Education Ethics bigger than public versus private

There are 17 selective high schools in New South Wales, and 10 schools offering selective classes for academically gifted students.

For those who can’t afford private school fees, or the costs of a home in an area blessed with a first-rate public high school, entry to one of these selective schools may be their high-achieving child’s only chance of getting the education she needs.

So what if you have enough money to send your child to a private school that is both able and willing to challenge your gifted child? Is it right for you to send your child to a selective school, if she gets in?

This dilemma is all too real. Recently, I read of a couple who were frank about their capacity to afford a top private education for their son, but moved into the zone of the state’s top public school so they could renovate their house, build a swimming pool and avoid becoming workforce slaves so they could spend more time with their kids.

Are such choices right? Fair? Does the mere asking of such questions – guaranteed to foster a fractious and divisive debate about personal ethics – signal the success of State and Federal government strategy to wedge the community on the schools issue to distract from their woeful neglect of public education and its tragic consequence: the failure to provide every child with local public schools able to deliver the education they need and deserve?

I think the latter. OK, it’s true. I feel uncomfortable about parents choosing to renovate and build a pool instead of paying private school fees, but have sympathy for those wishing to work less and spend more time with their kids. And I can’t help but admire the decision of a now wealthy friend from a middle-class background not to sit his bright child for the entry test for the selective high school he credits with his success because he wants the place to go to a child in need.

But these are my values, and yours may be different. And the truth is that pondering what individuals of conscience do in unconscionable situations is not the best way to solve this country’s neglect of our children’s educational needs.

Instead, what we need is a paradigm shift. Away from a view of children as private possessions (the benefits of which reside solely with their parents) and towards one that recognizes them as a public good. Viewed this way, the moral problem shifts away from the adequacy of particular parents’ sacrifice, and towards the moral obligations of employers and governments (which regularly wax eloquent about the need for couples to reproduce early and often) to invest in the education of this country’s future citizens and workforce.

And the investment currently being made is inadequate, with the Federal Government’s own ministerial taskforce making clear that without $2.9 billion more each year, public schools will be unable to meet what Education Ministers of all State, Territory and Commonwealth governments agreed were the very goals of schooling in the 21st century.

I think it’s true to say that if the school best placed to meet our child’s academic needs was around the corner and free, most of us would send our child there.

This makes the key moral question: why can’t most of us say this about our local schools, and what – as a nation – do we intend to do about it?

Publication history

Moral Maze: Education Ethicss bigger than public versus private  The Sun Herald