Mandatory disclosure policy:
Lest I be accused of hypocrisy in a “Lefty-like” fashion, I should disclose here that I attended a public primary school and two private high schools, one in Australia and one in the UK. My mother taught in a public high school for many years.
I was reading about the rise in private school enrollments throughout Australia. I already feel anxious about choosing a high school for my darling daughter. All I know is: I shan’t send her to my Australian alma mater. Although I did make some good friends there (with whom I am still friends), I also still feel like vomiting when I drive past it. I suspect I would have had a totally different attitude if I had finished high school there; but my lasting vision of the school is at the time I left it (at 14 or 15 years old), which is a horrible time at an all girls’ school.
This then made me think of another question – what does an intelligent socialist lefty type who earns enough money to send their child to a private school do in this sort of situation?
- Send precious child to local “Killersville High”.
- Send precious child to State School with an excellent reputation (eg, Balwyn High and Glen Waverley High).
- Send precious child to a selective State School (eg, University High, Melbourne High, MacRobertson Girls’ High, Camberwell Girls’ High etc, etc)
- Send precious child to a private school, and try to ignore the matter when it comes up in conversation.
I have noted that when one probes intelligent, well-to-do socialist lefty types who proudly profess, “I send my child to a public school”, they have almost invariably chosen options (2) or (3). I am not criticising this: but it’s not the same as sending your child to “Killersville High”.
Why send a child to a private school? In my opinion, it is not about the teaching. As far as I am concerned, the standard of teaching in a public school is as good as the standard of teaching in a private school.
There are four reasons I can think of as to why parents send their children to private schools:
- The facilities are better (particularly for sport, music, drama and other extra-curricular opportunities).
- The possibility of creating social networks.
- Religious values.
- There is less likelihood of an intelligent child slipping through the cracks because a teacher is preoccupied with students who are difficult or struggling.
Let’s look at each of these in turn. To my mind, the last one is particularly important.
Self-explanatory. I concede that the facilities in my Australian high school were superb. Particularly the sporting facilities. What a pity I have no sporting aptitude whatsoever. It was wasted on me. And Mum asked me not to play the French horn any more; she said it sounded like an elephant with a severe case of gas. I still have a fondness for that horn, though.
Yes, that “old school tie” thing (adverted to in my title). I gather that going to certain schools opens up entire social networks and job opportunities, particularly in Victoria. I was totally shocked when a friend described articles interviews as involving chummy chats about his school. This never happened to me personally (as far as I can remember). I guess if someone had said something about my old school in an articles interview, I would have said “Does it matter what school I went to? Who cares!” Or I would have looked vaguely green around the gills and said, “I prefer not to think about That Place”.
Parents of a particular faith may wish to send their child to a school which also espouses that faith. In addition, I’m sure it can be difficult to be in a religious minority at school.
For example, when I was at primary school, a stupid teacher tried to force my Muslim friend (who was fasting for Ramadan) to eat a ham sandwich. We tried to explain Ramadan to her, and the fact that ham was forbidden, but she kept trying to force my friend to eat. In the end, to get this silly woman to go away, I took the sandwich off the teacher and promised to feed it to my friend. I think we threw it in the bin – it wasn’t even a very nice ham sandwich (white bread and that slippery, bright pink ham).
But I would prefer my child to go to a school with a diverse range of students from different backgrounds and, if there is any religion, I’d prefer that it be low-key. I slept through every church service at my Australian school, and I didn’t realise Jesus was actually the Son of God in Christianity (not a prophet) until I was 25 years old. And I still don’t “get” the Trinity. I guess the school didn’t do a good job of indoctrinating me.
Maximising academic opportunity:
As a lecturer, my goal is to make sure that the majority of students understand the points I make. Of course, I hope that I achieve this! I can tend to get rather excited about bizarre things which excite me (like the resulting trust) but usually I try to keep it simple. The same principle applies to high school teaching.
So: what happens to a lone intelligent child in a class if the majority of students have learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties? Teachers concentrate on making sure that the majority of students understand the subject matter, and unconsciously or consciously, they pitch classes at a reasonable common denominator. If the majority of students have learning difficulties, the common denominator will be pretty low. It is very difficult to successfully teach a class with great disparity in academic ability. At one end, one student will be struggling to spell “dog” while the other will be reading “War and Peace” for the second time – how do you cater for those disparate abilities?
Further, if there are students with behavioural difficulties, the chances are that a large part of classroom time will be spent on controlling and managing these students’ behaviour. A very difficult child can be extremely disruptive to a class, and ruin an entire lesson. If there are one or two children in the class who have a better understanding of a subject, a teacher who has a difficult class will be unable to concentrate on those children and to try to extend their knowledge. That’s no fault of the teacher; it’s just the way the classroom is structured.
Unfortunately, if a school has an intake with a generally low socio-economic background, there is a greater likelihood that pupils have learning difficulties and behavioural problems. To be blunt, I believe that parents send children to a private school because they believe that this ensures that the child is in a class with students of a similar socio-economic background and outlook. The parents of the children are also likely to have similar education and ideals.
Private schools can also expel difficult and problematic students. I gather that shortly after I left my Australian school, many of the bullies and problematic students in my year were expelled or encouraged to go elsewhere. (That would be right…wait until I’ve left, guys!) But in a state school, there’s no where else to go. I did once hear of a student being expelled from a state school after he had constantly bullied, sexually harassed and racially vilified other students. Of course, he just got passed to another state school, and presumably his problems continued at that school.
Group dynamics are a funny thing. There are very bad eggs everywhere, regardless of whether a school is private or public. My Year 9 class was pretty bad. We drove at least two teachers to have nervous breakdowns and quit teaching. There were a couple of girls who were particularly nasty and bullied other students and teachers mercilessly. One day, two girls happened to be away sick. These two were the ringleaders of the bullying. The class atmosphere was totally different for three days…until the bullies recovered from their colds. Two people in a class of 30 made all the difference!
It must be stressed that I am not saying that socio-economic background is necessarily determinative of academic success, intelligence or good behaviour. My argument is merely that it can be more difficult to succeed academically if you end up at a “rough” state school for the reasons that more resources will be spent on managing the “rough” kids. That being said, I have plenty of friends who attended state schools and did extremely well. Some of my friends went to pretty rough schools (not selective or academically reputable state schools) but they still managed to succeed. One friend says, “What does Thom Yorke from Radiohead know about pain and bitterness? Real agony is being a quiet sensitive guy in a rural high school!”
Both my mother and my father did not come from well-to-do backgrounds. They both went to public schools. Each was the first in their family to complete high school, to get a university degree and to get a post-graduate degree. However, my mother and father are Sydneysiders and Sydney had a streamed public education system. They were both in the “top” classes at their school, which helped them to succeed. My mother’s theory is that private schools are so prevalent in Victoria because there is no streaming in this state. When Mum did her DipEd, she was simply aghast that the first question all the Melbourners asked was “What school did you go to?”
I went from a non-selective private school in Australia to a selective private school in the UK. The difference was quite stark. When I started there, I was strongly against selective schooling or streaming. My school in the UK was quite insane on many, many levels, but I will say this for it: it really challenged me and forced me to work hard for the first time ever. Previously, I had just “floated” through high school, and hadn’t even had to study for tests. It was a revelation to be in an environment where intellectualism and academic achievement was encouraged. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable about academic elitism and selective schools, because of the possibility of pigeonholing people.
This is not so much an argument as a frank exploration of some of the issues as I see them.
I think teachers are severely underrated and underpaid in our present system. I know from lecturing that teaching is an exhausting job. People say, “Oh, but they get all those holidays, and they get off work early!” This fails to take class preparation and marking into account. Also, people have no idea how exhausting it is to stand on your feet all day and teach. I think governments should prioritise teaching and stop passing the buck (State to Federal, Federal to State). There’s nothing more important than the people who guide and teach our children. Having watched my mother in action for many years, I think many of our teachers are fantastic people.
Perhaps a greater amount of streaming in public schools would help alleviate some of the problems identified in relation to classes with greatly differing abilities. I would wish to keep such streaming flexible so that if students improved they could move up. There is a tendency (particularly in the Victorian education system) to try and make everyone “equal” when the truth is that some are more equal than others… That’s just life. I also think the idea of standardised school qualifications and school curriculum is a good idea – it makes it a lot easier if your parents are forced to move interstate.
Any comments/criticisms welcome!