Is private school really worth it in the ACT?

Zoya Patel 13 August 2020 55
Narrabundah College

Narrabundah College ranked second in Canberra for ATAR results in 2018. Photo: File.

I have a friend, let’s call him ‘Craig’, with whom I have one regular argument. We have an otherwise very amenable relationship, but when we start discussing public versus private education, we descend into a ferocious disagreement that has yet to be resolved.

I’m in my early 30s, and children are likely around the corner. Having grown up in Canberra, and attended public schools myself, I have always assumed I would send my children to the local public school when the time came.

And yet, I’m noticing more and more people from similar backgrounds as myself planning for a private school education for their children.

As a self-proclaimed lover of government-funded and provided education for all (make university free again, I say!), I believe that one of the best ways to ensure that public schools are appropriately funded and prioritised is to ensure that people like myself – middle-class, well educated, with perceived political power when it comes to the value of my vote – send our kids to public schools and actively involve ourselves in the school community.

Further to this, Canberra has a range of excellent public schools. I attended Forrest Primary, Telopea High School and Narrabundah College, the latter of which was ranked second in Canberra for ATAR results in 2018, behind Radford College.

I enjoyed an excellent, balanced education that prepared me for my future university and then professional career.

Importantly, going to public school meant I was also exposed to all sections of the community, and had a clear sense from early on that other students didn’t necessarily enjoy the home comforts and supportive parents I did, and that economic inequality is a factor in how our lives play out, which I think is an important lesson to learn.

But it’s at this point in my argument that Craig usually interjects to point out that all three schools I attended are located in the wealthiest suburbs of the inner south of Canberra. The median house price in Narrabundah is almost $850,000, suggesting that aside from what’s left of public housing in the area, everyone attending Narrabundah College is likely to come from a certain amount of privilege anyway.

Craig would say that I went to ‘private-adjacent’ schools, and so my evaluation of a public school education is based on a false image. The schools I attended had excellent facilities and resources, attracted a high calibre of teacher, and ultimately were attended by mostly middle-class folk like me.

He makes a fair point. While my usual argument is that public schools don’t discriminate based on income, unlike the continuously rising fees of private schools, I can’t deny that being able to live in the suburbs I attended school in automatically prices out a range of families.

It’s also true that schools in the suburbs with the lowest socio-economic status in Canberra (which continues to be Tuggeranong in the south and West Belconnen in the north), have a less positive reputation, though this isn’t easy to verify with facts on their actual performance, which I have struggled to find. The only report I found, commissioned by the ACT Government, was released with redactions that eliminated any references to specific schools or areas.

In favour of private schools, Craig argues two key points: first, that the level of support provided at a private school is simply better for some kids who require it, and therefore the decision to send a child to private school is really just about ensuring the interests of the child are placed ahead of any lofty social and political principles.

Secondly, that private schools have one power that public schools typically don’t, and that is to weed out the disruptive ‘naughty’ kids early, to create a better environment for everyone else.

To which I generally respond, what if my child is the naughty or disruptive kid?

This is how my arguments with Craig typically end – at a stalemate.

I’ve watched friends and family members I’ve always expected to have the same principles on this issue as me enrol their children in very expensive private schools, and as I inch closer to having children myself, I have no doubt this issue will rear its head again many times.

Is private school worth it in the ACT, or is it more important to fight for a well-funded and resourced public education for all by sending our kids to public schools?

Or, as Craig says, should we not sacrifice our children for our moral bragging rights?

Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in the ACT .


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55 Responses to Is private school really worth it in the ACT?
Charlie89702930 Charlie89702930 5:03 pm 20 Aug 20

First, this is a fairly pointless article without good data comparing educational outcomes at all levels for all schools across the ACT. It would also be helpful if such comparable data existed Australia-wide. That this doesn’t exist suggests teachers, schools and educational jurisdictions hate to be measured and compared, which is just a bit sad to me. Until we have this, parents (and students) will bumble along in ignorance or based on hearsay.

But at least there is a choice. And there should always be a choice for parents and students across the whole socio-economic spectrum. Our choice is the one tool we have to “vote with our feet” when there is evidence of poor educational outcomes, weak behaviour management and little pastoral care.

There is no “right” answer, just make the choice that suits you, as a parent of your child, and keep a close eye on how she or he is going.

bryansworld bryansworld 5:16 am 18 Aug 20

Went to the fanciest private school in Canberra. There was an extremely high level of privilege, racism and sexism. An amazing contrast with both my public primary school and ANU. Save your money and do something useful with it. You’ll be helping our society at the same time.

Patrizia Berti Patrizia Berti 9:36 pm 17 Aug 20

In my experience ACT private schools are superior! Although it was a financial struggle I sent my son to an independent catholic school and believe it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Damaris Wilson Damaris Wilson 12:33 am 16 Aug 20

In my experience, private schools require a higher standard of education from their teaching staff. That's enough reason for me to choose private.

Helen Brown Helen Brown 9:39 pm 15 Aug 20

Our kids came out of Dickson college very well equipped for there future vocations ....

Gemma Rose Gemma Rose 5:24 pm 15 Aug 20

We have some amazing public schools in the ACT, we are so lucky! Our family decided on an independent school because we felt the curriculum (Steiner/Waldorf) would benefit our boys greatly after much consideration and research. Our local primary (Garran) is absolutely amazing and we had considered this as an option too. I feel the final decision comes back to the child and what the best fit for them is. Having been through a Catholic primary and high school and then a public college in Canberra, I do not discriminate between public and private, I learnt so many life skills from all of my schooling. We are so blessed to have such amazing education in our town whether it be public or private.

Martin Keast Martin Keast 2:04 pm 15 Aug 20

I think the private school sector is essential as the public sector must be secular by definition and many of us want an education that aligns with our beliefs. The real problem is why my taxes are going to support schools I don’t want or agree with.

Scarlett Slater Scarlett Slater 12:11 pm 15 Aug 20

I don’t really know how you can make a generalised statement that ‘public schools are so much better’ or ‘private schools are so much better’. Some will thrive at a private school, some will thrive at public school and some kids won’t work in any and that’s just how it is

Heather Purvis Heather Purvis 11:12 pm 14 Aug 20

It can also depend on what subjects/electives are being offered/are available to the students - those seeking specific subjects/interests will enrol where they are offered..

Stuart Hume Stuart Hume 7:04 pm 14 Aug 20

Private schools would be fine just as long as they stopped getting public money.

    Carmen Isbester Carmen Isbester 7:33 pm 14 Aug 20

    Private school student parents also pay taxes & more recently wfh etc. Tired of this whinge...

    Connie Kaltoum Connie Kaltoum 8:17 pm 14 Aug 20

    Stuart Hume they get More government funding than public schools? 🤔

    Connie Kaltoum Connie Kaltoum 8:40 pm 14 Aug 20

    LOL that article though

    Connie Kaltoum Connie Kaltoum 9:12 pm 14 Aug 20

    Hmmm. But I believe they do choose to contribute a fair bit out of their pocket .....

Elizabeth Fredericks Elizabeth Fredericks 2:15 pm 14 Aug 20

Her friend doesn't seem to realise that Telopea high has students from all socio economic backgrounds due to some fairly poor areas being in its catchment.

Acton Acton 1:48 pm 14 Aug 20

I went to a private high school and then finished Y11/12 at a public high school. The public school was superior as the teachers were younger and more motivated, the science facilities better and I made more friends. The private school was superior in terms of more organised team sports and in-house facilities like a pool/gym/music centre. In my view, on balance, as the quality of education is not exceptionally different between public and private high schools, it would be better to save the $25,000 per year in private school fees/uniforms/building fund donations and contribute $150,000 to your son/daughter’s first home.

Phil Hopkins Phil Hopkins 1:17 pm 14 Aug 20

Private schools have it all over the government ones. ACT Education is not like it once was. Their fast track system of university graduates into executive positions has not helped but putting people with very little teaching to experience into those roles. Plus moving public servants with no teaching experience into admin positions hasn't helped either.

    Nancye Burkevics Nancye Burkevics 5:09 pm 15 Aug 20

    I’m interested in your comment. Do you have any data or evidence. Thanks.

Tanya Graham Tanya Graham 12:18 pm 14 Aug 20

We’ve swapped from cgs to red hill and finally getting spelling lists brought home!

Swapped great facilities to focusing on the basics.

6 year old is looking forward to going to “Letopia”

cinammonium cinammonium 11:26 am 14 Aug 20

My daughter was bullied to the nth degree at our local primary school. We chose private for high school to move her away from that cohort. It’s been fantastic.
Our son will likely stay in the public system.
There are pros & cons for all systems. It really comes down to what fits your child’s needs.

Julia Felton Julia Felton 11:08 am 14 Aug 20

There is room for both. Many kids do well in the Public system while others don't. I know that for some of my grand kids the Private School environment has been great helping them with difficult behaviours and helping manage the trauma they experienced when with their Mother. But some of my other grand children who didn't suffer trauma are thriving in their Public School. It should be up to parents which environment they want their children to be in. There is room for both.

Paul Wyatt Paul Wyatt 10:16 am 14 Aug 20

Why are private schools publicly funded?

Shouldn't the funding go to the public schools so they can have better facilities for the majority that pay for the funding through their taxes?

    Aaron Thomas Aaron Thomas 11:41 am 14 Aug 20

    The contribution the government makes to private schools is less than public schools on a per student basis. If all students had to be publicly educated the funding per student would go down, not up.

    Jackie Fuller Jackie Fuller 9:04 pm 14 Aug 20

    Wealthy......some ppl are "far" from Wealthy. We just want better for our kids!...and will make sacrifice in other places

    Private schools get help because if they closed public wouldn't cope!

    Paul Chubb Paul Chubb 8:31 am 15 Aug 20

    There was the Catholic school strike of 1962. The funding by the govt was so low the Catholic schools were falling apart. The bishop closed all the schools overnight and delivered the students to the public schools. Chaos. More money was shortly offered by the government. The whole argument about the relative money per student is complex. There is an amount per head that is altered based on need. Then various grants etc. Currently I think - no expert and don't know for sure - that low end schools are less adept at playing the system to get more money. As to quality of education public schools and Catholic directorate schools are very aligned to standards and processes. The private school I worked in was less aligned. Like all organisations real quality depends on the interaction between limitations and the passion and quality of staff. I have seen some brilliant outcomes and some really substandard outcomes

Jo Evans Jo Evans 10:08 am 14 Aug 20

My children have attended public and private schools. Public wins hands down. In my opinion the very expensive private school one of my children attended was about self promotion and not about the students at all. There was bullying that was not addressed whatsoever, and some examples of dreadful student and staff behaviour. I had much better visibility of how my children were achieving in the public school system. Public was a far more positive experience for my children (and me).

Heather Tim Davis Heather Tim Davis 9:54 am 14 Aug 20

Ex Grammar and Radford here. The answer is no, they aren't worth it.

Chris Cross Chris Cross 9:48 am 14 Aug 20

It’s about finding the right fit for your child. Down south we were very happy with public. Up north we fell into the ‘super school’ catchment, and that model wasn’t a successful one for us at all. I’ve never seen my child so sad. Very little support and you’re just a number there. Too big. Very happy with the local private school, and surprisingly still very affordable.

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