I used to live on a small farm in rural Victoria. My two oldest kids started school at the public school up the road. It had two teachers and about thirty students from prep to grade six.
These were the years of the Kennett Liberal government, and the few services the school received, like the library van, were savagely slashed. Kennett’s cuts threatened the very future of the school and many like it. As a school councillor I attended countless meetings and worked on a well orchestrated campaign to save many of Victoria’s little rural schools.
For our school we succeeded, but it wasn’t long before we moved our girls to a bigger state school in the nearby town. There they got a better sense of the wider world, with exposure to more people, and access more resources and specialist teachers.
We then faced a choice about secondary schools. There was a popular Catholic school in the town “ so popular, in fact, Catholic families were given first preference “ an independent private school and a public secondary school.
In the end we decided to make a really big shift and move to Melbourne. The range and quality of schools available in the big city was the primary factor motivating the move from the rural area where we had lived for nearly fifteen years.
We moved to Melbourne with four children, ranging from kindergarten to year seven. We enrolled all the children in a private school. We were attracted to this school because of its stated commitment to progressive education philosophy and personal development. It also had a strong focus on creativity, reflected in the architecture and grounds which provided a rich and stimulating physical environment. If Labor wins this election, this school faces funding cuts.
Long before the current election focused attention on schools like this, however, we had become disappointed with this one, and took three kids out of the school and enrolled then elsewhere. The two youngest we sent to a local state school, which we are very happy with for many reasons.
The fact that it’s a whole lot cheaper isn’t the only advantage, but let me say that not having to work all the time to pay the fees means that we can put more time in with the kids “ not only educating them, but enjoying them too.
I tell this story not because I want to indulge in ‘old fashioned class warfare’ or ‘private school bashing’. I don’t believe that there are good schools “ only schools that better suit some children and some families. I do believe in public education, but I believe in private education too. I believe in choice and I believe in diversity, but I don’t believe that tax payers should overly subsidise that choice.
As it turns out, the local state school suits my two younger kids better than the more expensive option we had tried. Let me tell you more about why I am really happy with the state school.
First, in my experience of schools, as both student and parent, I have found that that quality education comes from dedicated and caring people (teachers) not fancy grounds, beautiful buildings or slick corporate plans and promotional materials and so on.
This is true whether the schools are small or big, public and private, new or old. Dedicated and capable teachers can be found in most schools: obviously they don’t do it just for the money.
However, teachers are responsive to the level of material and moral support the school system and community gives them. Any school, rich or poor, can have periods of weaknesses, strife, tension or a transition to a new regime such as when a principal, board or council changes.
Parents need to be alert to whether a school is functioning well, while their children are there, not what the school’s reputation is from decades past.
Second, I am convinced that my kids got more focused and personal attention in the state school.
Third, I feel like I fit better as part of the state school community. That’s not because of beliefs or philosophy, but because there are lots more fathers there at pick up time. People don’t look at me questionably perhaps wondering why I am not at work earning to pay the fees.
Finally, even though the schools are not far apart physically, the two schools are miles apart in terms of cultural and social diversity. While it can be dangerous to generalize, I think the private school was dominated by two income families reflecting Australia’s new ‘aspirational class’. The state school has children from a wider range of backgrounds. That includes kids of many colours and customs, some from first, second or third generation migrant families.
Beneath the state school’s plain uniform is a bountiful expression of the local community’s diversity. Learning to celebrate this diversity is surely one of the most valuable lessons any child can learn in modern Australia.
I am glad that some of our tax money goes to providing public education, and wonder if more parents will swing back to state schools. I think it could happen.
If you send your kids to a private school, why not take a close look at the public options? You may be pleasantly surprised to see your taxes at work, hopefully making things a bit more equal in the ‘land of opportunity’.
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