The Ethics Of… Private Schools

If there’s one sure way to rile up a person, it’s to have a go at their kids. Not children or young people in general, who most will agree are an issue well worth discussing, but rather their children specifically. It’s amazing how even the most rational, placid and intelligent of people will go utterly bananas if you attempt to criticise their children, and while most parents are level-headed enough to realise that their kids aren’t perfect in every way, even your mildest child-owner is going to get their hackles up if you mention the magic phrase:

Your kid isn’t special.


Of course thinking your own kids are special is pretty standard fare for a parent – after all I’d be slightly worried if you didn’t have more attachment to your own offspring than to anyone else’s. Indeed I know quite a few proud and loving parents that loath children in general and will happily bitch about the critters for hours (so long as it’s not their specific kids we’re talking about) and this sort of bias is pretty understandable. It’s only when your tendency to favour your kids stars to spill over into how we treat other people that things start to get a bit ugly, and nowhere is this more the case than the debate about private schools.

Every few years the media gets bored of baiting cyclists, or a politician sees a chance for rabble-rousing and the great debate about ‘public funding for private schools’ sees the light of day again. And every single time it’s the same stupid set of arguments;

‘Why is our tax being spent on rich private businesses? Private schools are massively well funded and patronised by some of the richest families in the country – why do they need or deserve taxpayer funding?’


‘Private schools take the burden off the public system, educating students for a fraction of what it would cost the state! And since they also produce our best and brightest graduates, what are you complaining about?’

Naturally it takes about 5 minutes for the debate to break down into competing sets of figures and economics jargon, at which point 99% of the audience turns off and the topic gets shelved for another few years. Personally I find this song and dance very disappointing, because it misses a far larger, juicer issue about private schools. Does the private system indeed help the public system by reducing student numbers? Or are they just bourgeoisie leeches, sucking funding out of the public for personal profit? I don’t know and I don’t care. You know what I do care about? Whether the entire concept of a private school can be justified in the first place.

No doubt that is going to seem like a rather extreme question to many. After all, private schools have been a part of Australia for at least 200 years (and were pretty much the foundation of education before the public system existed), have educating thousands of students including the vast majority of our leading politicians. They consistently achieve high exam results, offer specialised and advanced programs to students, and attract the very best teachers in all disciplines. More than this, private schools offer students an element of prestige – want your child to get a head-start in life? Meet all the right people, make all the right connections and set themselves up for a successful future? Send them to a private school. Even the uniforms speak of just a touch of class that, frankly, public schools could never even contemplate.

UniformsSpot the peasant.

Sure giving your kids this advantage will cost you around $15,000 per year, per child, excluding books and extracurricular activities (many of which are compulsory), but what’s that against a life-long advantage in their education, careers and success? Assuming of course that your child meets (and continues to meet) the rigorous academic standards of the school. How could you refuse your children this sort of opportunity!

Last week I wrote that compulsory schooling is not designed to cater for the needs and interests of every student; rather it is designed to prevent them from being ignorant jackarses who inevitably make a mess. Private schools then appear to be the perfect solution to this problem! They offer students who excel, have very specific passions, or who need particular attention to succeed, the perfect place to have these needs met while the public system sorts out the masses. Sure it’s pricey and selective, and many people will not be able to go, but for those that can it’s the perfect complement to the public system.


Yeah, no. Have a read through all those benefits I just listed about private schools:

  • The best exams results
  • Attract the best teachers
  • An element of prestige
  • Meet all the right people and make good connections

All in order to provide students with,

  • A life-long advantage in education, careers and success

Notice anything about these benefits? Maybe that they’re all of a competitive nature? ‘The best exam results’ implies the worst results are elsewhere. ‘The best teachers’ means the sub-standard teachers are somewhere else. That ‘element of prestige’? You can’t be prestigious without someone who’s not. And that ‘life-long advantage in education, careers and success’? Compared to what, do you reckon? An advantage over who? See that’s the fun thing about a competition kids; you can’t have a winner without a loser (and no, that ‘Participant!’ ribbon isn’t fooling anyone).

Best to break your kids into the cynicism early.

If the entire point of private schools is to give your kid a leg up in life, then there has to be someone else who they are getting a leg up on top of, and that person is everyone in the public school system. You can crap on about ‘complimenting the private system’ and ‘relieving the burden’ all you want, but let’s be perfectly honest: you don’t fork out $15,000 a year for anything less than a clear and obvious advantage for your kid. Why would you? What, you’re just a really big fan of the blazers? No, that money was spent on something and that something was the best quality education you could afford – and that most other people couldn’t.

But so what, right? Other people’s financial issues aren’t your problem – after all you pay your taxes which provide funding for the public system, so you’re not denying anyone an education. In fact since you pay for public schools that you don’t use, it’s more like you’re paying too much for other people’s education!

Nice try there, but no. First of all taxation doesn’t work like that (another topic for another time) and secondly, this pretty idea conveniently ignores the laws of supply and demand. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum and education is no exception. So when private schools offer your kid the best exam results for $15,000 a year, it’s not just your kid that’s affected if you send them there – everyone else who couldn’t afford the sort of pampering private schools offer is getting bumped down the rankings. Thanks to that lovely funding you provide, private schools can offer far better pay than the public system which attract the best teacher. And what does that leave the public system? Far FAR too many teachers who gave up caring around during the 1970s. Even the abstract prestige private schools offer comes at the cost of public school students – if going to a private school looks good on a resume then how does attendance at a public school look in comparison?

These impacts might seem fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but they are seriously worsened by the feedback-loop such advantages create: better private schools attract better students, teachers and funding from the public system, which in turn drains the best from the public system, which only increases the appeal of the private schools, which again worsens the public schools… and so on and so forth until the only guarantee of a quality education at all is $15,000 a year thankyouverymuch. Meanwhile anyone whose parents simply CANNOT afford to fork out that kind of cash are left stranded in an under-funded, sneered-upon system staffed by angry cynics and hopeless idealists (aka. soon-to-be-angry cynics). All of a sudden we have an underclass and if history tells us anything, large numbers of poorly educated, disenfranchised and cynical citizens with poor prospects is a VERY BAD THING.

They’re not going to write a friggin’ petition.

But so what, right? Fairness is all very well in story books, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! Your darling little angel is going to be thrown head-first into a cut-throat competitive job market (in the middle of a recession no less) and will need every edge you can give them to succeed. What kind of monster wouldn’t give their children the very best chance they could to succeed? And if other parents won’t or can’t give their kids the same advantage then so what? Sure you might be slightly contributing to some far-off social problem, but this is your child’s future we’re talking about – the rest of the world can go take a hike.

Those of you who remember my Month of Blood series might remember the concept of the ‘Might Makes Right’ philosophy, which essentially argues that what we deserve is whatever we can take and/or force others to accept. Many people find it compelling because it makes life so simple; want something? Go out and get it! If the person you’re taking it from can’t keep it then they don’t deserve it! Want your kid to have an advantage over all the others? Buy it for them! If other families can’t afford it then screw ‘em! They clearly don’t deserve such an advantage – you can tell because they haven’t gone out and taken it for themselves.

There are a few major problem with this philosophy, but probably the most compelling in this situation is the simple fact: there will always be someone stronger. And the day you run into them (or they run into YOU) is going to be a very bad one indeed. If we decide that we’d rather ignore the impact private schooling for our child has on everyone else, and therefore accept that quality of education should be based on how much Mummy and Daddy can afford to spend, then you’re going to have zero cause for complaint when your little Timmy gets utterly rolled by little Stephanie up the street whose parents can afford 4 hours of professional tutoring each night that you cannot. And when little Timmy grows up and starts looking for a job, what right is he going to have to object when the boss promotes his nephew over Timmy despite the nephew having no qualification whatsoever? Sure Timmy has a degree, but so what? The nephew has connections, the connections got him the job and since he has the job, that’s all the proof you should need that he deserves it.

“There is no substitute for good breeding, Timmy.”

In case it’s not becoming clear, this is an incredibly shitty way of running both an education system and a society. Whether we like it or not, we live and work in a capitalist system that rewards success and has very little time for failures – a system that left unchecked will quickly accumulate wealth and power into the hands of the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Sure we have social security nets, labour laws and democracy to ensure these groups can never get TOO powerful, but that’s the fun thing about power – you can use it to remove barriers to gathering more of it. You know, like dismantling social security because ‘it rewards laziness’, watering down labour laws to ‘stimulate the economy’, or by offering campaign donations to politicians until it’s literally impossible to run for office without a few million dollars-worth of backers behind you (who will be looking to collect on that investment after the election).

One of the few capitalism can be prevented from turning into a game of lords and peasants is by ensuring that everyone, regardless of who they are or how much their parents are worth, has an equal chance to compete on their own merits. So what if your family never made more than $40G a year? Thanks to a good quality education system, if you’ve got the drive and smarts then you too can rise to the top and become a captain of industry! But having this sort of opportunity to compete is completely dependent on everyone starting on a level playing field and letting merit alone sort the winners from the losers. But by luring away the best teachers, by selecting and pampering students to get the highest exam marks, and by offering a heads-start in life for the mere sum of $15,000 per year, private schools take that level playing field and dig a giant trench in front of everyone in the public system, and all because a few parents can’t get past the idea that “MY child is special and deserves all the advantages I can give.”.

Hey parents, remember about 3 pages ago when I said that this issue tends to bring out the worst in you? Well reflect on how you are currently reacting to this article right now and compare that against your intention to send your kids to a private school. Seeing any relationship between the two? Perhaps feeling angry, upset or frustrated that I might suggest that doing the very best for your kids is unethical? Well welcome to the nasty sharp end of ethics: the times where what is right and what you desperately want are two very different things. This is place where we start to see what a person is made of – it’s easy to be a good person when doing the right thing also happens to be in your personal interests, but when doing the right thing means personal sacrifice? I know of no better way to reveal a person’s character than that.

There is no arguing that it is the duty of every parent to protect their children, and I would be nothing short of a fool to argue otherwise. But if fighting for our children’s success only adds to a world they will curse us for leaving them, then it is time to reconsider what it is exactly we are fighting for.



One thought on “The Ethics Of… Private Schools

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Telling People What To Do | The Ethics Of

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