Private schools may offer old-school values but they don't include "share and share alike".

Private schools may offer old-school values but they don't include "share and share alike". Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

I'm a hypocrite. Admitting that basic fault now will save the reader time and energy later. I attended an independent boys' school as an adolescent and taught in several independent schools in my time as an educationalist. I appreciated the opportunities given to me as a student and benefited from the environments in which I taught. For all that, there is a very basic ethical dilemma at the heart of independent schooling.

As a son of the manse, my father being a Presbyterian minister, my schooling was subsidised. I could have gone to Scotch College at a much reduced rate when my father moved the family to a new parish in the city. Many church schools made allowances for the children of the clergy. Ultimately it was decided I attend another institution. It seems the ancillary costs of transport and extras would have taxed the family income. There were also three other children in need of an education.

Although the education I received at the school I did attend was sound, (much could be said about my lack of application), there are recollections of playground conversations that I use today to explain my situation. They went something like this:
"The tiles around my swimming pool are better than the tiles around your swimming pool."

"What swimming pool?"

My parents had the best of intentions but I was out of my social milieu. I can even recall helping my father one morning as he cleaned the offices of the local newspaper. I was actually among the big printing machines with odd metal letters littering the floor. My father's stipend didn't cover the cost of education and, like many parents even today, he found ways to overcome the shortfall. (God provided the job opportunity but dad still had to do the work.)

I can recall as a teacher in a rather large independent school with an international campus being asked by the chaplain what I thought of the overseas program. Students spent seven to eight weeks in another country.

"It's marvellous. But has the school ever thought of underwriting the cost for those who can't afford to go?" My problem with both the Chaplain's question and the actual program was the assumption that families had the finances to afford these options. Even though I was on a good income, the frugal days of my childhood still lingered. Dad would go around the house turning off the lights in the rooms that weren't occupied – our laziness was costly. But many independent schools are oblivious to this in their desire to offer even more profound educational experiences when competing for enrolments.

In some of the brick edifices are even greater ethical dilemmas. I have taught in schools with theatres. I have directed students in those theatres. And I have performed in those theatres. Many are sensational and rival in fittings and appointment what our State Theatre has to offer. But are they necessary?

Millions of dollars are locked away in fully equipped buildings but are only ever utilised as proper theatres for a little over a month a year. Yes, they are used for assemblies and meetings and exams, but a fly floor, lighting grid, hydraulics, dressing rooms and the like aren't actually essential for the other 11 months. What's more, many of these facilities are unavailable to the general public even though taxpayer dollars went in to subsidise the building program. They are a facility for the school community and not the whole community.

Even more problematic is that theatres are not that good as a teaching facility and they generate the wrong impression of the professional world of acting. Most students would benefit from a more hands-on approach in a smaller performance space where they can adjust the lighting and set and see the outcome of their actions directly. Fully equipped theatres need managers and qualified technicians to monitor what takes place. And having witnessed the professional acting scene, many of the contemporary performance spaces are just that – spaces. Those who qualify as professional actors often find themselves adapting and improvising in a provisional space – think of La Mama, fortyfivedownstairs or the Red Stitch theatre company working out of an old church hall. A fully equipped theatre is the exception – it's not the rule.

I know of one former independent school headmaster who suggested that the government subsidies – your tax-dollars at work – could be better used in offsetting fees. Independent school fees could be reduced. Instead of building things like fully equipped theatres, which are a marvellous marketing allure, opportunity could be provided for more students from all walks of life to enter the corridors of learning and appreciate the emphasis on scholarship and those "old world values" we've heard so much about lately.

Ultimately, the emphasis should be on how available independent schools are making themselves to the community where their ethos can be appreciated by all and not on how much more of a struggle it is for parents to afford the fees to gain access to that ethos.

David McLean is a Melbourne-based author, broadcaster and educator.