Many of my peers -- those who have children nearing the end of primary school -- have started to agonise over the high school decision. Some are worried because they live near a "bad" state school and don't have the means to go private. Others have their fingers crossed for Catholic school acceptance (despite being non-religious) but don't have a plan B.
These schooling conversations always focus on problems with and ways to avoid state education, and yet nobody ever says: "Why does this two-tier structure actually exist?"
The private/public education system is so entrenched in our society that we tend to either accept its flaws or overlook them. Private schools exist. State schools exist. The wealthy (or super smart) get to go to the former and everybody else has to go to the latter. The end.
In his 2011 report, David Gonski wrote that "Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest performing students... A concerning proportion of Australia's lowest performing students are not meeting minimum standards of achievement. There is also an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds".
The Gonski recommendation -- that all schools should be funded according to the individual needs of their students -- is certainly a step towards educational equality. But will dishing out funding on a needs basis make an adequate difference? Could simply boosting resources in disadvantaged schools really bring them up to private-school standard?
Here's a different idea: what if we just did away with independent schools entirely? After all, many of them currently receive more government funding per student than state schools do (which would suggest that they are not independent at all, merely exclusive).
Yes, I know: this is a capitalist country. Consumer choice is highly valued. Competitive markets lead to options, and options are lauded. "Come and see our enormous range!" advertisements shout. Large supermarkets offer eight types of plain flour, 10 types of butter, 12 types of milk. Oh, the joy of making a selection.
So surely we can't just abolish private schools. Choice is freedom, right?
There is one problem: when it comes to education, the majority of Australians don't have any choice at all.
In the regional city where I've lived for the past decade, the difference between the state and private schools -- at least superficially -- is remarkable. Money, it seems, can buy perennially green lawns, performing arts centres, historically significant buildings and immense sports ovals. And, of course, outstanding results.
The annual cost of tuition at the most expensive private school is between $6000 and $18,000, depending on year level (a fee that doesn't include uniform, music lessons, camps and other extras). The cheapest "independent" school (a Catholic one) has a yearly fee of around $5000. For most locals, sending their children to either of these schools is financially impossible.
Parents who can afford to opt for a private school no doubt believe that they are doing what's best. And perhaps they are -- for their own family. However, this "every man for himself" attitude -- although a natural survival instinct -- does not benefit society as a whole.
According to the Australian Medical Association: "poor education means a person is less likely to attain secure and well paid employment and this can lead to poverty and other predictors of ill health." So how can social wellbeing and community cohesion be strengthened by educational segregation?
This is not an attack on private school students or their parents, or a suggestion that private education is categorically superior; rather, it is a condemnation of the existence of private schools.
Five years ago, my husband and I made the choice to send our eldest to a Catholic primary school. This was partly for traditional and cultural reasons (she is Catholic), but mostly because the local state school had a poor reputation. I wasn't comfortable with this decision because it felt -- no, it was -- elitist. Here's what I would have preferred: to have had no choice at all.
Consider Finland for a moment: a country where schools are completely state-funded, where every child is guaranteed a free education. Furthermore, teaching is a highly respected career -- it's up there with medicine and law. Goodness, it sounds like some kind of imaginary scholastic utopia.
When we think about schooling, a common attitude seems to be: why should the rich be educated for free when they can afford to pay for it? Perhaps this view ought be flipped around: why should some children miss out on a decent education because their parents can't afford it?
No matter how much government funding our state schools receive, Gonski or otherwise, Australia's education system will never be truly egalitarian unless choice is eliminated. A person's socio-economic level should not determine their educational opportunity or academic achievement.
So where will I be sending my daughter to high school? I don't know yet. Maybe Helsinki.