The question of "public v private" education is a distraction in Australia, diverting us from a far more substantive task: what can we do to ensure schools serve all students better?
As the school year gets underway, the debate about public v private education must not dominate again. Last December when year 12 students across the state received their HSC results, schools were immediately divided in rankings based on private, public, selective and comprehensive status. News reports were quick to highlight that in the 2015 HSC top achievers in course list, 39 first-placed students came from private and Catholic schools and 42 from public schools.
Though on the surface the comparison seems harmless, the attention we give this debate masks a larger and ignored problem.
A report from the Australian Council for Educational Research found a growing divide between secondary schools in Australia between 2000 and 2012. Independent schools discriminate based on the social divisions of income and wealth and selective schools on academic talents. Public comprehensive schools receive students on the grounds of geographical location, and those located in higher income areas attract "better off" students.
As a result, students of similar socioeconomic class are educated in selected schools, with the advantaged in one area and the disadvantaged in another.
Segregation in our schools is detrimental to student academic achievement and social cohesion. It increases inequality between richer and poorer students, belying our commitment to quality education and equal opportunity for all.
Australia's inequality problem was highlighted on Tuesday by the New Estimates of Intergenerational Mobility report commissioned by the NSW Department of Education. The report found that social mobility is restricted in Australia, with family background and earnings playing a much more significant role on a student's adult outcomes compared with individual ability, talent and hard work than previously thought.
These findings contradict the widely held belief that in an egalitarian society like Australia, we are all on an equal footing when it comes to achieving to the best of our abilities. As students, this idea is constantly reiterated to motivate and inspire us. Ideally, it should be the case, education must be a level playing field, where a student's ability matters more than their parents income.
But we know it isn't true and the divisions are evident in the attitudes of young people today. In Australia, especially in the adolescent world, schools are symbols of class and status. Our schools are divided and labelled as "too rich" or "too smart" or even "too poor" or "too dumb" and it's an issue. The "povo" case, where defamatory remarks were published about public school students by a private school boy, is an example.
In Scandinavian countries, however, the New Estimates of Intergenerational Mobility report identified high levels of social mobility and low levels of inequality. The crucial difference between Finland and Australia, for example, is that Finland ensures consistency between its schools, preventing divisions according to family income and class.
Four decades after the Whitlam government's education reform policies, we are realising that a deep injustice still exists within our education system. However, a mixture of guilt, a desire to downplay privilege and an acceptance of the status quo has led to a denial of reality.
Australia has for far too long engaged a debate about which education is better and into which system government funding must go. Rather a discussion about reducing segregation, improving student outcomes and working for equity is needed. The Gonski reforms, which aim to reduce the impacts of socioeconomic disadvantage, are a step in the right direction.
What else could be done? A variation of a "controlled choice" policy, which is being trialled in the US, could be considered for implementation here. Rather than being assigned to a zoned neighbourhood school, parents rank their school preferences across their local area and a computer algorithm balances those choices to achieve a diverse mix of students in each school.
The public v private education debate is a red herring. This year, our new agenda must be to improve education holistically. We have realised that our system is far from equal. Now we must create one that is. As Gough Whitlam said in his 1969 campaign: "When government makes opportunities for any of the citizens, it makes them for all the citizens. We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education."
Rizina Yadav is a Year 11 student in Newcastle and the 2015 Maitland Young Citizen of the Year.
Sam Wolfe finished the HSC last year and has been accepted to study at the University of Sydney.