Australia's educational standard is on the rise, but is good teaching available to all or are we seeing the growth of an education divide? Is a solid education only available to those who can afford it?
Over the last 13 years the number of youngsters in government schools has remained around the 2.2 million mark. Meanwhile students in private schools have increased in number by 26 percent. Perhaps that's the way it should be. Those who can afford education should pay for it, and if standards are being maintained what's the problem?
And standards do seem to be improving. The proportion of young people (aged 20-24) with a year 12 and/or Certificate II has risen from 80 percent in 1999, to 84.5 percent in 2009. Not that the Labor government's "educational revolution" can claim any credit, the trend was already there and, if anything, slowed since the last election.
Equity What is key, of course, is equity of opportunity. Unfortunately we don't have to look too far to see the extent of the educational divide in this country. Compare the 95 percent of 20-24 year olds in the ACT with a Year 12 qualification, with statistics for less urbanised states: WA (77 percent), Tassie (71 percent) and the Territory (69 percent). NSW and Victoria sit around the 87 percent mark. WA has been playing catch-up (it was only 66 percent in 1997) but the rate of improvement in the less densely populated states and territories is slower than the major states.
So the migration to private schools seems to relate to a rise in standards. It's not necessarily because private schools are better --- many state schools rank highly on the famed myschools website --- it's perhaps because the choice brings competition which helps to raise the bar. That choice, of course, is somewhat diminished in regional areas where incomes are lower and private schools simply don't exist. There are 79 private schools in NSW, of which only 21 are outside of Sydney.
data source: ABS Australian Social Trends (30 June 2010: cat no 4102)
Less government spending Despite increased spending on education being touted repeatedly in election promises (from all political parties) funds committed to the sector have dwindled in relation to the wealth of the economy. Government expenditure on education was 6.1 percent of GDP in 1999. In 2009 it was 5.6 percent.
Why? Obviously because more people are paying their kids' way through private schooling, but also because universities are seeing a burgeoning income stream from overseas students. In 1997 less than 10 percent of all higher education places went to overseas students. In 2009 it had risen to more than 28 percent.
So are these foreign placements taking away opportunities for Aussie kids? Well no. Higher education places for locals have increased by 2-3 percent a year over the last few years. Over the last ten years the total number of students in higher education has increased by 55 percent.
The future We're a country with an expanding population. Regional towns are struggling to survive and metropolitan areas are suffering congestion and planning blight. If the major cities are embracing a shift to private education, surely the focus on education needs to be on improving standards in regional Australia. Obviously you need to maintain public school standards in the cities, but money spent on improving the quality of the workforce in smaller towns will encourage a diversification of business and a broader geographic spread of our services industries.
To use Julia Gillard's oft-repeated phrase "that would really be moving forward".