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The strength of diversity

In Australia over the last 30 years there have been steady increases in private school enrolments while state school enrolments have declined. It is likely that the enrolment trend towards private schools will be accelerated by government funding policies that undermine public confidence in the future of a strong and socially representative public school sector.

Anxieties about their children’s futures means that many parents are looking for alternatives other than their local high school. Their choice of a more selective private education for their children is supported by Federal and State governments, the media and often the social groups in which parents move. Education has become a personal responsibility rather than a public service.

Relatively wealthy and middle income parents who send their children to the local public school, or whose children gain entry to selective classes and schools in the public system, are perceived to be taking advantage or ‘parking’ their child to save paying private school fees. This increases pressure on parents to choose private schools for their children even when this is not their preferred position, and implies that by paying for a private school, parents are giving their children extra or superior educational opportunities.

However, this is not always the case. We do not often hear about the parents and students who have chosen to change from a private school to a local state school. While the total number of students in this position may be small, it is not insignificant. Last year I conducted a small research project that provided some background information about such students and their families. This research examined the experiences of a number of secondary students living in areas of Sydney with higher than average private school numbers, who changed from a private school to a state school. In Mosman the proportion of secondary students attending private schools is double the state average, while in the inner west only one in two students attend state high schools.

Although most students in the study had attended their local state primary school, the parents interviewed had not seriously considered local high schools for their children’s secondary education. Parents felt that local state high schools  performed less well than local state primary schools and lacked the resources to deliver quality education.

According to Robert, father of two boys who now attend their local state high school, ‘Three years ago, you could see that secondary state education in NSW was a mess. We went and saw various teachers and their comment was, “Go private. If you can afford it go private. Don’t even think about it.” There was a degree of despair about the state education system among people we respected.’

Parents often raised the issue of discipline as a key reason for their original preference for private schools. By discipline they seem to mean both hard work and the care and safety of their children. Parents spoke of state schools as ‘slacker’ with a less insistent discipline than private schools. They mentioned problems with a minority of students disrupting learning in their children’s primary schools. Parents were afraid of what was might happen to their child at high school and whether their child would ‘go off the rails’.

However their children’s experiences with private schools meant that parents’ views had changed about this issue. Parents reported that their children reacted strongly against the day to day discipline based on school rules that the children did not share. Some parents also expressed a feeling that the private school did not respect their child. The parents spoke of an arbitrary use of authority by the teachers at private schools. One boy told his mother he was yelled at all the time but did not understand why. Another parent felt that while her son’s private school had an official bullying policy,
the school culture was really ‘get tough and deal with it.’

Many of the parents and students interviewed saw private schools as being more interested in students who did well, and therefore reflected well on the school. According to one parent, when her daughter was at a private school, the teachers would apologise if her child did not do so well, ‘Sorry, I had to give a low mark in this test’.

Other parents raised the issue of education being seen as a means of ‘getting ahead’—as competition—in the private schools attended by their children. They felt students’ performances were seen as an outcome for the teachers and that their children were not engaged with the school or with academic achievement. These parents could not see values of personal achievement and love of learning being reinforced by the schools.

Lesley is the mother of two children who are now in state schools and a third who remains at a private school. ‘People think the more money they spend the better the education. The attitude is that private schools are better than public. If you go there you must be better, naturally, more successful, without having to work at it. Parents are buying a future for their kids, through networks, knowing people. Education is not about motivation, talent and work. Kids feel they won’t succeed unless they go to private schools.’

Parents are investing in private school education for the future of their children. However when their assumptions about private schools’ superiority are challenged by their children’s unhappiness, these parents gained a new perspective on the state-private school debate. As a result of their experiences they were able to identify some of the advantages and strengths of state schools.

Many parents mentioned the sense of local community gained when the students changed to the local state high school. Jane, mother of two children now at state schools said, ‘David goes to a good local school. One really good thing is that he has an extensive social network. He even knows girls now who ring him up. At the private school the kids come from all over, parents have to drive them to friends’ places. David just walks, his social life has exploded out of sight going to school with friends. He is comfortable and happy, he is more independent, and that’s helped his self esteem.’

Other parents appreciated the diversity of the state system. Clare, whose daughter moved from a Catholic girls’ school to a state girls’ high said ‘The state school system is really great. Very diverse, nice environment. Lots of kids with different values and religious backgrounds. A really bright innovative learning environment. At my daughter’s new high school, the girls run the assemblies, speech days, they are allowed a bigger role in running school events [and] given leadership opportunities.’

Lesley felt that, ‘Peter is happy about the change but he notices some differences [such as] a bigger variety of intellectual ability on the whole in the kids in his classes. He says it covers the range of kids, from the very bright to those kids who struggle with maths or English. At the private boys school we were told that they did not take kids with learning problems.’

Robin, her sister and cousins had all attended the same private girls’ school. Robin had no experience of public school education and she had not even considered a public school for her two girls. When her financial situation forced a change in schools, Robin found that, ‘It was a difficult move but I did not have a choice. I feel very lucky because the local school the girls now attend is superb. Their education is brilliant. I went to the same private school and I was personally devastated when I had to remove them. I grew up in this area and I was putting my daughters in the local high school my parents threatened me with.’

‘Now my girls are at the local state high school I am fairly cynical about private school rules about uniforms. Why create problems? When the girls first changed school I remember being shocked about nobody caring what colour ribbon they wore. At the state high school they have the attitude that they save the fights [for] the important things: drugs, racial vilification, and truancy. There is a supportive attitude from the principal and the teachers. My girls are more relaxed, responsible and self motivated. That’s what matters to me.’

Throughout the interviews I conducted parents remarked on the high degree of teachers’ professional commitment in both state and private schools. While parents generally agreed that ‘the facilities are better, the sports are better, and there are definitely better looking buildings at private schools,’ they also confirmed what the NSW Public Education Inquiry 2003 by Tony Vinson identifies as ‘service before self’ as one of the most important assets of the state education system.

Lesley’s three children were all originally enrolled in high fee-paying private schools. Although Lesley and her husband were educated at state schools, they chose private schools so that their children ‘would get a lot of individual care and attention. I thought they would be nurtured’. When her daughter, Jodie, transferred to a selective high school, Lesley says she realised that the state schools ‘did it as well’. She has now moved her younger son, Peter to the local state high school but feels it would be too hard on her other son Michael to move him from his private school. ‘The cost was a big factor, well value for money anyway. I didn’t think I got value for money from the private school. The quality of teaching is similar in both. Teachers vary a lot anyway. Of course the physical resources are better—the extracurricular activities in private schools—if your child is bright they can take advantage of those things.’

This series of interviews with parents and students, about their experiences in a variety of private and state high schools, suggests that good local high schools are consistently undervalued and initially ignored by parents because of a lack of real information and false perceptions. The subsequent loss of a critical core of motivated students and parents in the school population results in a deterioration of community representation in state high schools. When local state high schools are overlooked or dismissed as high school options for middle class students, there is a loss of the egalitarian character and the social tolerance of diversity that are essential for building communities.

While a core group of parents will always choose private schools—preferring the social networks, religion, philosophy or teaching methods—others who choose private because of perceived shortfalls in local state schools can be enticed back through comparatively better funding and more specific information.

To challenge the idea that the choice of a private school is always a better choice, parents need to hear more about the many dynamic local state schools, responsive to change and in touch with their local

Joanna Leonard is a research officer at the University of Technology Sydney. Photo by Bill Thomas.



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