15 May 2024

Pre-motherhood I was against private schools. What should I do now I have a child?

| Zoya Patel
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Public schools like Turner still benefit from the socioeconomic advantage of the community they serve. Photo: David Murtagh.

One of my very first columns for this fine publication was on private schools and whether we can justify having them when public education should be adequately funded and accessible for all.

Sure, it doesn’t have to be either/or, but my argument then (which hasn’t changed) was that private schools give those with means the ability to opt out of the public education system, reducing the impetus on politicians to increase funding and resources.

The argument is complicated, however, when we bring it down to the individual level.

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As parents, we want to choose the ‘best’ school for our kids, and if we have the economic ability to do so, that choice can be made without ever entering the private school system.

For example, I went to public schools in Canberra, but they were in some of the most affluent areas of our city. This meant that the schools I attended were considered some of the highest performing in the Territory – which is awesome because it meant that the kids who attended my schools who lived in social housing in the area also benefitted.

But ultimately, our money was still buying our education because the academic performance and resourcing of schools still seem to track alongside the socio-economic status of the areas they’re in.

So, ultimately, inequity still determines the quality of education our kids receive, one way or another.

Regardless of school performance, we know that the economic status of parents will always have a defining impact on their child’s outcomes – it’s been directly linked to academic performance. As a two-parent household in a high-income bracket, my partner and I will inevitably have more time, resources and capacity to invest in our son’s education because we won’t be expending most of our energy and money on survival and necessities alone.

However, regardless of these points, which show that choosing to send my child to a public school won’t entirely avoid contributing to a broader system of inequality, I still can’t shake my distaste for private schools. When friends and family suggested that we put him down on the list for the private school his father attended, I immediately refused because I worried about the culture he’d be part of.

Every school has a different culture, and aside from obviously wanting to find a good fit for our general values (we wouldn’t send our kid to a very religious school, for example), I’m concerned about making sure he interacts with a wide diversity of people.

Having only the cost of entry to go by (noting that some scholarships are also offered at most private schools), I wonder what range of life experiences and backgrounds mingle on the playground at private schools. Or is it naive to think that schoolyards are going to offer kids a true cross-section of society, no matter whether private or public?

Yes, most people at my public schools were also middle class, but there was no barrier to kids from lower socio-economic means to be there if they lived in the area. Salt-and-pepper public housing meant that we did have a blend of backgrounds, and it made an impact on me to understand my privilege and the disadvantages that existed in the lives of my classmates.

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Does that mean I think everyone who attends private schools has no concept of diversity and inequality? Of course not. But I’ve met the full gamut of private school-educated adults, some of whom genuinely have no sense of their privilege, and being surrounded by wealth in their education didn’t help.

Ultimately, when my child starts school, I may find my views changing based on what he needs and what his school can provide for him. But I still lean towards a public education – is this me putting my principles ahead of my child’s needs, or am I right in wanting to expose him to a more realistic sense of the world and support my local public schools?

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The issue I have with private schools in Australia is that the government pumps many tax dollars into schools that are only accessible to those with enough money to send their kids to those schools.

Most if not all other counties do not subsidise these private businesses so it’s probably time we should start talking about putting those funds into government schools and improving those for all to access. A reduction of 5% of the current funding every year would give those businesses 20 years to transition to a fully self funded model.

My boys went to a local Catholic high school and loved being with a mix of other kids from many different walks of life. The main advantage was the size – over 1200 kids so they could find their tribe and have access to many different activities. I taught in smaller public schools which meant great relationships with students but fewer opportunities. Having said that there are larger public schools just not where we were at the time.

I suspect our teachers do the best they can at any school. But public schools do not have the privledge of expulsion. Student says racial slurs to your kid? Kicking in classroom doors? I doubt anyone could even do anything since nobody was physically hurt – teachers have worse behaviours to worry about. In some schools they spend 80% of their time behaviour managing 10% of the kids. 20% time actually teaching the remaining 90%. And in some cases, the kids are misbehaving because they model behaviour from home – so you can imagine how talking to the parents might go down. The government’s idea of dealing with the issue is to make a website telling teachers they shouldn’t have to put up with abuse. Box ticked, Canberra style.

I’m glad you acknowledged that schools like Telopea Park are practically private schools in their demographic. Those kids have the privledge of being born born to rich parents AND being able to skirt paying for private education and still enter a great learning environment. Better still, the 5% of poor kids in nearby social housing who get to ride the privledge. Try sending your kid to Lanyon. Is reality fair? No. Will you let your child pay the price for your lofty socialist ideals? I know I won’t. Unless I live in Telopea Park catchment.

Keyboard Warrior11:54 pm 16 May 24

As high income earners why would you not offer your son the best available.
The public schools of today are stretched beyond breaking point, it only takes one disruptive student, parent (or teacher) and the school is screwed.
I loved my days at public schools but there’s no way I’d send my kids there now, things have changed, and not for the better.
You worry about sending your son where his father went because of the culture, surely your partner isn’t that bad? and is this really your decision alone?
You seem to have issues with all private schools, don’t make these issues your son’s issues.
Yes some of the kids at some of the dearest schools are cashed up snot noses but that’s not the experience I would say that you will find at all private schools, perhaps just at Grammar.
I’d suggest you go to all the open days, talk to the students and parents that are there now, see for yourself what the culture is like at each school. Don’t take advise from those who went here or there 25 years ago, things have changed.
There is a lot of assumption made in this article that these places are exclusively for the super rich and their bratty kids, this is just not the case.

I initially thought this story was some kind of a send up but apparently not. For what it’s worth, our two now mature adult children attended a mix of public and excellent private schools in 4 states and overseas. I’m convinced that a child with the right attitude and a willingness to learn will succeed and prosper at any school.

GrumpyGrandpa9:02 pm 16 May 24

Our daughter is a primary school teacher and while socio-economic make a difference, her view is that often there is an expectation that the education of a child starts and ends at the school gate.
If parents don’t read with the child at home and pay an interest in their development, they will fall behind.
She’s had situations where parents have asked her to tell their child not to play with their ipad and to do their homework 🙄. Our daughter said “I’m sorry, in the home, you are the parent”.

I attended both Catholic independent schools and government schools. I have taught in government, Catholic independent, and non-Catholic independent schools, because I have been in and out of tertiary studies, and because when researching I have often done relief teaching. Overwhelmingly, in all schools I found the students great, and my fellow-teachers dedicated to the students. School ethos always makes a difference to how effective the individual teachers can be, and I have taught in both government and non-government schools with an excellent ethos. Still, when asked, my usual advice to parents is that if they can, they should send their offspring to independent schools. A major reason is that independent schools, of their nature, give a stronger and more lasting sense of identity than government schools can, with this rarely having anything to do with “snobbery”. This fact belies a common myth, which is that independent schools are less egalitarian.

The truth is, I am afraid, the exact opposite. In any school there is unavoidably stratification by academic ability, with smart kids tending to mix mostly with the other smart kids, and to be in smart classes; and with the academically ungifted tending to mix mostly with others who are academically ungifted, and to be in ungifted classes. “On average” the academically ungifted tend to come from lower socio-economic strata than the academically gifted, and so an inevitable side-effect of academic stratification is some degree of socio-economic stratification. Yet because independent schools almost always cultivate in their students a stronger sense of school identity than government schools can, their students acquire a deeper sense of fellowship with all the other students, whether smart or struggling, whether from rich or poor homes – especially if the school has a strong tradition of team sport. Such has been my experience.

Sadly there are decades of government reports and research to show that parents and postcode make the biggest difference to academic results. But you’re lucky that Canberra has plenty of people in the top ranks for both, so there are good public and private options.

Do your homework. It really depends on the quality of the public school. If your local PS is a good one the kids will be fine.

If it’s a crappy one with a bad reputation run a mile.

Public schools are for poors. Sending your child to one just has them associate with future jailbirds who learned from the example of their eternally unemployed parents.

pink little birdie11:35 am 17 May 24

you may wish to check which schools some of Canberra’s best known criminals went to…

Pro school choice. Let parents decide what’s best for their kids. That’s what diversity is about.

pink little birdie12:17 pm 16 May 24

Most schools have quite a high transfer rate between the local catholic school and the local public school. Each are the others first port of call when the school doesn’t work for that child for whatever reason.

Research how many Labor/Greens politicians send their children to private schools

pink little birdie12:21 pm 16 May 24

Jo Clay sends her kids to Macquarie PS, Elizabeth Kickett sent her kids to Charnwood-Dunlop, Andrew Leigh sends his kids to CGS.

Capital Retro8:08 am 16 May 24

You can always tell when Zoya has made another contribution by simply reading the headline.

It’s just another chapter in her (boring) life story.

“When friends and family suggested that we put him down on the list for the private school his father attended, I immediately refused because I worried about the culture he’d be part of” … has your son’s father exhibited such poor culture from his private education that you’re concerned your son would turn out like him? Have you made a poor choice in parenting partner?

From this I assume that the author is also against, and doesn’t hold, private health insurance. Admittedly the premium rebate for private health is means tested, but it is still the taxpayer supporting one section of society when the funds could be used across the entire public health system. Just like her education argument.

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