Australia: silver medallists when it comes to creating disadvantage

The recent media commentary about private schools and discrimination may have opened up an important debate that, as a nation, is long overdue. And it will need to be much broader than the personal rights of LGBTIQ students and teachers, important though they are.

Let us not forget the raison d’être of private schools: they exist to exclude.

This has always been the case. That’s why they are called private.

They are allowed to discriminate on any grounds: race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, family background, poverty, marital status of parents and so on.

How do they get away with it? Firstly, because they are exempted from anti-discrimination laws, and, secondly, because they never have to provide a reason for refusing an enrolment. That too is private.

School choice is a myth: no parent chooses a private school, the private school chooses the student.

Private schools have always been allowed to reject the public’s children while raking in the public’s money.

Why should this matter?

Because it is not just about an individual’s rights. It’s about the kind of society we are building.

A nation’s international standing can be judged on many measures. As a teacher, I am interested in how it values its children. On this measure alone, Australia is an unfair country.

Successive OECD reports have shown that Australia has one of the most segregated education systems within the OECD.

After decades of state and federal governments pandering to the private school lobby led in large measure by religious organisations, as a nation, we have ended up with a massive gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Australia has used school funding to create a devastatingly socially stratified education system.

The most recent OECD study, Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility (2018) is another warning to us all.

Picking up on the report, Fairfax columnist Ross Gittins has sounded the bell in a recent article. “Australia now has the equal-fourth most socially stratified education system among the OECD’s 35 member countries. Only Mexico, Hungary and Chile can claim to have a more social class-segregated school system than ours. For a country that still likes to think of itself as class-free, that’s quite an achievement.”

The article’s headline, in many ways, says it all: “The price we pay for decades of school funding based on religion.”

But the disturbing feature of Australian schooling is not just that there is a gap between the haves and have-nots. Australia has one of the highest concentrations of disadvantaged schools, the schools with an enrolment of predominately poor children.

“The impact is felt most heavily in the public sector because almost all disadvantaged schools in Australia are public schools. The My School website shows that there are some 2578 schools in Australia with 40 per cent or more students in the lowest socio-economic status quartile. Of these, 94.8 per cent are public schools and only 3.6 per cent are Catholic schools and 1.6 per cent Independent schools.” (Trevor Cobbold, “Massive Gaps in Teacher Resources Between Disadvantaged and Advantaged Schools”, October 2018)

Ross Gittins points out that the OECD has identified Australia as one of the countries that is actually getting worse in this regard. While 22 countries improved between 2006-2015 in the proportion of children attending disadvantaged schools, in 13 countries, including Australia, the situation deteriorated. As he writes, “Another international distinction for [Prime Minister] Morrison to boast about: we won silver with a worsening of 5.2 percentage points. Only the Czechs did worse.”

Yet, just a few short weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced a $4.6 billion hand-out to private schools with not one single dollar allocated to public schools.

While public school teachers go about their work each day trying to combat social and economic disadvantage, welcoming all children from all backgrounds, there are other adults in positions of power who have devoted their lives to perpetuate existing advantage and privilege.

It is clear from the OECD report that one of the main vehicles by which they do this is by ensuring our education system remains rigidly segregated.

The question for all Australians is this: What kind of society will be created by this approach to schooling?

Maurie Mulheron, President