Is private school really worth it in the ACT?

Zoya Patel 13 August 2020 53
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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53 Responses to Is private school really worth it in the ACT?
Chelsea Lifschutz Chelsea Lifschutz 9:42 am 14 Aug 20

Ruth Wright Interesting they chose Bundah as the example

Carole Ford Carole Ford 9:18 am 14 Aug 20

It is true that public education is working well for most of it's cohorts. The fact that we do cater for special students more than our independent counterparts is true, but we still need to micromanage those students. Often the resources needed to micromanage successfully for ALL students, is put at risk by lack of funding to provide alternative settings where ALL students feel safe, happy and are learning to the maximum of their potential.

Spiral Spiral 9:02 am 14 Aug 20

Having had kids attend schools in Canberra for 20+ years and having used both the private and public system, my advice would be to go for your closest public school unless you find that it isn’t working for you.

We have had great and bad teachers in both systems, ranging from teachers who have really had a positive influence on our children to those where the “hamster wheel is still spinning though the hamster is long dead” and who are just counting the days until retirement.

We removed our children from a private school many years ago because the principal was claiming that the “Harry Potter” books were satanic and wouldn’t let them in the library.

On the other hand, one of our children had a teacher in the public system who was teaching a history unit and was so biased and anti-American that once the principal was alerted to her “teaching” the whole class was given the mark indicating their work was not assessable and the teacher moved on (or sacked) .

Schools can change very quickly especially with a new principal. I have seen a great schools with a waiting list to get in, change to being so unpopular that parents were pulling their kids out because the new principal was so bad.

One of the most important aspects is your child’s friends. A mediocre school where your child has a good group of friends is better than a great school where your child has no friends or “friends” who help them get into trouble.

Melissa Hobbs Melissa Hobbs 8:51 am 14 Aug 20

This article is absurd. It’s about the child. I’ve had the naughty disruptive child attend private school till year 12 and it was incredibly supportive, probably because it was Catholic. I’ve had 2 girls at the same single sex private school and they both disliked it, both very different children. One is now at the local public school and loves it and the other left at end of year 10 and went to college. A number of the teachers at the girls private school were terrible. It was conservative with no rewards for being a free thinker or just being different.

Astrid Ries Astrid Ries 8:44 am 14 Aug 20

I’ve chosen a private school because the public school in our zone was underfunded, depressing, and had 12 different principles in the last 4 years. We tried to move our kid to three other public schools nearby to no avail, because we weren’t in their ‘zone’. Our only choice was to go private. Our kid is now thriving.

Brisal Brisal 8:38 am 14 Aug 20

As long as the “private” schools enjoy bountiful government subsidies, they ain’t private.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:34 pm 14 Aug 20

    You’re right, they aren’t fully private because to receive any government funding they have to teach to a government approved curriculum.

    Although by “bountiful subsidies” I’m assuming you’re referring to the lower amounts of government funding they receive per student compared to public schools correct?

    I am a Rabbit™ I am a Rabbit™ 7:09 pm 14 Aug 20

    It’s bountiful considering other wealthy nations don’t subside private schools like we do. Australia proudly stands with third-world nations in that regard – and those countries only fund private schools because their governments can’t safely build and operate in some of the regions.

    chewy14 chewy14 11:26 am 15 Aug 20

    And some other countries do fund them. Who cares what other countries do, I’m only interested in what we do.

    These schools receive less funding per student to teach a government approved curriculum.

    As a taxpayer, they save me money and i’m happy that some parents are willing to dip into their own pockets to help their own children.

A_Cog A_Cog 8:30 am 14 Aug 20

You’d actually be better sending your kids interstate. Once you control for socio-economic advantage, ACT schools are among the worst performers in the country – see ACT Auditor General, Grattan, ANU, even Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute. Use the myschool website to compare NAPLAN performances between schools and you’ll see what I mean. ACT kids are up to 16 months behind similar kids in other states.

The ACT was doing SOOO badly that in 2019, Yvette Berry demanded ACARA remove the bubble chart comparison from the myschool site, as it showed up ACT schools. So now that’s been taken down, but the block charts can still help if you compare multiple schools on different windows.

So when you conclude your article by saying, “…or is it more important to fight for a well-funded and resourced public education for all by sending our kids to public schools…” the issue is not between public and private, its between the status quo under this lot who are stealing the brilliant potential of our kids, or stripping out the leadership and changing the current culture so that our kids can pursue excellence.

Claire Jaclyn Claire Jaclyn 8:28 am 14 Aug 20

Much depends on whether you want a choice of education for your child that aligns with how the family operates, and whilst the public schools in our area are good, they come with experiences and challenges that can result in an earlier loss of innocence at the wonder of the world, that we as parents choose to protect as long as possible. Hence our investigation into private school, despite being happy with where our child is now because we can foresee difficulties further down the line. Ultimately if you want a certain alignment within the school environment with your own values, many have to make the choice of private schools. And who wouldnt be willing to spend a bit more where they can for the best option for their child

Natalie Roseworn Natalie Roseworn 8:22 am 14 Aug 20

And for everyone who doesn’t happen to live in Forrest, perhaps their local public schools aren’t quite as top notch as the best schools in Canberra, located in the most expensive suburb in Canberra, named in this article. Hardly a fair comparison.

Frederica Heacock Frederica Heacock 8:13 am 14 Aug 20

There are good and bad across public, private and Catholic school.

Jo Hann Jo Hann 8:10 am 14 Aug 20

Once socio-economic status is controlled for, there's no difference in educational outcomes, and public schools are more transparent and accountable. They also have traditionally had more rigorous teacher accreditation standards. Craig's suggestion that private schools cater better to individual differences is a complete fallacy, since public schools are where the vast majority of kids with differences that need special accommodations attend. It boils down to whether you want your kids sheltered from the reality of the true diversity in our population or not 🤷‍♂️

But then I understand that every child is precious, not just mine, and I don't get along well with helicopters, so the quality public schools in the ACT are perfect for my family.

Megan Chapman Megan Chapman 8:09 am 14 Aug 20

I went to a private school and my husband to a public school. Our children attend one of the "low socio-economic" schools mentioned in this article and my children are thriving there. It's all about support from home as well as in the classroom. You can't expect 1 teacher to bring 20+ children up to speed on their own, it is just not possible. I didn't thrive at school i did however after school doing study in my own time. My children come from a well loved happy home and that makes an impact to their schooling not the school they attend in my own opinion.

Nicole Moore Nicole Moore 8:05 am 14 Aug 20

Depends what you value.

I choose for my children to go through the public system.

Andrew Wadey Andrew Wadey 7:55 am 14 Aug 20

With public schools being zoned, it provides parents with choices. Don't get me wrong I have nothing against Public schools or zoning but no school can be all things to all people, and different students will respond differently to different environments.

Monty Ki Monty Ki 7:53 am 14 Aug 20

ACT public schools are fabulous.

John Garvey John Garvey 7:50 am 14 Aug 20

Depends on how you are judging “cost”. Australia has one of the highest rate of private school usage in the developed world. A study in Brisbane found that at least 10% of traffic was being generated by people taking their children to private schools. These trips were much longer than those being taken to local public schools. So sending your children to a private school has an environmental impact with burning more fossil fuels, etc.

Verity Warn Verity Warn 7:49 am 14 Aug 20

To say that private schools have better support for those children who need it is inaccurate. It is not uncommon for parents to pull special needs children out of private education in favour of the structured supports provided by the public system.

And to answer the question - this is a complex issue, but the best way to maintain a healthy public education system is to attend it and support it exactly as described by the author. When middle-class Australia pulls kids out of the public system, it becomes less important and therefore less funded, resulting in even less equity overall.

Michael Lemmey Michael Lemmey 7:48 am 14 Aug 20

It is of course, up to the individual to decide, but a strong public education structure is foundational to the strength and success of any society.

Jo Cooper Jo Cooper 7:22 am 14 Aug 20

At the end of last year I pulled both my kids from public schools (one in primary the other high school) to private schools (catholic) and the difference is remarkable both in education, and the positive change in them. Worth every cent!!

    Tracey Morton-Fisher Tracey Morton-Fisher 7:36 am 14 Aug 20

    Same for us, totally agree with your comment Jo 🙂

    Jo Cooper Jo Cooper 8:44 am 14 Aug 20

    The support and help given, the standard of behaviour they are expected to maintain. The feedback for both when they need help and when they are doing well. Both kids grades and behaviour have improved. So many things really.

    Tracey Stevenson Tracey Stevenson 7:44 pm 14 Aug 20

    Jo Cooper I agree!

    My child is in primary school, public and is getting bullied to the point he got stood on the other day. But nothing can happen as there were no witnesses! And the other child known problem child. Lied and said he didn’t do it and that the bruises my child received can’t be used as evidence as there is no proof it happened......

    If it was a private school they have more power....

    But I’m saying that the teacher said they have my sons back and believe him. They just can’t do anything except log it!!

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 7:21 am 14 Aug 20

ACT is the Australian jurisdiction where, in crass ATAR terms, govie colleges are generally competitive with selective, uncapped-fee, church schools. In crass $$ terms, the answer to Zoya’s question is “no”.

Vigorously, national policy and funding elevate church schools to preferred provider. Another reason to like the Canberra difference.

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