Growing education divide that ricochets

Monday was a magic day for 5000 newly minted Year 7 students. They went to high school for the very first time.

But in Canberra they did it differently. Whereas in NSW the bulk of them went to government schools (58 per cent) in the ACT only 49 per cent went to the ACT government's own schools. The majority - 51 per cent - went to private schools, around 1700 to Catholic schools and another 900 to others if previous year's figures are any guide. The ACT has the uncomfortable distinction of being the first state in the nation in which more parents send their children to private high schools than government ones.

It's all the odder when you consider that ACT government high (and primary) schools are among the nation's best, and odder still when you remember that the ACT is largely a government town.

Yet I have heard countless times from parents and friends that they are going private because they are not going to "sacrifice" their children.

What's going on?
Lindy Beeley retired in 2013 after 35 years' teaching and running ACT public schools. She says it comes down to a lack of trust in children.

"When I started there wasn't anything near the drift to private high schools that we have experienced in the last few years. Parents increasingly seem to distrust their kids to hang out with the 'right kind of kids'," she tells me.

The result is schools are less diverse. Social capital and a demographic mix are stripped from public schools."That can't be good for inclusive communities," she tells me. Learning with a range of people helps build social adaptability.

Ross*, a parent at my own children's public primary school, offers a glum assessment of why parents are making the switch – for cachet.

"I think a growing number of parents are sending their kids to private schools because that's what their friends are doing," he says. "Like driving large four wheel drives around a city, sending kids to private school has become the norm because most people don't want to be the last ones on the road driving a small car or be the last parents to pull their kids out."

As living standards rise in a country as wealthy as Australia, people will inevitably spend their rising incomes on things other than basic needs. Canberra residents are wealthier than most. It needn't matter that there's little evidence that private schools are any better (just as there's little evidence that four wheel drives are safer).

My friend Carol is surprised that her son is now at a private school. "I know I am a contradiction because I support a strong public education system," she says.

"I even hassled Kevin Rudd about it when Gonksi was being debated. I told him when he was prime minister that I thought the GFC money for school halls was wasted on private schools that didn't need the finance when my boys' public primary school desperately needed a coat of paint."

The Gonski review recommended needs-based funding.

"We were planning for my son to go to Lyneham High," she says. "It's a great public high school but we were then offered a place at Daramalan at the last minute. We couldn't say no. We're not practising Catholic but I tell my boys that our values derive from Christianity. My son is not that resilient. He needs that extra support."

Deborah Tranter, an adjunct senior lecturer in education at Flinders University, says parents go private "not for religion, but for prestige".

And she sees something else at play. Parents want private schools to compensate a lack of discipline at home. "Students have heaps of latitude at home and their parents know it, so they seek to outsource discipline to private schools," she says.

Dr Tranter says she's concerned that so-called low-fee private schools in poorer neighbourhoods "cream off students with aspiration". It isn't good for the state system, she says.

And yet in Canberra there's a curious switch back to state schools in Year 11. It might be that by then children need less discipline or that the government colleges are simply so good at preparing students for university that parents overcome their prejudice and switch. A health practitioner told me he had rented an apartment in Narrabundah precisely in order to secure a spot for his daughter at Narrabundah College, such is its reputation for excellence.

We'll be more informed about what drives the choices parents make when Education Minister Joy Burch releases in coming weeks the findings of a parent survey conducted late last year. The ACT government interviewed parents and carers with students in government schools about their perceptions of the public and private education systems and the role of marketing (we know non-government schools have a budget to do that well).

The drift into the non-government sector may also be explained by the squeeze on household budgets in the early years. The leap to private school fees is not that big if you're used to paying exorbitant child care fees – even with a generous rebate. As Carol explained: "We feel like we are now in the black. My son's high school fees are less than our annual child care costs were. And the non-government school our son goes to is not as expensive as some privates."

The choices we make are complex and each family is different. But my heart aches knowing that when families like Carol's, with passion and concern about inequality, opt out we have less chance of making schooling work. We all benefit when all of our children do well.

*Not their real names. First published by Fairfax Media, February 5 2015.

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