Is the rise of private schooling due to ‘neoliberalism’?

Three pages into School Choice: How Parents Negotiate the New School Market in Australia, its authors tells us that in developing their argument ‘we are responsive to two books by Michael Pusey’. This is not a good start. As usual in discussing ‘neoliberalism’, the views of those who might plausibly be described as ‘neoliberals’ are not discussed in any detail, with passing mentions of arguments from the CIS and the Menzies Research Centre, accompanied by a grudging concession that the Howard government never followed the logic of these organisations’ arguments to ‘the end’.

Pusey has long argued that ‘economic rationalism’/ neoliberalism was an essentially alien ideology imposed on unwilling citizens. And the authors of School Choice – Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor, and Geoffrey Sherington – pursue that logic to some extent in noting parents who felt that they had had to make a school choice, when really they would have preferred just to send their kids to a ‘quality’ local school.

But a much stronger case can be made that school choice has deep roots in Australian history and politics, and that while there is a distinctive ‘neoliberal’ set of arguments these are not what has given this issue political momentum.

The current public schooling system derives largely from a series of reforms around the then Australian colonies in the 1870s, in which education was made free at public schools and compulsory for all young people, and state aid to the previous dominant private schools was withdrawn. This was a major issue in the middle decades of the 19th century, and the idea of public education was never fully accepted – at least for their own kids – in significant parts of Australian society, especially the Protestant elites and Catholics more generally.

Right through the period of no state aid the Catholics maintained a large school system, so that even with no direct state assistance about a quarter of Australian children attended private, mainly Catholic, schools. So many families have long traditions of attending private schools.

The felt injustice of such a large section of the electorate paying twice for education – once through their taxes, and again through school fees – combined with declining anti-Catholic feeling among Protestants meant that, by the 1960s, both sides of politics were in favour of state aid (interestingly, some Protestant schools resisted initially – rightly fearing the conditions that would be attached to state money).

As a history of state aid to private schools reports, by the early 1970s the rhetoric of school choice had been adopted by the Liberal Party. So the movement for state assistance to private schools, including the language of choice, was part of Australian politics long before ‘neoliberalism’ was a major intellectual force.

Once the institutions of school choice were firmly established, it is hardly surprising that more and more parents moved to the private system. There had long been serious problems in the government school sector, as the Karmel report documented in the early 1970s. As the labour market increasingly rewarded education, poor quality schools became of greater concern to parents. And quality issues aside, it is likely that as affluence rose increasing numbers of parents would be able to afford schooling more closely aligned to their religious beliefs or what they thought best suited their children.

Politicians cannot ignore such widely held and strongly felt concerns, which is why governments of both parties, albeit relucantly for some on the Labor side, have supported state aid for private schools. We don’t need ‘neoliberalism’ to explain this.

The main ‘neoliberal’ twist on these old arguments is to point to the dynamic effects of competition between schools; that is not just the kids who move schools who are better off, it is most kids because schools have to improve to retain their students. I’m not sure that this has been a very influential argument. A word search on ‘competition’ in the history of state aid does not turn up any relevant references. The main public supporters of state aid – the private schools themselves – tend not to directly criticise government schools because it would provoke unnecessary controversy, and so cannot easily argue for state aid on the grounds that it would sharpen the performance of inadequate government schools.

I think ‘neoliberal’ arguments on schools are intellectually important. I am far less convinced that they have been politically influential.

19 thoughts on “Is the rise of private schooling due to ‘neoliberalism’?

  1. I think this blog is the only place I can remember seeing that argument clearly enunciated, but it is probably implicit in the ‘parental choice’ argument, anyway.

    I can’t see why the government has to actually run schools at all, really. We could have a system of vouchers and charter schools and the department of education would operate in a purely regulatory capacity.

    I have always found the Catholic school system quite interesting, as the per capital funding is, I believe, lower than in state schools, the socio-economic profile of their intake is the same as local state schools but the academic outcomes are better. They also seem to do a better job of keeping their teachers happy, even though they don’t actually pay them any more.


  2. Cathy – I think the argument is only partly implicit in the parental choice argument, because both sides of the debate assume (which you don’t) that the public education system should continue to exist. It’s hard to see how competition will really work effectively for all students when one provider has two-thirds market share. I also think that the public school lobby has a point that there could be increasing problems if the public school system is ‘residualised’- mainly taking those too poor or too indifferent to education to go to non-government schools.

    I’d say that the mainstream argument for school choice is really about facilitating choice for those people who, for various reasons, don’t want to send their kids to government schools. The ‘neoliberal’ argument is that is that the benefits of choice should not be restricted to these people. It is a larger, more radical, more egalitarian, argument.


  3. Some semi-related points and a (longish) rant.

    (1) Press reports of the annual Report on Government Services released on Friday show that private school enrolments are increasing nine times faster than for government school between (from memory) 2003 and 2006. ABS data shows that government school enrolments have been steady for at least the last fifteen years, whereas private school enrolments have had a significant increase (three fold from memory). The evidance is compelling. Parents are overwhelmingly choosing private schools!!!

    (2) A personal anecdote. Our local government school is a ‘quality’ school by government school standards. For the past three years they have been telling us how bright our daugther is. (According to her school report, her teachers thought she was at least two years ahead of where they would expect a child in her grade to be.) We asked the school what they could do to challenge her so she didn’t get bored. Answer, not much.
    From the people I know who work for the Education department this does not surprise me, as their focus is always on ‘disadvantaged’ schools and families. This may be as it should be, but it does not meet my needs. Is it any wonder that we have decided to fork out the dough to send her to a private school this year. (Happy to report back in a few years on whether the move was worth the money.)

    (3) The Report on Government Services also shows that private schools have a better track record of getting students to complete year 12 (85% compare with 70%, once again from memory). State and Commonwealth Labour governments have made increasing Year 12 attainment a major objective. The Victorian government set itself a target of 90% attainment of young people attaining Year 12 be next year. They are unlikely to meet this target.
    If Labour was fair dinkum about increasing Year 12 attainment, they would follow Cathy’s advice. But following the revelation of Rudd’s forthcoming essay in The Monthly, we know that idealogical purity is more important that achieving worthwhile outcomes.


  4. I think the rise in private schools is due to economic growth and to the emergence of a class of immigrants in Australia – mainly Asian – with strong pro-education values.

    When I went to school most parents (certainly mine) could not afford private schools. The upshot was that lots of able kids from average income backgrounds went to public schools – they had a better mix of abilities than those today.

    Almost all students at elite universities these days are from private schools. The public schools do not deliver. Good teachers but often just underfunded with an appalling Laborite ethic.

    As a parent all 3 of my kids have been to private schools because I can afford it and because I value education.

    Also many kids at the private schools I know are the sons and daughters of migrants who have much higher educational aspirations than many of the Australian born.

    Aussies are great ‘bargain hunters’. They want good meals and good education on the cheap and scream loudly when the inevitable disappointments arise. Social democrats protest about the value of the public schools when a lot of the time they are just plain stingy.

    Either they must pay more taxes or pay more for education directly if they want the outcomes they seek.


  5. HC – My census analysis suggests that NESB and ESB have identical rates of private school attendance, with Asian background quite varied, mostly depending I think on Catholic influence in their home country. Chinese speakers have 28% of their kids in private schools, significantly below the national average. Anecdotally they are massively ‘over-represented’ in selective schools though. Obviously migrants have boosted the absolute number of private school students, but I don’t think they have altered the enrolment share.


  6. Aussies are great ‘bargain hunters’. They want good meals and good education on the cheap and scream loudly when the inevitable disappointments arise.

    Conrad said it best, “Australians are too cheap to pay for their own education and too jealous to let anyone else for their own educaton” – or something just like that.


  7. SD: I’ll still agree with myself on that comment!
    AN: Do you have the data on the proportion of kids that have gone to private schools over time? I did a quick google search and oddly enough the first hit is a socialist paper that starts off blaming Howard. According to their data, in 1977, 80% of kids went to public schools in Australia versus 68% [in 2004]. The Wikipedia entry gives similar figures (78% in 1970). My bet is that if you draw the graph it basically looks like a straight line from the 70s, which suggests that the actual policies pursued over that time have not made much difference — including all those years when Howard wasn’t in power. The other reason I doubt that the type of politics they are complaining about makes a whole lot of difference is that the proportion of kids in private schools varies hugely across countries. Other countries like the US and NZ have lower rates of kids going to private schools than Australia, yet the US had far more neo-liberal policies than Aus in general.


  8. Andrew wrote: “Anecdotally they [Asians] are massively ‘over-represented’ in selective schools though.”

    Have you by any chance read “The Howard Legacy” by Dr. Peter Wilkinson? In the book, the author examines Asian, particularly Chinese, over-representation in Australian selective schools and in the more lucrative fields of education at Australian universities.

    From the publisher:

    “A book which should be read by all those who think about the future of Australia, but especially of concern to those with children/grandchildren with educational aspirations.

    In 2005 in the Sydney Morning Herald Michael Duffy asked the rhetorical question: “Is it perhaps the first time in history that a nation’s elite have invited another group to come in and replace it?”

    Now Dr Peter Wilkinson has collected together both readily available and hitherto unpublished data to show that indeed traditional Australia is being displaced from the professional and managerial classes. This is the enduring legacy that Prime Minister John Howard’s regime has bequeathed to the future of Australia. How has this come about?

    It arises from a complex web of policies, largely bipartisan, particularly the selective immigration policies which favour applicants with an Australian university degree. Recent arrivals, i.e. the overseas born and non-English speaking background resident students, predominately Chinese, are now in a majority in some fields of education in the universities. They are concentrated in the lucrative and prestige careers. At the UNSW they are the majority overall.

    The Chinese presence in Australia has been analysed: numbers, distribution, school and university enrolments, social attitudes and political influence. With near one-fifth in the electorates of the Prime Minister and the Shadow Minister for Immigration, they are influencing immigration policies. The conclusion is that on present policies Australia will have a Chinese minority dominating the economy. Does it matter?”


  9. Conrad – I do have data (of variable quality) going back to the mid-19th century, though I have not yet entered every year into a spreadsheet. It seems government schools reached a post-WW2 peak in the mid-1970s, which is interesting as it suggests that the first decade of recurrent grants did not have a huge effect, though I would want to go back and examine the funding and enrolment data more carefully. This could be the very high birthrates of the early 1970s working their way through primary school, where government schools do better than they do for secondary school.

    As I noted in another recent post, the shift to private schools was only slightly faster under Howard than it had been under Hawke and Keating. I haven’t done the precise sums, but without the slowdown caused by the early 1990s the average would probably have been the same, suggesting that you are right that long-term economic and social trends explain what is going on more than the specifics of government policy.


  10. Edward – I have not read the book you mention, though I recall the Michael Duffy article. I very much doubt that Chinese Australians have the numbers to dominate the economy, but good luck to them. I don’t see my Chinese background friends as foreigners whose success should be feared. I’m not sure why I should see Chinese background people I don’t know as more of a concern.


  11. “The conclusion is that on present policies Australia will have a Chinese minority dominating the economy. Does it matter?”
    First, this seems rather unlikely given the rather small percentage of the population the Chinese are versus the millions of Anglos, and the fact the Chinese coming now are quite a different variety than, say, those that came in the last decade. The reason the Chinese in places like Chatswood are so rich is because most came from HK with tons of money and a decent education to start with. In addition, if it was true, it would mean that Anglos would have to be so unmotivated and stupid that they would no doubt need to lose their money, houses, businesses etc. to become poorer than a tiny minority.
    In any case, I have a few more points:
    1) If it wasn’t for various ethnic groups at Australian universities, it seems rather likely that many courses (e.g., electrical engineering) would have been pretty much closed down. Would you rather have ethnically Chinese/Indian engineers or none at all? Do we want people with postgraduate degrees in engineering/science at all (very few Anglos do such degrees these days)?
    2) The same is true of a lot of business in Australia. It’s no surprise there are a lot of rich Chinese business men in Australia — would you rather Australia didn’t do business with China?
    3) The Australia attitude to education is appalling. If these guys come with the opposite attitude, then hopefully some will rub off on the average Australian.
    4) My bet is that we will unfortunately see a fair bit of regression to the mean going on with these groups. Chinese have been living in Australia since the gold rush. If you think they will stay like your stereotype, try taking a trip to Bendigo or some places in Queensland.
    5) It seems to me this is just the normal “I hate non-Anglos” complaint. It seems you can’t win. In case you are poorer than average (e.g., the Lebanese) people will complain and in case you are richer than average, people will still complain! In case you are about the same (e.g., the Greeks), people will just think of nasty names for you instead.


  12. Heavens above, Edward!

    Last Anzac Day, I saw a considerable number of young Aussie diggers in dress uniforms with distinctly Asiatic faces walking around Marin Place, chatting and laughing with their non-Asian mates.

    Forget the economy, mate. On present policies of equality and non-discrimination, and given the Asian propensity for hard work and agreeableness, we’ll soon have a Chinese minority dominating the military!!

    Does it matter??


  13. On the issue of Anglo-Asian relations, I recommend Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. It’s an excellent film, and if a Dirty Harry character can learn to like his Asian neighbours, anyone can.


  14. conrad said:
    Chinese have been living in Australia since the gold rush. If you think they will stay like your stereotype, try taking a trip to Bendigo or some places in Queensland.

    I lived in Bendigo for about 5 years. Great Chinese Museum and best dragon outside China. Worst Chinese food in Australia.

    No one of Chinese heritage in Bendigo would know what “knee how ma” means. (possibly because they are Cantonese but you get my meaning)

    Talk about regress to the mean.


  15. Gran Torino was a great movie but the Hmong are really an outlier among Asians and don’t fit into the ‘model minority’ stereotype


  16. I don’t understand the census data on participation of migrants in private schools. A huge proportion of the kids at private schools I know about have migrant/NESB backgrounds. I wonder is it perhaps because they are ‘second generation’ migrants and maybe therefore not classified as NESB. But the facts you quote don’t reflect my experience.

    On educational biases I have some experience also with another type of measure of educational priorities and that lies in school-level music competitions. In some cases nearly 100% are Chinese. It is surprising.


  17. Harry – ABS data is expensive, so after some discussion we decided to go for the language question rather than the ancestry question, since social integration was the main point of interest. Maybe if we had gone for ancestry the results would have been different.


  18. FXH – You still have to pay for the kind of census request from which our schools data comes.

    The ABS has massively increased the amount of free data – all routine reports are now free, and any member of the public can construct census tables of their own on some topics – but other requests still seem to cost about $500 a spreadsheet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s