Schools and status competition

Ross Gittins thinks that subsidising private schools means subsidising wasteful status competition.

A persistent line of social criticism argues that status competition is wasteful when people pay a premium for something that is not functionally superior but confers greater social status. Gittins uses the example of a a BMW versus a ‘perfectly satisfactory’ Toyota.

The public school lobby endlessly obsesses over a fairly small number of genuinely high-status schools – Sydney Grammar, MLC, Scotch, Ascham etc. Perhaps trying to get your kid into one of these is ‘status competition’ – though it could be just ensuring your kids get the same high standard of facilities at school that they get at home. Ross has a history of being over-confident in inferring motives from behaviour.

But whatever the case with these schools, they are not typical private schools and they do not cost a large proprotion of the schools budget.

Most private schools confer little prestige. I’ve never heard of most of them, and neither have you. Even going to university 15 minutes drive from my low-prestige private school I constantly had to explain where and what it was to the inevitable school questions. Like many private school students, I went there for family religious reasons, not to impress the neighbours.

As Jennifer Buckingham’s paper last week showed, many of the biggest enrolment increases 1998-2006 where in schools affiliated to minority religions – often heavily stigmatised religions like ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity and Islam. If you want to increase your status, if you want to avoid people thinking you are bible-bashing crazy or a jihad-loving burqa wearer, go anywhere but these schools.

Daniel Edwards wrote a paper on Melbourne school enrolments using 2001-06 census data. The largest increases were in relatively poor outer suburbs – indeed there were slight declines in the affluent areas where many of the elite private schools are located. Presumably most in the outer suburbs were attending the low-fee private schools that emerged partially thanks to the SES funding model.

Maybe there is some limited local status associated with these schools, even if their names otherwise mean nothing – but it is far more likely that their parents were trying to do the best they could by their kids within their limited resources, given that government schools in these areas often struggle to meet the ‘functional’ requirements of a school.

Certainly some status competition seems rather silly (university rankings for example). But we all consciously or incidentally signal group memberships by our choices – left-wing ideologues sending their kids to government schools no less than toffs sending their kids to elite private schools – and rarely can this simply be reduced to wasteful status competition.

12 thoughts on “Schools and status competition

  1. “given that government schools in these areas often struggle to meet the ‘functional’ requirements of a school. ”
    I don’t think it is the schools and the staff in them that are the problem — I doubt there is much difference between most public schools in different areas given the funding model — it’s things like the other students that parents are worried about.
    And off topic:”left-wing ideologues sending their kids to government schools”
    Where does this happen? Most of them working in universities I meet seem quite happy to send their kids to the best possible schools (including those with high-status). Those that don’t usually can’t afford it for one reason or another.


  2. I have a personal story which might illuminate the idea of status competition in schooling.

    Back in 1992 when I was 4 years old, my parents started looking for a school for me to attend the next year. Their strategy was to start at the school they considered the most academically rigourous and then work their way down.

    So I went in for an interview with the Headmistress of the K-2 school at Sydney Grammar Prep in St Ives. After half an hour my parents were informed that the school would be delighted to have me as a pupil.

    My parents told me that they were shocked. My dad said to the headmistress that kids go on the waiting list to get into Grammer from birth, and asked why they were so eager to have me. The headmistress looked at my dad like he had been living under a rock and said, “Don’t you know we’re in the middle of a recession?”

    In the end it was purely rational behaviour which governed the decision of which school I went to. my parents sought out the best school possible at a price they knew they could afford. The school took up students based on their need for funds in an uncertain economic climate. Ultimately the decision was win-win for all concerned.


  3. Conrad, there’s a lot of parents in places like Carlton that send their kids to public schools as a deliberate statement about the inequality of private schools. It’s fairly common at places like camberwell high too.

    Andrew, I agree with your post. What I don’t accept is the comment about new christian schools.

    “If you want to increase your status, if you want to avoid people thinking you are bible-bashing crazy or a jihad-loving burqa wearer, go anywhere but these schools.”

    People within the church community want to increase their status amongst their peers. Their peers are members of the church. While it may be a Carlton opinion to think of these schools as anything but a status symbol, neither would you see a plasma as one either. Amongst the community of people that go to these churches, affording to go to these schools is most definitely a status symbol.

    Whether or not it’s a “positional good” comes down to whether or not these schools actually offer something of value. Your point is entirely valid here. I can’t comment one way or another about whether he’s right but Ross’s blank assertion it is, is disappointing.


  4. Jack

    Sydney Grammar is not academically “selective” in kindergarten; only selective by class. Which, if you dig into the SES of the top state selective schools like James Ruse, you will see that class is a damn good proxy for academic selection.


  5. Lomlate – Maybe, indeed it reminds me of the point that Will Wilkinson has made that in a diverse society there are endless possible status systems. Conversely, in upper middle class communities where almost everyone goes to private schools anyway there is little status in doing so. It is simply expected.


  6. I wonder what Ross Gittins thinks of the government subsidising tertiary education where the signalling argument might be more credible.


  7. Gittins probably missed the point in several ways, but taking just the Toyota vs BMW argument, both of the cars will get you there because they are both incredibly high quality items, the firms are involved in fierce competition to attract buyers and also they have to meet very strict performance standards (checked each year) to be allowed on the road.

    Following the analogy, imagine if primary schools that produced functional illiterates were closed down!

    And high schools as well.


  8. Given that about 45% of NSW high school students attend private schools, what could they possibly be ‘signalling’? It seems Gittins is probably speaking from the extremely narrow corner of his social class circles, presuming that “private schools” means Scotch, Abbottsleigh, Sydney Grammar, Kings, etc. Surely, this error was put to bed years ago?

    It’s time these people started getting fair dinkum about the reality of the “push” factor – the tawdry state school system – and moving on from their straw “pull” factors of the demonic John Howard!


  9. Jack

    Sorry, no evidence of “selectivity” there. It’s pretty well known that it’s a pretty silly waste of money to send your kids to expensive private schools before Year 5, unless you live in a peculiarly poorly serviced part of the world. St. Ives and Sydney’s North Shore to not fit the bill.


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