Julie Szego from The Age ( excellent story which sums up my beliefs perfectly)
Hard to imagine a planning stoush that's more quintessentially Ah-madale: on one side, the elite girls school Lauriston, on the other, the Armadale Residents Group, campaigning for the right-to-life of old buildings. As The Age reported last week, Lauriston wants to raze its Federation-era Sutherland House for a $23 million "sports and wellness centre".
Did anyone else do a double-take here? Not about the threatened house, but about the proposed new centre: $23 million. Then again, Lauriston's revenue last year was almost $35 million so why be surprised?
The news underscores how such bastions of privilege bequeath their students an unconscionable head-start in life. If you think that's a cheap shot, consider that last year the school pocketed taxpayer dollars amounting to almost 10 per cent of its total income (in 2015, the figure was about $2.5 million). Small change, by elite private school standards - which is precisely the point. If you harbour even the weakest egalitarian impulse, this gifting of public money to rich schools adds insult to injury.
The Turnbull Government's Gonski 2.0 school funding reform leaves intact the elite schools' entitlement to the public purse, merely tinkering with their pocket money. Astonishingly, Labor outdoes the Coalition in affirming the elite schools' right to a handout.
And these schools get their cash with no meaningful quid-pro-quo, no equivalent of household chores. The free pass persists even as these institutions grow bigger and metastasise in Melbourne's highly-coveted middle-ring suburbs.
I cannot weep for Sutherland House; while apparently a "fine and highly intact" example of its time, the building is no lay down misere for heritage listing. (The planning tribunal will decide its fate.) One outraged resident alluded to the sentiment that the wrecking ball ill-becomes an institution such as Lauriston.
It was reported last year that private schools were locked in a facilities "arms race" to lure students, outspending public schools four-to-one on capital works projects, such as rowing tanks, pilates studios and sky decks. Presbyterian Ladies' College (nearly $7 million in 2015) in Burwood recently unveiled a $30 million auditorium with a "black box" studio for drama classes and performances. Carey Baptist Grammar (more than $7.5 million in 2015) in Kew boasts a new $23 million "learning and innovation centre", with an audiovisual "Imaginarium" and "United Nations Room" with city views.
What's with the references to "city views?" It's as if these schools are promoting not education but luxury real estate.
Much the same observation was made in the UK by former Tory education secretary Michael Gove. In a column in February, he noted that five-star hotels would struggle to offer the state-of-the-art sports and entertainment facilities provided by private schools for the benefit of "children of plutocrats and oligarchs". He argues private schools should no longer be able to claim tax breaks as "charitable institutions," and the government should use the extra revenue to boost standards in state schools.
While the UK has a different education system to Australia, it's still fascinating to observe how over there in this populist moment the two sides of politics compete on anti-private school rhetoric, with calls for elite schools to be stripped of their charitable status unless they sponsor state "sister" schools, offer more bursaries and open their facilities to the public.
Did that last suggestion arouse your curiosity? Consider this: Australia's elite schools collect taxpayer dollars, which indirectly helps fund ambitious capital works programs, which in turn further increases the schools' revenue streams because they attract more students and also get to hire out their "world-class" facilities to third parties for profit. Otherwise, these facilities are fenced off as "private property" and swept by surveillance cameras. One logical quid pro quo for public funding would be compelling the schools to offer their tennis courts, ovals and pools to the public on weekends and holidays at low or no cost.
I bounced the idea around with Ian McShane, Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University's Centre for Urban Research, who wants to see better integration between education and urban planning systems. "It's a very legitimate question," he said. "To what extent do these schools consider themselves part of community life, part of the urban fabric?"
The idea of forcing rich schools to open their gates has some moral appeal. Though, speaking personally, I doubt that a Sunday arvo on the manicured grounds of the antipodean Etons would do much for my wellness.