running the country and the discourse went to expensive private schools. So I don't hold out much hope for change either, but if no-one ever talks about the possibilities, there's even less hope.

    2. Very true; and I admit that I'm one of those who has no understanding of how bad things are, particularly at the tail end. I see the paucity of resources at the top end in universities, and that concerns me, but I'm essentially ignorant of the situation at the school level.

  4. Ariane,
    while I agree with a lot of what you are saying I would disagree with two things. One is fairly fundamental
    in that I would argue that it is a parent's right and responsibility to decide how to educate their child. No
    educational system is value free and parents should be allowed to educate their children in the values they
    themselves believe in (subject to my version of universal human rights like equality, etc).

    Secondly and more practically banning private schools won't solve the problem. In Auckland for example
    there is a very rigid zoning system for which public school you get to go to. This in turn influences the house prices so that only the extremely wealthy are able to buy houses in some school zones. We are living on the edge of one such zone with the effect that houses regularly go for over one million dollars yet similar ones outside the school district go for less than half that. Similarly the top public school has fund raising events (a black tie ball with tickets at $250 a head) to pay teachers a bonus. Compared to this private schools seem a comparatively minor evil.