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Public school: is it good enough?

My five-(and-a-half) -year-old has just completed four full days of Big School.

We’re both busy finding our feet, getting to know our lovely teacher and finding new friends. Her academic journey has barely begun but already many people in my social circle are talking about high school. I’m fortunate enough to live in an affluent suburb. However unfortunately the general consensus seems to be that the local public high schools are “on the nose”.

I’ve been advised by well-meaning acquaintances to put our names down now for some of the prestigious girls schools in the area. Others are determined to convert to Catholicism in order to avoid the blight on their children’s future that is the public high school.

I’m not suggesting that this aversion to public education is motivated by snobbery. People simply want to give their children the best education they possibly can. Nevertheless this type of talk saddens me on a couple of levels.

Firstly the implication that the public system is not good enough feels demeaning to my own background. My husband and I both went to public schools and we’ve done alright. Some might say we’ve done well. On top of this my father is a retired special-ed teacher from the public system. For more than 30 years he was 100 per cent committed to helping his students, most of whom were intellectually handicapped, become productive members of society. Overall he and his team had tremendous success. To knock the public system cuts to the very heart of who I am and where I came from.

The rational side of my brain knows this is faulty thinking. My upbringing is nobody’s concern. The main reason I’m dismayed by the mass exodus from the public schools is that it offends my sense of social justice. I would hardly describe myself as a left-leaning lunatic but I believe all young people should start out on a more or less equal playing field. No one should be denied opportunities because their parents can’t afford the fees for Cranbrook or SCEGGS. However if the middle classes continue to abandon the public system it will spiral downwards. Those remaining in it will become unfairly disadvantaged.

If our particular local public schools are, as rumour has it, cesspits of bullying, violence and drugs, I should not let anything as airy fairy as a social ideal get in the way of what is best for my girls. I’ve decided to take the emotion out of the equation and do some research. I intend to look rationally at the options available to us.

The My School website and the NAPLAN results is a logical place to start. While the NAPLAN hardly tells the entire story its the only data we have to go by. I discovered that on this basis one of the local high schools did reasonably well. Its performance was rated as “above average” in most categories. By contrast the performance of the second Public School however was dismal. Many of its rankings came in at “below average” or “substantially below average”. Sadly the results matched up with the school’s poor reputation. I  began to understand why some of my friends and acquaintances were reluctant to send their children there. However I also felt a sense of frustration for those families who had no choice.

The answer is to lift these under-performing schools and make them competitive again. As a society we should be investing money and resources into making them places where even the wealthy would want to send their children.

I doubt the solution is as simple as channeling funding their way but its not a bad place to start. On top of this we need policy that ensures high-quality teaching as well as more effective discipline. The party that can show me that it has a plan for addressing these issues is will grab my vote come September.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to do my research. I’ll read as much as I can. I’ll visit the schools and speak to the teachers. I’ll do my best to find out what’s really going on. However no matter where we ultimately choose to send our girls, the most important thing we can do for them is to provide a stable and nurturing environment so that they can learn and grow.

photo credit: Pay No Mind via photopin cc

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