The patterns of enrolments across Australian school sectors reported in The Age (February 27, 2007, "Parents shun state schools") reflect a trend that now spans a generation. Since the Whitlam Government released its Karmel report in 1975 and made substantial levels of funding available to non-government schools there has been a steady drift from government to non-government schools that averages about 0.4 per cent per year.
The responses to this trend from governments and other stakeholders reflect a 30-year-old debate in Australia about public education and the funding of non-government schools. This debate has maintained a public perception of a stand-off between the government and non-government school sectors that has crippled any capacity for rational policy on these issues at the national and state levels.
Ownership of the schools should not matter as long as students have reasonable access to schools that will deliver a good quality education within a curriculum that meets public expectations. For example, the Netherlands and Belgium, both of which have strong public systems, have a majority of their schools enrolments in publicly funded church schools.
The problem in Australia, and unlike the situation in most other OECD countries, is that despite public funding, non-government schools can be selective in their enrolments, through fees, scholarships and other means. Thus the long-standing fear in Australia is that the drift in enrolments will deprive government schools of their better-off and more scholastically capable students. This would lead to government schools being seen as residual places for students from poor household and students who are rejected from non-government schools because of their weak scholastic performances or behaviour.
There is some evidence for this fear. The recent growth in non-government enrolments has mainly been in the independent, non-Catholic sector, and the increased enrolments are strongly concentrated in students from wealthier families. However, these broad figures hide other patterns.
The largest element of the non-government sector, Catholic schools, is relatively stable in its enrolment share, which is distributed fairly evenly across all income groups. The sector looks like, and to a large extent behaves like, a public sector, being mostly publicly funded, delivering the public curriculum and charging mostly low fees, and in some cases no fees.
If they were added to the government school enrolments in Australia, as they are in most other OECD countries, public education market share would grow to 85 per cent.
On the other hand within the government sector, apart from the loss of some better-off students to the independent sector there are changing internal patterns of enrolments. In Victoria, there has been a significant migration of better-off students to large primary and secondary schools that achieve good results in tests and the VCE.
Correspondingly there is a growing concentration of poorer students in small schools with weak results.
The trends are expressions of a robust school education market. As numerous surveys have shown, parents choose on the basis of their image of a good school, not the sector. Schools are aware that the surest way to achieve this image is to concentrate scholastic power among their enrolments. The temptation to use selection to achieve this is high.
The problem is not the residualisation of the government school sector. A significant proportion of government schools do very well. The list of the schools that gained most entries into Melbourne and Monash universities, published in The Sunday Age (February 18, 2007) included six government and no Catholic schools.
However, there is strong evidence that the growing concentration of poorer students in small schools is a serious equity issue.
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