Daily Archives: Sunday 27 January 2008

Public vs private

Back in the old country, while some parents send their children to private schools, most don’t. Only about 4% of New Zealand children attend private schools. The rest just go to their local state schools, and a very, very small proportion, less than 1% (based on my own calculations – I’m very happy to correct the figure if I have it wrong) are home schooled. (Not an option that appeals to me – I would go crazy within a week. But we both hold PhDs, so we figure that we could homeschool them if they want to do degrees.)

It’s a different matter in the new country. About 33% of children in Australia attend private schools (data table downloadable here). That’s a huge proportion.

People give various reasons for wanting to send their children to private schools – better education, smaller class sizes, religious education, the “right” environment. And it hurts – private schools cost a lot. Of course, they are more affordable now than they were say, twenty years ago: John Howard and his Liberals pumped a lot of money into the private school sector (44kb pdf).

It’s that “right” environment that I find difficult. In the few weeks that I have been here, when we have said to people that our daughters will be going to the local public primary school, and then the local public secondary school, both of which are within a few hundred metres of our home, we have gotten the raised eyebrow treatment. I find it hard to understand why. Both schools enjoy a very high reputation, both have dedicated staff, the secondary school gets some of the best academic results in the state, it has a thriving arts programme, and it has rich programmes for non-academic children. Children from all over Adelaide apply to go to the school, but very fortunately for us and our girls, we are in the zone for the school. So we will be able to access an excellent public education for our daughters.

People acknowledge that the schools are good, but nevertheless seem just faintly disapproving. It seems that any private school would be better than even an excellent public school.

I have been puzzled about how to respond to this. I feel immediately forced onto the defensive, yet I know I shouldn’t. I have good reasons for wanting my children to go to state schools. I don’t want them sequestered in a precious environment, I am committed to state education, so that every child really does have a chance, I am concerned that the more children exit the state system, the weaker it becomes, with the poor thereby being excluded from a good education. I am also concerned about funding structures – I have no problem with people choosing not to educate their children in the public system, but I see no reason for the state to support their choice to go private with taxpayers money.

In addition to all that, I can see no reason to send children on a bus or car trip across town, when there are good, if not excellent schools within a few minutes walk of our home. What is it with people who think that it’s a good thing for a child to spend 90 minutes commuting every day?

These are all complicated, complex reasons, and they are hard to deploy at short notice in a polite social, getting-to-know-you conversation. But at last, I have come up with a “stop-them-in-their-tracks” quick one liner response. As it turns out, all the private schools near enough to our home in Adelaide are religious schools. Even the ones that say they are non-denominational claim to be “non-denominational but teaching Christian values.” Nice. Would those be the values of the crusades then? Or the hierarchical, misogynist church? Maybe it’s just the idea that there are ghosties out there that can help you get through life. Whatever. There simply is no private, secular, education available until the last couple of years of school education (years 11 and 12 in the Australian system, equivalent to years 12 and 13 in the New Zealand system, when the students are aged about 16 to 18). So, my quick one-liner?

“We just couldn’t find an atheist school.”

I have yet to try it on someone… but I shall report when I do.