Emma and I have four kids, and have collectively paid twelve years of school fees so far with another twelve years ahead of us. That’s about $250,000 post tax so far which is a lot more pre-tax and a horrendous amount if you consider the compound return or cost of that money over twelve years.
We chose to send them to private school so no complaints there, but as a financial man I’ve got to say that I think the private school culture that has developed in Australia is bending us all over. I thought the banks were at the premium end of protected monopolies but the schools have their own unstated monopoly culture that exploits something that really shouldn’t be abused, a parent’s duty to do the right thing by their kids whatever the cost.
I’m not poor, but you’d have to be extraordinarily rich for private school fees not to condemn you to decades of extra debt. And in the face of that commitment you have to ask, does it really cost that much to educate my kids? Because I wonder whether it does, and whether the existing culture of ‘pay and suck it up’ can’t be improved upon. Is more expensive really better? In particular should I really be paying for the scholarships of other kids just so my kid's school can achieve a marketing coup with their academic average? Is that right? Because I don’t know that it helps my kid. In fact it almost certainly doesn’t. In fact it might even hurt them, make them feel dumb or something because if they don’t fit the marketing profile they don’t fit and extraordinarily I’m paying extra for that pressure culture, I’m paying for the education of elite kids on top of my own kids. Really, is that right?
I’d rather prefer they went to a school that celebrated average achievement, quite honestly. Chucking them into a culture of ‘success or you’ve failed’ only suits my kids if they happen to be very smart. They may not be. I’d far prefer them to be an average kid in a common academic spread than below average in a school populated by brighter kids that don’t pay as much because the school wants to show off. It’s not as if they have a problem attracting students. Why else would some private schools now be charging almost $1,000 in non-refundable down payment just to reserve a place? They couldn’t do that if they were desperate for students.
All I want is for my kids to be happy and have the opportunity, not have them left out whilst they try to be something the school wants to market but they’re not capable of living up to.
So can it be done better? I can’t help thinking that it can, that some school has the opportunity to pioneer a new culture that leaves the implied arrogance of the current private school customs exposed. It would include a few elements. Here is my first pass:
The first would be certainty. Knowing what your school fees are going to be. The current system of unexplained fee rises above inflation leaves all parents feeling abused. That needs to stop.
The next is a promise that they are going to spend your money on your kids not other peoples'. The culture of scholarships has been perverted. It used to be the domain of generous benefactors to give back to under-privileged children and families that couldn’t afford an education. Now it’s a culture of the schools literally ‘buying’ the best kids with other parent’s money in competition with other schools. “You only pay for your own kids education” would be a better motto.
Third comes financial transparency. You simply can’t have parents being financially suspicious when they are paying so much money. The accounts need to be transparent and management accountable for them. It's business, we’re the shareholders. What are you spending our money on? Tell us.
Fourth comes a culture of welcoming all kids, smart or clever, sporting or not and the stated goal of turning out happy, well-educated, socially capable kids - not just academics and elite achievers for the marketing brochures.
We still have twelve years of school fees to pay. Another $250,000 post tax. We’re happy to pay that for good teachers and good facilities, some of my kids' teachers have been worth their weight in gold, but we’re not happy to pay that much for a culture that serves a marketing purpose but not our kids. No-one’s trying to spend less, we just want it spent well. Because if those fees go up again, I’m sorry kids, but I think we’re going to have to let one of you go.
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Marcus Padley is the author of the stock market newsletter Marcus Today. For a free trial, go to marcustoday.com.au.