OPINION: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
No such thing as a free education
, August 6, 2011
When the Education Act of 1872 passed the Parliament of Victoria, it was intended to make education in that state “free, compulsory and secular”. Up until that time, education had been the domain of the private sector, mainly, though not exclusively, church organisations. Freeing education from “sectarianism” was one of the specific intentions of the Act.
However, as any Catholic parent could tell you, education was never “free”. If you didn’t accept what was handed out by the government, you had to pay for it. Until fairly recently, if you wanted to give your child an education outside the government system, for whatever reason, you had to pay for it yourself. The government gave no help at all. However, it would be totally fallacious to think that education provided by the government was “free”. Someone paid for it, and that someone was the taxpayer.
It is totally detrimental to the concept of civic responsibility to think that the government is going to give people things for free. Education is no more free than anything else.
Everyone should be expected to make a direct contribution to the education of their children, regardless of the school they attend. This should not be an amenities fee or book fee. It should be a tuition fee and described as such. The level of such a fee could in part be determined by the ability of the parents to pay.
I have a confession to make. Long ago, when it was possible to do such things, I used to personally collect the rent for a number of old houses my family owned. Although it was a good suburb close to the city, these old houses were in an area that was due to be redeveloped. The houses were old, they weren’t great, but most tenants were glad to have cheap accommodation close to the city, which was a 10-minute bus ride away.
Mostly they paid their rent on time. I gave them a bit of latitude, but in the end I said, “If you’ve got money for cigarettes, money for beer and money to put petrol in your car” — which they always did — “then you’ve got money for my rent”, and they almost always paid up.
One family did a midnight flit, and I threatened to physically throw one man out of the house if he didn’t have my rent when I returned next week. He didn’t pay, but he disappeared, which meant at least I could re-let the house. That sort of thing is no longer possible, which I believe is a bad thing.
The point is that almost everyone can cut back on cigarettes, cut back on beer and cut back on petrol if they need to — and everybody can — and should therefore make a direct contribution, if only a few hundred dollars, towards the education of their children.
Why is this important? Because it gives parents ownership. If they have suffered deprivation to send their children to school, they will want to know their sacrifice has been worthwhile. The more they have sacrificed, the more they will demand value for money. As the management experts say, you get “buy in”.
This is already happening. My son, for example, attends one of the best schools in Victoria, Melbourne High School. Melbourne High is a selective-entry school. As has been said of Fort Street High School in Sydney — also a selective-entry school — “it’s the best education money can’t buy”. Melbourne High, in my opinion, is a far better school than many elite private schools where the fees can only be described as extortionate.
However, attendance at Melbourne High is not free. Fees are in the region of $4,000 a year. This is because Melbourne High is a government school and simply could not provide the programs it does without the support of its parents. Most Melbourne High parents are not rich, but they find the money somehow. For the genuinely disadvantaged, various forms of assistance are available.
According to sources at the school, if Melbourne High wishes to maintain and expand its programs, fees will have to rise because government funding will decrease over time.
What is the response of most government schools, as exemplified by the Australian Education Union? Continual moaning. Give us (especially teachers) more money, they plead. Wipe out the private education sector — as if that would do any good, apart from giving their members jobs at the expense of members of the rival private sector union.
It’s time the government education sector had a reality check. Things at one government high school in Melbourne’s north had got so bad that even the union agreed it was beyond saving.
They sacked (sorry, I forget what the appropriate euphemism is) the entire staff and rehired about one-fifth, with guidelines such as “Female teachers should not wear short skirts in class and male staff should not wear teeshirts, and “If you set homework, mark it and return it to students”.
Perhaps the entire sector is beyond saving.