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The Arms Race Between Schools

04/11/2015 5:33 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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Jim Rice

Some disclosure is in order before I get to the point: I am the father of three girls who all attended a private school. I was on the School Council for 11 years (Chair for four) and School Foundation for six years.

To provide further context I should note that I am the product of a great public school, as is my wife, and I am a strong believer in the need for a very strong public school system that is constantly getting better and delivering better outcomes for students and parents alike.

I also believe strongly that people should be able to choose and that it is entirely fair for some of my taxes to go to private schools, but the majority of any education allocation to go to public schools. And for all the bullshit rhetoric, when you take into account all the federal and state government funds allocated BOTH for annual operative expenses AND capital asset purchases, as well as the state level administrative services provided to help public schools run, that is EXACTLY what occurs -- the majority of funding (in all forms) goes to public schools. As it should.

However, this is not where the story ends. I also believe that private schools that are recipients of public funds need to be respectful and humble. They need to understand that they exist in a broader society where most parents can't afford (choice is a separate issue) to send their kids to a private school and that as recipients of public money they need to show the broader society that they are worthy recipients of such money.

To put things in perspective, even the most well-supported (by parents) private schools receive around 10-20 percent (some even more!) of their operating revenue from Governments of all forms. So it is clear that this money helps the schools do things. Without this money they would have to change their operating plan significantly.

I could also argue that private schools should be humble and respectful of the money they get from parents and they can demonstrate this respect by focusing on spending on things THAT REALLY MATTER and opting out of what can only be described as an arms race between schools.

I bet you a fully functional, indoor, international-level. all-weather hockey field... Well, I match that and raise you an underground, indoor rifle range and 10 acres of rolling lawns 1km from the Sydney CBD (bought to provide a place of tranquility for our future masters of the universe)... Well, I match that and raise you a new, indoor, Olympic-sized pool with underground filming capabilities... Hey, didn't you already have an Olympic-sized pool?... Ah, yes, but that was like 15 years old.

When I was on our school council we tried to avoid the arms race. We built a new school hall because the old one could only house a quarter of the students. We then built a new library and classrooms because the old library building was literally falling down. We then directed funds towards the employment of more teachers and teaching specialists because we felt that education was more important that a few shiny new things.

We were, sadly, unique in our approach. All around us private schools were taking money and spending it on edifices that were unnecessarily grand. It seemed their main purpose was to send a "Fuck You" to the competing schools in the area.

What was kind of weird was that the academic outcomes from some of these schools was, how can I put this in a nice way, less than ordinary. Pretty consistently the school that spends the most on facilities does not get the best outcomes. So the new hydro rehab pool and senior studies games room facility actually did diddly squat for your results.

There is also an unacceptable comparison between these walled-off sacred grounds becoming increasingly populated by simply over-the-top structural icons -- while a public school down the road has to cope with even more portable classrooms.

Recently, a school in Sydney that happens to have been on what can only be described as a building binge, completed its latest monument. An unbelievably opulent Senior Studies Centre. Okay, so at least this facility is remotely linked to what schools are meant to focus on -- teaching. And given how far this school falls behind many of the schools in the area, maybe it is time to focus on areas for, I don't know, studying.

This school seems to be a good school. It promotes acceptance of kids of all academic abilities and it does a good job of supporting and promoting the efforts of its students across a broad range of activities (i.e. not just sport). It has also embarked on a number of programmes where it attempts to connect the privileged students to a broader world. So this is one of the good schools in the private world. And yet they are also an example of a school that has lost perspective.

The school decided to hold a launch for the study centre. Exactly why you need to launch a study centre in the first place is not clear, but let's keep going. The building launch could only be described as a cross between Vivid Sydney, a Rolling Stones Concert and the opening of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Massive light show, Justice Crew (okay, not quite the Stones), massive fireworks... All to open a place for senior students to study at an already amazingly well resourced school.

Didn't anyone on the School Council or in their Senior Management consider that an extravagant launch was inappropriate, remembering they get $M from the public purse to supplement the fees from parents. You would have hoped that someone with a sense of balance and humility would have contemplated that the costs of their launch party could have probably put a few demountable classrooms at an overcrowded public school not far from the school's hallowed grounds.

And this from a school that is actually genuinely concerned about helping their students understand their role in the broader society.

The school management and council had a brain fart and they lost perspective. We (all of us) need to use this single example as the catalyst to stop and think about what we are doing with regard to the use of public funds by private schools. Sadly, I am not sure we can trust the old boys that dominate many school councils to see the error of their ways and return to a world where funds (parent and government) are truly focused on things that REALLY matter to the educational outcome of their students.

How to do this is not simple, but we need to start the conversation. This is not a conversation about taking back public money but rather saying that if you want to build/spend whatever you want with no regard for the broader society then you shouldn't get any public money. You should only get public money if you demonstrate that you spend money on things that really matter and that you are actively engaged in the world outside the school gates.

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