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?
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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