In this soap opera the children are written out
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”.
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.
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