Public vs Private

Image taken from Greens MPs' photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

In Australia our education system is so extensive that we have choices. There are government run public schools (including comprehensive schools, co-ed and single sex schools, selective schools and other speciality schools for sports or performing arts) and a variety of private schools (including catholic systemic schools and a whole host of independent schools of religious and non religious persuasion).

In some countries getting access to the most basic levels of schooling is a struggle for families, so it seems decidedly luxurious that we can pick and choose from so many options.

My eldest son started Kindergarten this year. When we had to make the decision about primary school we toyed momentarily with the local catholic school (my husband went to a catholic primary school) but settled on the local public school which was closer to our home. We haven’t looked back since.

The decision about what high school he will go to doesn’t feel as simple….

It is amazing how often in social circles the topic of conversation (particularly when you’re first introduced to someone and you’re making small talk) drifts to what high school you’re going to send your kids to (even when your kids are still in nappies!). Increasing numbers of parents are choosing to send their kids to private schools – and in order to get a place at some elite private schools kids need to be on the waiting list soon after they are born.

The general tone of these conversations seems to suggest that you have an obligation to investigate and find the ‘best’ school that you can afford to send your child to, and the underlying assumption is  that at the very least you will investigate which is the best public school in your area. It feels like if you chose to send your child to the local public high school without conducting such research you would be seen to be selling your child short.

So what is the difference between public and private?

I went to my local public primary school, and a public selective high school. My husband attended the local catholic primary school and then attended an elite private school. We both got a range of good (and some not so good) experiences from the schools we attended.

Generally it seems to me that the more ‘prestigious’ private schools offer a greater range of sports, sporting facilities and coaching opportunities as well as more impressive grounds, halls, drama theatres etc. The quality of education however can be very similar or even better at well performing schools in the public system.

I suspect that there is some value to being associated with the culture of some elite private schools and the networks formed as a result. There is also a certain romance associated with the fancy uniforms, and I also wonder if children who attend those schools are encouraged to ‘think big’ and to set their sights on Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard and the like in a way that  the public system may not. Who doesn’t dream some of these sorts of things for their kids? But it is also important to have a culture which accepts aiming for things like learning a trade as valuable and a perfectly reasonable career choice.

The thing that tugs at me about the decision of what high school to send our kids to is that it feels like I’m being asked to weigh up what is good for my child vs what is good for the community, state and nation.

To me it seems like the growth of private schooling (and to a degree the growth of selective schools) is mirroring the growth of the pursuit of individualism.  It’s all about letting each of our children excel as an individual, pursuing the best that they can be. And it feel’s like whilst we are in pursuit of that goal, we haven’t considered the wider consequences that may occur in our communities.

The response of the government to the increased move of students from the public system to private schools seems to have been to increase the number of selective schools (schools where students must sit a test and only high academic performers gain entry to the school).

Stuart Davis in a letter to the herald wrote that:

“It has been obvious for years to anyone involved in schools that the growth of selectives has wrecked the comprehensive system. When the exodus to private education began, the intelligent response would have been to invest broadly in teacher education and in public school facilities, which would have raised the overall standard.

Instead, state governments opted to pit schools against one another in a quest to attract the best and brightest, the result of which is simply a handful of schools in the ”top 10”. Far from creating more choice it has limited the options for most people, lowered the standard at most comprehensives and given a leg-up to an elite who, of course, were always going to thrive anyway.”

I don’t have any stats on it, but it seems to me far fewer parents consider sending their primary school age children to private schools. Most are going to comprehensive primary schools where kids of all abilities and a variety of cultural and socio economic backgrounds are mixing together. And from our experience at our local public primary school the comprehensive system can work. Sure there are a few OC (opportunity classes) in years 5 and 6 at some schools, but the vast majority of primary schools are comprehensive.

In contrast to primary schools the drain to private and selective high schools appears to have influenced the quality of education available in comprehensive high schools (or at the very least people’s perception of the quality). And the more the system increases selective schools in response and fails to invest in the comprehensive system the worse this problem will get.

Justice Michael Kirby in an address to Melbourne High school’s speech night highlighted the fact that in countries such as the US the school’s attended by former presidents would be ‘celebrated and well endowed’. John Howard’s alma mater, Canterbury Boys High, shows no such endowment. Neither does Fort Street, the alma mater of many prominent Australian’s like Justice Kirby. As Kirby writes, in Australia the funds ‘tend to flow in other directions’. We need to invest more in the public system, but we also need to think about the whole education system and the educational paradigms we need for a new age (watch this RSA video it’s great!).

Imagine if we had quality comprehensive high schools that people wanted their children to attend.

Imagine the cost, time and carbon emission savings from children attending a school close to their home and not half way across Sydney.

The 2002 enquiry into public education and the resulting Vinson Report recommended that the selective school system be dismantled. Essentially it argued that selective schools were benefiting the few who attended them (and even then many students who attended did not benefit substantially) at the expense of the many in comprehensive schools.

But whilst the status quo remains I think the drift to the private and selective schools will continue. Whilst we all act individualistically, we will all have to make the choice of the ‘best’ school and aim for a private or selective education for our children (and accept the comprehensive system as a fall back).  The design of the system encourages this.

So it’s a tough decision to make (thankfully we won’t have to make the decision for another 7 years or so!).

I went to a selective school and loved it. Part of me feels quite at odds writing a post that seems to advocate abolishing them. The thing is, I’m not sure that my great education was partially at the expense of some other schools in my area. And I do think it would be an amazing thing to have a universally strong public education system.

So whilst the elitist in me wants to send my sons to Fort Street (a selective school) other parts of me have a problem with that.

Hopefully myself and others can use some of that uncertainty we feel to advocate for a better system for all.

So these are just some of the issues we are grappling with when we think about what school we will be sending our kids to. They are all issues with many different sides to them (far more than presented in this snapshot here!), and schooling certainly is a complicated and sensitive topic.

What are your thoughts on navigating the confusing world of educational choices???

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance – Derek Bok

Image taken from with thanks to Greens MPs. 

About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
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1 Response to Public vs Private

  1. Jason says:

    Kirby sent his son to Sydney Grammar School.

    I, like your husband, attended an elitist high school. Mainly because my parents believed an expensive school would produce favourable academic and networking results. One can’t choose where they are born and where they are sent to school!

    I once spoke to my Headmaster, during my final year. His view was an enlightening one, a view which I dismissed at the time, but have learned to appreciate as the years have passed.

    I asked him if he thought private schooling was worth the price paid, and if his job was simply to produce results, 100 TERs/UAIs etc. He said no. He believed that the school’s main objective was to provide “an education”. The idea that the School was to provide a rounded educational pathway for young men to walk through, to prepare them to be good citizens of the world outside. Academic results, were secondary, so he said. Sir Ken Robinson has some excellent thoughts on Education, and he mentions this idea of developing good citizens also. In his mind, being academically successful is one thing, but not everyone can be academically brilliant, but everyone can be a good citizen. He contends that what we need is good citizens, not good workers who are simply trained and prepared for vocations (consumers). In Australia, High Schools and especially Universities seem concerned about preparing people vocationally for today’s workforce, to get a job. Ken Robinson asked a classroom of Yr 7s what they thought school was for. The overwhelming answer was “to get us a job”. This he thought, was wrong.

    In today’s day and age, I think we are too engrossed in results and getting kids ready to move into the workforce. Results based decision making and results based evaluation. As an economist, it is too easy to fall into the trap of making an equation out of the private vs public debate.

    Economically coldly speaking;
    Public, you pay nothing, you thus expect nothing.
    Private, you pay a small fortune, you expect…results.

    But I think merely seeing education as a number, a UAI/TER or whatever it is called now is too narrow and short sighted. As is the idea that the place where one would send a child be the main attribution to the child’s education (boarding schools aside). I’d like to think that parents form about 90% of the child’s education. Attitude, values and respect towards all things stems more from the home than from the classroom.

    Parents who are generally well educated will naturally value education and pass knowledge, vision and ideas. Compare this to parents who are not well education, who will rely on the school to provide more of these.

    Also, I think peers provide the next major piece of the educational pie. Being surrounded by a certain crowd, a collective mindset also leads to a different educational experience. At my school, academic performance was something to be competitive about and regarded as very important. Something my peers fought over to be dominant in. This network of highly driven ambitious peers tends to focus efforts to respectable academic performance too, compared to peers who would criticise and put down academic performance. So, my parents got what they wanted, a good academic result and a good group of ambitious rat racers as my main network.

    Sorry for the ramble, but I’m just typing as I think!

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