Feeling the effects of class: inequality in a two-tired education system

“Wear your uniform with pride,” they would always say.

Private schools exist to perpetuate divisions of class, and my final high school year made me realise this. They gladly fill the expectations placed upon them by the parents, who pay good money to show that their child is a class above the majority.

I grew up in New Zealand and went to a public school for the first 12 years of school. In my final year I moved to a private boarding school. Elitism and snobbery aside, it was remarkable. Th e teachers were much more helpful, the study conditions were ideal, and every talent and interest I could possibly have was nurtured. My academic performance improved immensely, just in time for university applications. My mum, as a single mother of two with no university qualifications, had to work extremely hard just to send me there for a year. As grateful as I was, I couldn’t help but feel immense guilt. If my academic results were so dependent on going to a private school, how was this fair on the majority of students who did not?

When I entered the University of Auckland law school the year after, I was comforted by the fact that only a handful of students were from private schools, proving that the more traditionally academic professions were mostly universally accessible. In my second year of university however, I moved to Melbourne to go to Monash law school and to my surprise, almost every single student I met was from a private or selective school.

Two years later since my first day at Monash, I’ve only met one other law student from a non-selective public school. Was it not possible to get a high ATAR at a public school? Why did I not see this as much in New Zealand? What about those hard working and talented students who come from public schools, why are they so underrepresented? It seemed that private school students were competing with an advantage so great that public school kids were almost locked out from getting the top grades.

Australia likes to think of itself as a merit-based society, a land of the fair go – where the school systems guarantee that all children, no matter their origins, can access a quality publicly funded education that will give children an equal chance at success in life. If this is really true, if we truly live in a merit-based society, why are about 35% of secondary school parents in Australia sacrifi cing tens of thousands of dollars each year to make sure their children don’t go through our publicly funded education system? If we are proud of this country and its equality, why do we clearly have such little faith in the public education system that we’ll spend thousands just to avoid it? We’re in a two-tiered system, where private school kids com-pete mostly in a league of their own. It begs the question: is a class system really just a relic of the 19th century, or does it still exist in modern Australia?

Australia has one of the highest levels of private schools in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries and is at the bottom end in terms of equality and education outcomes. The reality is that it’s not a merit-based, land of the fair go at all, and rather is inherently unequal and socially stratified, even more so than other developed countries like New Zealand, Canada or the United Kingdom. I noticed the divide much more over here due to the difference between 4% of Kiwi students going to private schools and 35% in Australia. Th e high number of private schools here are the result of such a high demand, caused by parents losing faith in the public system to such an extent that they’ll spend what they can’t afford. If the Australian economy is dependent on workforce participation and productivity, why is education a prime target of budget cuts, time and time again?

The public system clearly isn’t disregarded in New Zealand to the same extent it is here. Selective schools don’t exist there, meaning about 96% of the students go to a public, non-selective school, making it much easier for them to compete when they are on a mostly-level playing field and only such a small minority have the advantage of a private school.

But the inequality doesn’t stop there. While private schools discriminate based on income and wealth, selective schools discriminate on academic talents and public schools discrim-inate on geographical location, meaning those located in higher income areas attract better-off students. So either way, students of similar socioeconomic class will be placed together, and social segregation of our school students will continue to widen.

The one friend I do have in law school from a public school went to Melbourne Girls’ College, in the wealthy inner-city suburb of Richmond, with a reputation of being one Melbourne’s best public schools. “I really think there’s not enough public school kids doing law”, she said.

The “good” public schools in Auckland were all in the inner city. The best ones, arguably, are Epsom Girls’ Grammar and Auckland Grammar in the expensive suburb of Epsom. The two single-sex schools are situated right next to each other and they raise the house prices significantly in the zones around them more and more each year. Houses for sale in the area would have “Double Grammar Zone” plastered all over them. A 2015 suburb report shows that the average house in Epsom has 3 bedrooms and is worth $1.3 million. Strict school zoning and house prices like that make the “good” public schools arguably just as exclusive as private schools.

An increasingly lucrative market for tutoring that targets parents of already advantaged private school kids, further exemplifies socio-economic segregation between schools. Costing upwards of $50 an hour, a student’s access to tutoring is entirely contingent on a parent’s capacity to spend, and gives students a signifi cant competitive advantage in exams. Students in a non-conducive environment with limited ability to spend simply cannot compete to the same extent. The 2015 New Estimates of Intergenerational Mobility report commissioned by the NSW Department of Education found that social mobility is far more restricted in Australia than previously thought, with family background and earnings playing a much more significant role on a student’s outcomes compared with individual ability, talent and hard work. How is it fair that your postcode defines your opportunities, and your parent’s income dictates your success in life?

The private/public school divide in Melbourne made it clear to me that the school you went to is so much more than where you went to learn; it is a symbol of class.

Some may believe a class system no longer exists, but looking at statistics and the people I’ve met studying law and medicine, I have many reasons to believe that this isn’t true. As cheap credit becomes easily accessible, class statuses are not as visible as they used to be. Or perhaps we try and ignore it as best as we can in our own worlds rather than facing such an ugly truth. I see the biggest problem as public ignorance. After all, we are the population that just voted a conservative government in for a second time. Christopher Pyne, when he was Education Minister, specifically said that him and his government had an “emotional commitment” to private schools.

With the massive cuts to education that just came from the 2016 Turnbull government budget, people are simply losing more faith in public education, and a parent’s capacity to spend on their child’s education is more important than ever. Turnbull has already expressed interest in deregulating university fees, giving universities the ability to multiply the amount they charge – hence the “no $100,000 degrees” campaign. While the possibility of this is still uncertain, especially due to the Coalition making up a smaller-than-expected proportion in Parliament, partial deregulation for certain courses is already underway. Turnbull has said it will “allow universities to concentrate on the things they can do best”, however, this would clearly further limit low socio-economic status (SES) students from accessing quality education. For someone like myself who is ineligible for HECS debt, increased university fees would sim-ply mean that I wouldn’t be able to afford to study in Australia anymore. But even for those who are eligible for the loan, a financial burden of that size is simply unthinkable for low SES students.

As young people, there’s little we can do about this alarming inequity. However, being aware of this sharp divide in privilege and making informed choices about the federal election is a good place to start. The difference of educational equity between Australia and New Zealand, as well as many other developed countries, shows that successful education reform is possible.

Good students are the product of good teachers, but the allure of a bigger salary package at a private school often wins out. As private schools appear over-funded relative to the funding public schools receive, most of the change needs to occur at a state level. But here on the ground we need to make parents want to send their kids through the public system like they do in New Zealand. We need to put our faith back into public schools, encourage tertiary students to pursue education and respect our hard-working teachers in public schools who haven’t already been lured away.

I may not have noticed the disparity of Melbourne’s notorious private school culture if I didn’t move here from another country. What it did teach me however, is to have a hell of a lot of respect for the students in medicine, law and similarly competitive courses who may be from under-funded public schools, from low-income suburbs or from under-resourced rural areas. Coming so far with all the odds stacked against them shows that their achievements are truly phenomenal.

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