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?
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.

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.

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.

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!!

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