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.