Just Not Good Enough


Whenever the debate about funding of private and public schools heats up, I am confronted by the fact that I have had some of my children educated through the public system, and others through the private sector.

The choices were made depending on the needs and the style of each child, and the results to date have been gratifying. Sending a child to a private school when both my partner and I consider ourselves to be social democrats has been quite difficult. Doubts about the decisions have not been helped by comments from other parents in both sectors. Some seem to think that another species is at the other school, and on more than one occasion, a daughter at the private sector has had to defend her sister’s public school to teachers who were inferring inferior values and standards existed in the public school over the road. For us though, the choices have been made in a context in which education is seen as a fundamental right, and a parent’s fundamental responsibility is to ensure that their child is educated to their full potential.

During a recent working week I was challenged again. Within a 24-hour period I experienced first hand what a great divide can exist between the two sectors, and I was reminded that education is far more than a choice about which school to attend, or whether the debate about public versus private is really the crux of the matter after all.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

One Monday I visited the private high school where our youngest will join one of her sisters. The school is in inner west Sydney, and is not a wealthy one with huge grounds and exorbitant fees. It is however well resourced. The classrooms are well equipped and maintained, the library is well stocked, and science and computer facilities are of a high standard.

While the school has programs for special needs students, the vast majority of students continue to Year 12, and results (as measured by the UAI) allow most to gain university entry. Talk amongst students is not ‘if’ they will study after they leave school, but ‘what’ they will study. By any standard, these students are privileged both by the fact that they attend the school and because their parents can afford the extracurricular expenses that are inevitable.

A kilometre away is the comprehensive public high school another of our daughters attended. She entered as a reserved 12 year-old and left as school captain and head girl of music the product of an excellent education in buildings that were being eaten by white ants and where materials for art came more often from Reverse Garbage than from government stores.

Her individuality regarding uniform and hairstyles that could have been problematic at her sister’s private school was never a problem. She revelled in a music program which was based on parents cadging and fund-raising for instruments a far cry from schools where parents will buy a trumpet that would cost our family three annual holidays! The teachers were committed, and the number of students with UAIs in the 90s was marginally better than its more expensive neighbour.

So, our experience of both sectors has been positive and our decisions vindicated by happy offspring.

What a contrast it was on the Tuesday when I attended a ‘careers market’ at a high school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs a school that has a high proportion of Indigenous students in a community that is marked by a number of social and health problems. Over the years I have attended careers markets at schools all over Sydney, promoting Nursing and Midwifery as a career, and thought that by then little could surprise me in what kids have to say about these professions. ‘Yuk’ and ‘Never’ are common responses but usually there are lots of questions about how to go about pursuing a career in Health.

But on that Tuesday the problem was not about the answers to questions. It was far more disturbing. One after another, these bright, interesting and wonderful kids told me they ‘weren’t good enough’ to go to uni or to TAFE. Why not? I asked myself. Many of these kids were obviously bright; they engaged easily in conversation they had lots going for them. Interestingly, it was the first of these events that I have attended at which no university was represented. What did it mean? Did it mean that they really could not aspire to a tertiary education, or did it mean that their community does not expect them to?

While the answer to these questions could keep a dozen doctoral students busy for decades, I couldn’t help but wonder what would it be like if we were to put these students in my daughters’ schools where the expectation is that students will learn to be independent learners, where life-long learning is an expectation, where parents push and where children learn to see that ability is, in part, a product of confidence.

The debate about public funding of private schools will and should continue. Instead of focussing on physical resources it should recognise that the resources of private schools should be the benchmark.

Most importantly of all, it should focus on the characteristics of a society which allows some children, despite adequate teachers, buildings and grounds, to think that they are less able, less worthy or lesser people than anyone else. Unless we engage in the debate about education with social equality as the basis of our argument, then those kids out there in ‘less advantaged’ areas and schools, will continue to say, ‘I’m not good enough,’ and condemn themselves and their children to lives of limited opportunity.

Margaret Martin has been the Manager of Nursing Education in a major Sydney teaching hospital for ten years.

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