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 .