The ABC published an article today stating that the education minister in the ACT has come out and said that public schools in the Territory need an overhaul due to a fall in enrolments vs our private schools. He talks about the need for public schools to develop partnerships with Universities and to specialise in specific areas to introduce diversity into their offerings and overcome their “sameness”. In a small jurisdiction like the ACT it would be quite viable to actually set up a system like he suggests (since travel between home and school is only ever going to be a relatively short distance – though that assumes public transport is sufficient, but we’ll deal with that another time), but that’s not where I’m going with this post today.
The other thing he says needs to happen is that public schools need to improve the way they market themselves to the community to entice them back from the private sector. Although I don’t believe it is as simple as that (particularly given the relatively high affluence of the ACT and the tendency that would create towards private school enrolments), he does have one thing right – public school do need to market themselves more effectively because if they don’t, community perception is enough to keep enrolments falling since money is not a deciding factor for a higher percentage of the population.
If you drive past the campuses of schools in the ACT, you notice one thing very quickly – the campuses of the well-known independent schools are large, sprawling areas with multiple sporting fields, many of the buildings seem to be new or renovated to some degree, the signage around the site is either modern and slick or old and “prestigious-looking”. Essentially, the schools create an external perception of either:
- A modern, dynamic place where money is spent to give the students the best environment they can learn in; or
- A school that has a proud tradition of success, much the same as the “sandstone” universities (like Sydney, Melbourne etc) are able to impress upon others.
Is this true? Well, if people perceive it to be the case, it becomes a self-fulfilling statement – the parents who want the best for their kids, support them and have the means to ensure every success for their child will send them to a school that they believe (from their impressions) will provide the best education. These kids will succeed because they are already destined to do so – regardless of whether or not they actually have a good educational experience or not.
Compare this to what you see when you go past a public school. With a few notable exceptions (and the BER injections from the federal government), many of the buildings are old, poorly maintained (I get my own swimming pool outside my office when there is a downpour) and the general perception of them when you go past is that the money they have to spend on their kids is much, much less than what the private schools have in their pockets. It’s partly true – without compulsory school fees it is difficult for a public school to increase their revenues beyond what they receive from the government – and given the funding is pretty tight, often funds for maintenance and improvement are better spent on improving the educational resources available for the students (that is, after all, what the core business of schools is, isn’t it?).
So the challenge for public schools is – how to overcome the perception that exists in the community that private schools are better for the reasons I referred to above? Given the ACT government seems set on making it even harder to do any successful marketing through additional funding (they won’t pay teachers properly or negotiate on improving working conditions either), it falls on the schools to start thinking about imaginative ways to positively influence the opinions of families in their areas. The move towards School Autonomy in the ACT (i.e. schools work out how they are going to spend their money rather than following strict budgets or formulas) may be an opening for this to occur, but it will need to be done properly – this is the bit that is far from guaranteed.
This is why marketing matters – in today’s world, it is often perception rather than actual quality or outcomes that will determine whether or not you achieve your goal (which, in this case, is increased enrolments). With more money, it is easier to market yourself in a positive light – you will always look better than your counterparts who are struggling along with their old resources and dated infrastructure. You can rely on quality results spreading through the community via word of mouth, but you can just as surely rely on any negative incident spreading quickly, counteracting any positives you may have built up over time. It is easy for all of the good, hard work to be undone by one mistake, and if you don’t look like you aren’t perceived to have a quality product, it can be especially hard to bounce-back from that kind of setback.
I have no idea how all of this will play out when (and if) something begins to happen, but I know one thing for sure – failure to invest adequately in education, whether it be through marketing, infrastructure improvements or teachers (via salaries, support or working conditions) will ensure that enrolments in public schools continue to fall while the cost of private tuition is not a make-or-break issue for families.