The realities of ‘educational apartheid’

RABBI JAMES KENNARD

THERE are some things in life that are certain: death, taxes and the regular attacks on independent schools in The Age. Roughly once a week, it seems, in editorials, news reports, letters or usually all three, readers are told that independent schools are given too much funding by the Federal Government compared to state schools; especially when independent schools are “rich”. With the same predictability, we can be sure that the funding calculations will  ignore money from State Governments – which is skewed far more in favour of the public system – and focus on the few famous schools while overlooking the hundreds of private schools that are far from wealthy. And somewhere in each article we will find a reference to the “educational apartheid” that this dual system creates, by “denying opportunities and facilities” to those students attending state schools.

But it seems there’s another type of educational apartheid that’s not so bad in the eyes of The Age, and its merits are even open to debate. An article in last Saturday’s edition (05/02) celebrated the expansion of Victoria’s selective-entry public school system – from two schools to four – and offered views for and against. Although one quote used the inevitable “a” word, the presentation of opinions suggested that the paper’s prejudice of this type of discrimination was justified, unlike the state/independent split. Indeed, the overall impression was that the presence of selective schools added “opportunity” and “diversification” to the range of educational ­opportunities.

But why does The Age not view the independent/state options as similar “diversification”? Why should a 40:60 split of schoolchildren be more divisive than a system that selects five per cent and rejects the other 95? Are independent schools, especially Jewish schools, with their scholarships and bursaries for those with limited financial means, less fair than those who proclaim “no entry” to 13-year-olds who don’t get enough correct answers on a single snapshot exam? Is it accurate to describe a system that excludes children on the basis of nothing other than their abilities as providing “choice”? Those who fail the exam are not given much choice, nor many opportunities.

The Age’s correspondent wrote “unsurprisingly, students at selective-entry schools get extraordinary VCE results”. Unsurprising indeed! The only surprise would be if a selective school, with pupils comprising only those who are naturally academically able, were not to achieve the highest results (as happened in 2009). Accepting only clever children and then getting good VCE scores does not prove that an institution is a “good school”.

Yet the myth of the “excellence” of selective schools is perpetuated by the press, especially in the era of league tables and NAPLAN results. When the MySchool website appeared last year, one selective institution was described by the tabloids as the “top school” in Australia, based on its year 9 results. Considering that students in question had only entered the school four months before they sat the tests, this result proves that the school is indeed excellent – but only in its ability to correctly identify and reject all but the highest performers!

What may also be “surprising” is that the brightest students achieve “extraordinary VCE results” at other schools as well. As can be seen from the Jewish schools’ domination of the top spots in the results table, those high-ability students who might have made it into selective schools receive excellent VCE scores even in inclusive schools. What may be even more surprising is that in our schools, many students who would not have made the selective cut also achieve “extraordinary results”. Inclusiveness works.

But there’s another type of diversification that dare not speak its name; a “choice” that is so taboo that its omission from the state system is not even for discussion.

Most independent schools are denominational; they provide Christian, Muslim or Jewish instruction and create a culture that reflects the values and beliefs of their faith community, while raising proud and committed Australians. Indeed, many would claim that it is that culture that bears more responsibility for the success of such schools and their students than any funding or resources.

Yet it is denominational schools that are excluded from the state system. Unlike the UK, where several thousand schools serving religious communities exist comfortably within the public provision (with the government funding the capital costs and the non-religious curriculum), parents who desire an education for their children that reflects their own values have no choice but to turn to the independent sector.

Rather than ask (rhetorically) if the state/independent split is “fair”, perhaps The Age should ask why the public system does not meet the needs of all Australians – and how many more parents would choose state schools if it did.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus College, Melbourne.