SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Are independent schools enemies of social cohesion?
, December 12, 2009
Do Catholic and independent schools help alleviate racism or do they promote unfair discrimination and division?
Those opposed to government funding to non-government schools argue the second. Over the past year or two a number of critics have argued that whereas government schools promote the common good, tolerance and respect for difference, non-government schools fragment society and weaken social capital.
Sydney University Professor Andrew Jakubowicz argued earlier this year that faith-based schools undermine the "whole edifice of social cohesion and modern citizenship". Mounting a similar critique, the head of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, argues non-government schools "exacerbate social divisions". Only this week, Catherine Deveny accused non-government schools of being bastions of privilege and failing the equity test.
Not only do critics rarely, if ever, provide evidence supporting their claims, but recent research suggests they are wrong. In a just-released report by the Foundation for Young Australians, The Impact of Racism on the Health and Wellbeing of Young Australians
, the evidence is that students who attend Catholic schools are less likely to experience racism when compared to students in government schools.
The report states, "only 53.9 per cent of participants from Catholic secondary schools reported being subjected to racist treatment, whilst over 76 per cent of students from both types of government schools indicated experiencing some form of racist treatment".
Additional evidence that Catholic and independent schools successfully promote social cohesion and tolerance is found in an analysis of the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes by education commentator Andrew Norton.
Norton's analysis concludes that those who had attended Catholic schools rated higher than those from government schools in terms of social involvement and a commitment to the types of values and attitudes needed for social stability.
It should also be noted that the social composition of Catholic school communities largely mirrors that of government schools. Instead of only serving the privileged, many Catholic schools exist in low socio-economic communities with a strong multicultural profile.
The rationale for strong, properly funded and autonomous non-government schools is not just about social cohesion and reducing discrimination. Central to any democracy is parents' right to choose where their children go to school and to have them educated according to their morals and beliefs.Faith-based
Surveys show that the reason parents choose non-government schools is not because they are better resourced or because of smaller classes. Parents choose non-government schools because they are faith-based, there is a disciplined environment with strong academic standards, and such schools best reflect the needs and aspirations of their local communities.
Catholic schools, in particular, define their mission in terms of the moral and spiritual teachings of the church and, in a time of societal dysfunction and loss of meaning, provide a strong moral compass for students.
Thousands of Australian families embrace school choice with Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing just over 30 per cent of students across Australia attending non-government schools - the figure rises to more than 40 per cent at years 11 and 12 in the ACT, Victoria and NSW. And between 1998 and 2008, government school enrolments grew by only 1.1 per cent, while the figure for the non-government school sector is 21.9 per cent.
Non-government school parents also save the taxpayer billions of dollars every year. The average cost to governments of educating a student in a state school, based on 2005-06 Productivity Commission figures, is $11,243. The cost to government of educating a student in a non-government school is only $6,287. Each student that attends a non-government school saves government (and the taxpayer) about $5,000.
Based on the picture painted by critics, one could be forgiven for thinking that already wealthy non-government schools are over-funded by government. The reality is that under the socio-economic status model, funding is means-tested. Wealthy schools, measured by a sample survey of parents by a school's postcode, receive only 13.5 per cent of the average cost of educating a government school student.
One of the key elements of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's education revolution is to raise standards and strengthen school performance. Research, both here and overseas, concludes that one of the characteristics of stronger performing education systems is well-resourced, autonomous, non-government schools.
Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, even after adjusting for students' socioeconomic background, concludes that non-government schools achieve better academic results, have higher completion rates and are more successful at getting students into university.
The European researcher, Ludger Woessman, based on an analysis of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), argues that the autonomy and flexibility associated with Catholic and independent schools, unlike state schools that are government-controlled, give them an edge in terms of performance.Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute (ESI) and author of Australia's Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (available from News Weekly Books for $29.95). A longer version of this article appeared in The Age (Melbourne), November 23, 2009: