We all love a high-powered soap involving large sums of money and big egos. Who needs the new season of Downton Abbey or the Dallas reboot when we have the row that has enveloped the Methodist Ladies College? It’s got it all: the top-level social and business connections, the heightened emotions of a distressed school “community”.

Better than Downton Abbey…

The media has even been able to frame it as a catfight between sacked principal Rosa Storelli and the head of the school board that fired her, Louise Adler. Until the Uniting Church moderator ordered the parties into mediation on Tuesday, it was all out there in public and made for great viewing.

But like those high-end soaps, it’s been played out in a world that bears little relation to the everyday environment that most of us inhabit. You have to wonder what the parents of the 63 per cent of Victorian children who still rely on government schools for their education are making of it.

The money involved in the MLC brouhaha is staggering. At dispute is an alleged overpayment to Storelli of $700,000 over 10 years – a good deal of it, apparently, relating to benefits rather than base salary. That runs out to $70,000 a year, which is a shade above the average annual wage in Australia.

Storelli has bemoaned the corporate-style behaviour of the board.  She told ABC TV last week: “This board does not belong at MLC. Our community is about values and this to me is actually corporatisation versus a community. And the way you might act in a corporate headquarter (sic) is not how you act in a school that has good, strong, Christian values.”

She could have a valid point, although how her annual wage of more than $500,000 chimes with the Christian ethic of taking just enough for yourself and then passing on what’s left to those in need remains an open question.

But the corporatisation of schooling was very good for her and MLC for a long time, as it has been for many elite non-government schools. What were, a generation ago, socially-powerful but essentially quaint, church-based educational institutions have become large quasi-commercial organisations with massive budgets.

It has been a profound change. The non-government sector has historically been stronger in Victoria than in the rest of the country anyway, but the recent drift away from government schools, mainly at secondary level, in this state has been steady and shows few signs of reversing.

Why is this happening? The answers from parents are complex, ranging from the ability of the teachers and the breadth of the curriculum to the desire for social advancement and a genuine adherence to religion-based schooling. You could fill a book with the various explanations, and mix and match your favourites.

One of the less-acknowledged drivers has been the capacity of non-government schools to market themselves as a safe haven for parents who have doubts about the state sector.

What they sell to an important cohort of the community is security. It’s a common conundrum in middle-class and lower middle-class Victorian households with kids in primary school: do we take a gamble on the local secondary school? I’ve been through it myself.

It’s not something that’s openly discussed in polite society, this desire to keep the kids away from the riff-raff. But it’s out there. A lot of parents have a reflexive attitude to state secondary schools, which they presume to be full of kids who won’t behave in the classroom and the school ground, and who hail from dysfunctional, low-income households.

These parents are not operating on a fantasy. According to the recent Gonski report into school education, commissioned by the Federal Government, 80 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds attend government schools.

But a glance at the MySchool website shows a more nuanced reality - a lot of public and private schools with many disadvantaged students are punching above their weight academically. These schools are thriving communities with dedicated teachers and programs that have lifted student behaviour.

The key point among Gonski’s findings was that school funding should be based on the needs of each student, with the money spent fairly and efficiently.

The fact remains that almost two-thirds of Victorian children still rely on schools that are a light year away from MLC when it comes to resources. That is, state schools. And the vast bulk of private schools have nowhere near the financial capacity to supposedly overpay a principal by $700,000.

Parents should be able to make a genuine choice about where they send their children to school, unfettered by fear. Instead, they face what could eventually become a form of educational apartheid, where state schools exist chiefly to service one section of the community, the segment that can’t afford anything better.

We’re not there yet but it looks to be where we’re headed and that would be a social and economic disaster. That’s why it’s important not to fall for the notion that parents who send their children to state schools don’t measure up or are reckless because they’ve risked their children’s future.

As we’ve seen in the past week, even those who live upstairs can sometimes get themselves into all sorts of bother.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

Most commented


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    • John says:

      10:18am | 27/09/12

      First Jessica Irvine, now Shaun Carney. The Punch has become a refuge for Fairfax refugees.

      Stop the boats (from Fairfax)!

    • DOB says:

      12:48pm | 27/09/12

      Do you have a problem with different points of view?

    • Tubesteak says:

      12:50pm | 27/09/12

      What’s wrong with Jessica Irvine? I’ve been reading her column for years and rarely disagree with her. I find her to rationally assess the facts and write accordingly. She doesn’t go for partisan politics, either. If she wants to do a column here or there for The Punch then good on her. I welcome it.

      As for the topic, I thought this Apartheid situation has been around for decades. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to the nearby private school. Some students did get sent there in their last two years and even though I consistently beat them when we were in the same class they beat me by 20 marks when it came to the HSC. All of that was due to scaling in the HSC based on school results. I’ll be sending my kids to the private school.

    • F Freidmann says:

      10:28am | 27/09/12

      The MLC Board were the employers.

      For 10 years the Board simply failed to notice a major problem with the pay package of their highest profile senior staff member.

      A decade in which the Board’s governance was so slack they failed to pick up significant ongoing problems in a major outlay.

      What sort of bumbling incompetence does that take? How many incompetent boartd members?

      Asleep at the wheel for a decade they claim to have finally found the problem, 10 years late. To “solve the problem” by summarily sacking the Principal.

      Result? They’ve trashed the standing of the school, the reputation of their Principal, and their own competence in business.  They should all resign.

    • John says:

      10:55am | 27/09/12

      More to the point, where were the auditors?

    • L. says:

      11:23am | 27/09/12

      “More to the point, where were the auditors?”

      More to the point, *who* were the auditors?

      Auditors don’t miss much.. and not for 10 years.

    • antiallcarbonplansand abbott says:

      03:19pm | 27/09/12

      the same firm Abbott used to do his election budget?  and there was a $70 billion hole, this is a $700,000 hole

    • John says:

      10:45am | 27/09/12

      Back on topic

      “80 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds attend government schools.”

      Really? Could that be because the parents of children from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t afford the $25,000 per year it costs to send a child to MLC?

      “full of kids who won’t behave in the classroom and the school ground, and who hail from dysfunctional, low-income households.”

      Because, as everyone knows,  low-income household = feral household. There’s no such thing as people who just happen to have not a lot of money but still behave normally.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      03:54pm | 27/09/12

      @John, in my time at a private school, I found more disturbing behaviour amongst the students there than I did during my time in a public school. Money does not a good person make, as you rightly pointed out.

    • dw says:

      11:36am | 27/09/12

      In Adelaide we initially opted for the state school system - with disastrous results. When we moved to WA we tried the local state school again - same result.

      Twice bitten, we made the sacrifices necessary to send our son to a small independent school. Nothing flash - but the difference in our child was amazing. All three kids went there and we never looked back.

      It never occurred to me what the principal was making. We were just grateful she was making a great environment at the school.

    • Evalee says:

      12:04pm | 27/09/12

      Yes, when we moved to Australia (Adelaide) we tried the state system and was appalled.  Stuck it out for 2 years then moved to a private school.  It is fine for people to talk about choices but if we kept my daughter in a state system, she would have received a second rate education surrounded by so much dysfunction and lack of hope that she could not have graduated and been employable; she certainly would not have been ready for uni.

    • pete says:

      11:53am | 27/09/12

      It is sad but true. when you climb up the social ladder, earn more money and enter a certain class you just don’t send your kids to public school anymore. I went through the public school system had great teachers and landed a good job when I finished studying, and now earn well above the average wage. I wouldn’t trade my school experience for anything but realistically there is no way I can send my kids to a public school. The social pressure to send my children to one of the elite Sydney GPS private schools may not be overt but it is defiantly there. The idea that Australian society is egalitarian and classless is an idealised fantasy that may have existed in my parents generation but is no longer the reality we live in now. I think it is sad but I also don’t think there is anything we can do to reverse it.

    • Swingdog says:

      01:35pm | 27/09/12

      The social pressure to send my children to one of the elite Sydney GPS private schools may not be overt but it is defiantly there.

      You should be defiant back and tell them to sod off.

    • pete too says:

      01:48pm | 27/09/12

      Plenty you can do pete, buck the trend, send your kids to the local public school and tell your social snob friends why: because you have brought your kids up to know right from wrong and to be able to stand up to the peer-group pressure to do the wrong thing that you know is going to happen at a public school; because you want your kids to be well-rounded people who can relate to kids from all walks of life; because you want your kids to get an education in life, not just in academics; because you want your kids to be exposed and challenged, not spoon-fed and cosseted. Private schools have got it all over public schools in terms of facilities and safety, but for mine, kids learn a whole lot more about themselves and life and growing up in a public school. Plus when they grow up they’ll know a lot more tradies, the handiest people to know. smile

    • bananabender says:

      05:11pm | 27/09/12

      I know two airline captains ($500+K salaries) who send their children to government schools. They tell anyone who’ll listen that private schools are basically a waste of money.

    • St. Michael says:

      12:36pm | 27/09/12

      “But a glance at the MySchool website shows a more nuanced reality - a lot of public and private schools with many disadvantaged students are punching above their weight academically. These schools are thriving communities with dedicated teachers and programs that have lifted student behaviour.”

      Irrelevant.  ‘Punching above their weight academically’ just means they are doing better than you would expect for that area.  That does not equate to it being the best opportunity for your own child.  “We get kids Cs when the district is comprised of F-grade students!” is not a smart marketing exercise.  “We teach your kids how to be A students” is a far better one, and why people reflexively look at private schools for that first.

      Also, ‘dedicated teachers and programs’ largely depends on given, individual teachers being at a school - not because the school is intrinsically good.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      01:05pm | 27/09/12

      All schools who take the taxpayer dollar should be subject to full auditing of the books. If the school doesn’t want to open their books, then they can’t get any government funding…..

    • Anjuli says:

      01:19pm | 27/09/12

      I have 2 daughters both of whom were in the state school system ,those who are saying if their children had had the same education would not have been as good ,are just plain wrong.  My eldest girl who is on the wrong side of 45 is a CEO of a private hospital has 3 degrees   the first in nursing after doing hospital base training then masters in nursing, not satisfied with that she went and did masters in business . Second daughter was a late bloomer she admits to going to school to socialize which she later regretted ,after training as a child care nurse and a few other jobs while traveling, finally did a RN degree in nursing where she to is climbing the ranks.Would I have liked to have given my child the benefit of a good private school, yes but if needs must people should not judge by the school the children went to but at what the child later achieved.
      Australia has always prided itself of being a classless society , I found this so not true after arriving here 39 years ago it is either which school you went to or how much money is in the bank.

    • D Bertram says:

      05:23pm | 27/09/12

      Why is Storelli the only person penalised and dumped ? What about the MLC Accountants and the Auditors ? If they had been doing their jobs this problem would have been nipped in the bud years ago.


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