The Age, 5 August 2022
The sudden closure of the Colmont School in Melbourne’s north sent an understandable shockwave through the devastated community.
It would be genuinely heartbreaking for students and parents to so instantly be separated from peers and teachers with whom they had long-standing relationships. For the teachers, who try so hard in all locations and sectors, they’d also be bereft. It’s little wonder there were tears.
But you know what, those teachers will get new jobs, and the kids will also get over it. They really will. Each student’s parents had sufficient disposable income to pay the school’s not-so-insignificant fees, and this gives a strong indication that they’re already kids who enjoy most of the socio-economic and educational advantages that life can provide.
The ripple effect of such a closure on the Victorian private school system might take longer to recover from, though.
It’s easy to wave away the Colmont lesson as an isolated case of a convoluted business model colliding with a handful of poorly considered governance decisions.
More instructional might be wondering if Colmont was a canary in the coal mine for a private school sector clearly facing one of the biggest double whammies in its recent history. Whammy No.1 is coming from the market – that is, us parents. Times are tough, and they’re getting tougher. When the grocery bills, the mortgage payments, the prices at the fuel pump and the cost of heating the home skyrocket, something’s got to give.
The criteria for what gets squeezed from the family budget is chiefly luxuries and excesses that don’t really provide a tangible family benefit.
Perhaps we’ll eat toasted sandwiches in front of the footy on Friday night instead of a $28 order of Golden Beef from the local Chinese takeaway. Or perhaps it’s an instant coffee in the morning instead of a $7 oat latte from your local barista complete with a swan crafted into the froth.
Victoria’s parents are drenched in the guilt so heavily marketed at them about how they’re doing their child harm by not paying to send them to the school advertising their privilege on Eastlink. What if they discover the truth about the supposed educational gains made by paying all that money, and they don’t find a lot of return?
What if they discover that, by multiple measures, our government schools clearly outperform their fee-clawing counterparts?
I feel for our private and independent school leaders. They’ve found themselves on a fiercely competitive playing field and are forced to spend spiralling amounts of parent- and taxpayer-provided funds on marketing and facilities, not on education, every year.
Despite including education policy in its own “small target” approach to the election campaign, the Albanese government won’t be able to hide from its commitments to fair and needs-based funding for long.
The current funding agreement, which Labor has chosen not to challenge, ends next year. Education unions, teachers and families invested in government schools will be watching closely.
Of course, as it is when petrol prices bite, the Porsche drivers aren’t the ones who’ll be hit hardest. And I expect very few of the aforementioned schools to experience an enrolment crisis.
It’ll be schools you’ve probably never heard of whose parents are working two jobs to sustain this low-return life choice that we can predict to be leaving the lower fee-charging private options.
These potential new additions to government schooling, alongside the existing public education enlistees, will be looking for their own schools to be funded – at least to the Schooling Resource Standard that the former Morrison government set, and then chose to forget, for a decade.
I expect that those with the biggest stake in this fight won’t cop it quietly. But I also suspect that we haven’t yet heard the last sad Colmont School story either.