Class service: The rich schools are becoming richer

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Students at the prestigious Melbourne Grammar School (Screenshot via YouTube)

Private schools are charging extraordinary amounts in school fees, for what is basically the same education as cheaper ones, writes Frank O'Shea.

TWO SCHOOLS. We will call them A and B. School A has well-kept grounds, a number of sports ovals, tennis and basketball courts, a fully-equipped gymnasium, its own swimming pool or ready access to one nearby. It is clean, graffiti-free, beautifully presented and students wear their uniforms as if they are happy in them. Classrooms are clean and functional; there are science labs and computer rooms, a special building for drama and dance, another building for art and design, yet another for what they grandly call manual arts — lots of noisy but carefully supervised machines, where many students produce wonderful work.

The school has a little more than a thousand students, all of whom follow the program managed by the state or territory education department. Student results at the end of their final year are strong, but not massively different from other schools in the locality. A journalist would be hard put to make a case that would stand against statistical analysis for relative excellence of School A over any other school in the state.

That was School A. Now, School B. To save both of us the trouble, read the opening paragraphs again, because the two schools are almost identical: a few minor differences, perhaps some facility or program better in one than in the other, but birds of the same feather.

However, there is one big difference between A and B — school fees. And I mean a big difference, not a few thousand dollars here and there, but a multiple of three. The fees in one are $30K a year; in the other, they are $10K, give or take a few thousand in each case. It doesn’t matter which is which because they are the same type of school, physically, philosophically and educationally. Yet, with due allowance for numbers around the edges, one charges three times the other for what is the same service. Indeed, it would be possible to find A/B pairs where the multiplier is more like five.

You might think that such a discrepancy would have agitated commentators in the media or politics. But never a word. Not from GetUp! or #MeToo or even The Greens. Certainly not from the churches, since they are part of the problem in the first place and anyway, these days the churches are afraid to open their mouths.

But wait, questions have been asked — by the banks. They have quite properly wondered whether they should be lending money to the kind of foolish people who want to perpetuate this nonsense. This from a group who was recently savaged by a Royal Commission. That School A and School B have also been subject to Royal Commission treatment is neither here nor there, except that some cynic might speculate about which schools were attended by the folk who line their pockets with the fees from the freewheeling Commission bandwagon.

To return to our muttons: you may wonder what parents get for that multiple of three (or five) we mentioned. While it may be true that they produce the kind of people who go into employment in the lucrative law industries, the main benefit seems to be that Cedric will be attending a school that contains the charmed word “Grammar” in its title. For the other gender, the equivalent is the pair of letters “LC” on the blazer, in this case probably preceded by a letter associated with a Christian group or some ancient saint.

You may argue that School A and School B need to pay their teachers, so they are entitled to charge fees. Still, each gets financial help from State and Federal Government, amounts that have been going up in recent years. Both A and B schools have access to a well-orchestrated symphony of reasons, some genuine, but most of them extensions of well-intentioned one-off situations; each can call on one side or other of politics and are well versed in doing so — quietly. The situation is helped by the way that parents are able to declare portions of school fees as business expenses or charitable donations, reducing their tax debt. In effect, the taxpayer is supporting the Grammar Schools and LCs twice.

The usual way to silence impertinent questions about how rich schools are becoming richer is to use a phrase like “class envy”. But this is not about such a convenient evocation of one of the seven deadly sins, the issue raised here is that multiple of three or five for what is essentially the same service. And, for once, can we be gracious and thank the sector of society who raised the matter in the first place — the banks.

Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher of quadratic equations.

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