The injustice rankles: Why are Perth schools just political footballs?

My husband and I, bolstered by research showing that it is socioeconomic background, not school sector, that is , have decided we don’t want to send our son to a private school.

Our personal ideal is for a co-ed, secular school, free (i. e. paid for with our taxes), close enough to walk, ride or bus; with a wide diversity of peers; friends who live nearby; a comfortable, practical uniform.

Obviously, we want this school to open the same world of opportunities, as the Department of Education website puts it, any private school would.

My last column on house prices in traditionally desirable school zones showed that homes in Rossmoyne and Willetton catchments would be within our financial means without derailing .

But I love where we live, and don’t want to move. So, as so many parents have done before me, I commence my research.

The WA school standards authority’s tell me roughly 91 per cent of eligible year 12 students at Como Secondary College achieved the WACE last year.

Schools Online tells me 58 per cent of children there got their ATAR and 16 per cent of those got scores of 75+. This equalled 12 people.

Just over half of the year 12s went on to university.

Not horrifying, but also not filling me with joy and confidence.

Then someone this week, not knowing they were sending me photos of what was actually my local school, sent me some distinctly underwhelming photos of Como SC. It looked completely untouched since 1970.

Not to mention news stories over the past two years about a youth and teachers failing to there.

I will not share photographs of the school and it is not my intention to shame or offend the school’s hardworking leadership, students or teachers, but to shame a system that has unjustly favoured and funded other schools and left them hanging.

I see why people in this area privileged enough to choose, choose private, and thereby drop the overall socioeconomic profile of the school, creating a vicious circle.

shows the distribution of socio-educational advantage at Como SC: 69 per cent of students in the top two quartiles for social advantage and 10 per cent in the lowest.

Compare this to Perth’s most over-funded and highest academically performing private schools, which 90-plus per cent from the top two quartiles, 1-3 per cent from the lowest.

It makes even idealistic me pause and think, if I am personally privileged enough to have the choice, should I play it safe, swallow hard and spring a hundred grand for Little Lord Fauntlery Prepatory Academy for Knighthood and kiss goodbye?

Or uproot ourselves from Como and nearby loved ones, and move to Willetton or Rossmoyne as many Wallies have done before us?

Did people voting with their feet for private education lead to the gap between the local public and private schools’ results and facilities, or did the gap lead to the exodus?

I spoke to industry expert working in education for several decades, who wished to speak anonymously as he still had many contacts there.

He said a long-term flight to private schooling in the western suburbs had led to the closure of City Beach, Hollywood and Swanbourne highs, their students combined in the new Shenton College, built 2001.

He said like the market for petrol (as an example), the market for private schooling was relatively inelastic, that is, people were prepared to make sacrifices for it because they saw it as high value, a non-negotiable.

But as top-tier school fees increased, inevitably in the long term the market reacted. In recent years, people had begun to pull their children from private junior schools, then increasingly opted for second-tier private schools or highly desirable public schools.

This had led to a population squeeze, particularly at Shenton College and Churchlands, and to the creation of Bob Hawke College.

Governments are becoming addicted to the savings represented by private schools, he said.

State governments haven’t given that attention to public schools for a long time. They should be budgeting for every kid in the state to go to a public school, and reinvesting what they save in improving those schools. But it goes back into consolidated revenue.

In addition, mean this decade, WA public schools will be funded at 95 per cent (at best) of their need.

But some, as parents have pointed out to me, are doing better for funding.

A friend said this week, I drive past Willetton and I can’t believe it’s the same school I went to. She is referring to $42 million worth of upgrades since then.

Compare this to the opposite shock I had looking at the pictures of Como SC, the land that time forgot.

My contacts suggest schools in a political seat that one party holds by only a slim margin, and that they risk losing come an election, attract pork-barrelling funding promises.

Until the Labor wipeout last year, South Perth was traditionally a safe Liberal seat. John McGrath held it from 2005 until his retirement in 2021 and told me that he tried to get funding for Como the whole time.

I could never get past first base. I was only able to get a couple of little upgrades. It was one of my disappointments as a member, he said.

Como was falling down … there were buckets to catch leaks in the classrooms when it rained.

He said the school was about 50 years old, built hurriedly when baby boomers’ children were putting pressure on system capacity, and never as solid as the schools of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Even though it is in the South Perth area there are a lot of social problems there, lower socio-economic families [from suburbs further south], who struggle a bit, but the school does the best it can, he said.

It is a school that does perform pretty well, it punches above its weight . . . it has maths and science programs that link into Curtin University and some good sporting programs.

I asked McGrath if he would send his child there, and he said, I would.

This was a little comforting, but the injustice rankles.

As McGrath was retiring ahead of the 2021 election, the Liberals finally came up with a promise of $26 million to renovate Como. This was a glimmer of hope, swiftly extinguished.

Geoff Baker, standing for Labor for South Perth, announced as part of a wider funding package for all schools, Como would receive $600,000 for a STEM classroom. Plus, $300,000 to fix hazards in pothole-riddled carparks. This government has also refurbished the canteen for $1 million under its COVID-19 recovery plan to become a covered performance space and classroom breakout space.

Kensington, Collier and Curtin Primary schools have also received a combined roughly $2 million in commitments for new roofs, resurfaced basketball courts, playgrounds and quadrangles respectively.

I can’t help but compare this to the $35 million that Labor, as it (successfully) attempted to unseat Mike Nahan in the target seat of Riverton last year, announced for the already booming Rossmoyne SHS: new two-storey building including classrooms and library, and additional science laboratories, STEM classrooms and new sports changerooms. On top of $14 million spent on the school in 2012.

Can we expect anything further for Como SC from Baker, who won South Perth with a 10. 1 per cent margin?

I couldn’t persuade him to confide his exact vision for the school.

I talk to Digby [Mercer, headmaster] all the time and he lets me know all the time of the ins and outs, Baker said.

I don’t want to jinx the budget.

He told me he got into this budget the $160 million Canning Bridge bus interchange project, and he never stops working.

This is going to be a hotly contested seat at the next state election, he said.

My kids are probably going to be going to Como Secondary College, so it’s on my mind.

I sure hope so, but I wish politics had no sway over whether a school gets what it needs.

Since it most likely does hold sway, I suggest if you care about your local public school, and all the children going to it whose parents are not so privileged as to have the choices I do, you might ring or email your own local MP and ask them some pointed questions.

After all, as one correspondent put it to me recently: Squeaky wheels get the oil if you are not happy with your grommet’s school.

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