Monday, 4 May 2015

Why an 'independent' school? (2015 Term 2 Week 3)

The other day I was speaking with a parent who wanted to know why I speak of Inaburra as an 'independent' school, rather than a 'private' school? Isn't the big category of difference between schools whether they are 'public' or 'private'? Certainly, 'public' and 'private' are the default categories that the media use to categorise schools. However, I want to suggest that these terms are inaccurate, unhelpful and ultimately misleading. Although this may seem to be a trivial and pedantic distinction without a difference, I think it is worth pursuing. 

(Some of the reflections that follow have been drawn from publications of the journal Independence, which is published by the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.)

To be strictly accurate, virtually all schools in Australia are public, in that they receive government funding for the public purpose of educating Australians. In the case of schools that are owned by the respective State governments, nearly all the funding needs of the school are covered. In the case of schools that are owned by community groups (associations, churches, etc), a smaller proportion of funds are provided by the governments; the remainder tend to be made up by parental contributions. In our case, about one third of our annual revenue comes from public sources; parents contribute the rest.

Education is a public good, and as such is answerable to its regulators. Accountability is required of schools as a corollary of the funds that are provided. In order to retain public funding, schools need to teach the authorised curriculum, meet certain standards of probity and compliance, demonstrate that the funds have been used for the purposes for which they have been provided, and sundry other requirements. 

Reasonable accountability is the public's guarantee that their taxes are being used for the public good. In 2016 Inaburra will go through the process of seeking registration as a school and accreditation to offer the NSW curriculum; this happens each 5 years and is attested to through two certificates on the wall of the Junior School reception. The NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) is beginning an equivalent process for government schools, aimed towards the same goal of public accountability.

In light of the above points, it follows that the more accurate categorization of schools is not 'public/private', but 'government/non-government'. The government does not need to own the schools in order to provide education, any more than the local council needs to own the garbage trucks to provide rubbish removal or the State government needs to own all the buses to provide public transport. At present about two thirds of students in NSW attend a government-owned school.

That leads to the next level of categorising schools, which has to do with whether a school is in a system or whether it is independent. Most of the Catholic schools in NSW are systemic; that is to say, they belong to a system with a head office, centrally-determined policies and support structures. These systems are based on the eleven Catholic dioceses.

In contrast, schools like Inaburra are independent of systemic ownership and direction. Such schools stand alone with their own particular ethos, culture, authenticity and goals. We are able to determine our priorities, our agenda, our raison d'etre. In our case: 

Our mission is to be a Christ-centred learning community, pursuing excellence in education, with every individual known and loved.

'Independent' is a far more accurate and helpful designation for schools such as ours. 'Private' is wrong. And it misses the point.

Of course, people are free to use whichever terminology they want. However, I humbly suggest that, next time you hear comments about 'public/private' schools, you could try substituting 'government-owned/community group-owned' into the sentence and see how it changes things. Or use the language of State schools, Catholic system schools, and the independent schools sector.

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