I went to an elite private school for my whole life. It worked for me, so I sent my child to a similar school.
When we moved interstate with only a term’s notice, we couldn’t secure a place in the one school we wanted. I saw that as an opportunity to broaden our experience – and so chose to do a year in a public school.
Because by then, I had started to suspect everything I so strongly believed about private education wasn’t necessarily true.
This is what I’ve discovered:
The standard of education is the same.
This was the biggest surprise to me – that all of that money hadn’t purchased a ‘superior’ academic education – or even a different one. Which of course, is a fantastic comment on the Australian public school system.
In private schools, there’s an expectation that parents are paying for more access to teachers, and more input into their child’s learning. I immediately found the staff and teachers were just as committed and available in our new school. I cannot speak highly enough of how easy the school made our transition from interstate.
I had been told to expect a knowledge gap between public and private, but there’s been no gap.
The access to resources is vastly different.
At our old school, there were twelve ovals on the property. Here, there isn’t even one. The school uses public parks for sporting activities.
There’s no indoor heated Olympic-sized swimming pool in the new school. There’s barely a semblance of a music program. And there’s certainly no French lessons.
In first term, there was a raffle to raise money for one iPad for a classroom. In our old school, parents had been expected to purchase iPads for their kids annually, and this year, had we remained, I would have been required to purchase a MacBook.
Elite private schools feel it’s important to offer the best facilities and a full range of experiences. I can see now that a lot of this stuff is the icing on the cake of life; and icing is not always a healthy thing.
The focus is not on ‘being the best’ at everything.
Our old school was very focused on humility, charity, and serving the community. It actively taught resilience and independence in every lesson.
But it also concentrated very much on the concept of ‘the best’, because the values of the parents demanded it.
If you can afford $25,000 plus a year for school fees (for usually more than one child), you are undoubtedly amongst the richest people in the country. And although those people may be loathe to admit it, money matters. Daily lives, challenges and concerns, are different. Most of the families in our old school included a stay -at-home-mum; to the point that the school literally does not offer any vacation care, because all of the kids are either away, or at home with their mums, during the holidays.
So it’s perhaps unavoidable that when parents make this sort of investment in elite education, they expect a great return. Whether it’s in academics, sports, or music, the kids are expected to deliver their best every single day, at every opportunity. They are constantly rewarded by the school for excellence, and for being the best.
With this approach, it’s difficult not to breed elitism or arrogance; a sense of being better than others.
And with the sort of material privilege that naturally occurs in these families – the houses, the cars – the concept of “the best” – of having the best, of being the best – is introduced and reinforced so often, it becomes an expectation of every student for what they want from life and how they view themselves.
I’ve found this isn’t the case in our public school. The approach seems to be getting the most out of life – rather than focusing on driving ‘the best’ out of the kids.
There are still fees.
Public education still costs parents money. Sure, there's no "voluntary building contribution" to add another swimming pool. But we still pay for everything - from transport for excursions, to fees for the school camp, uniforms, and school supplies.
But of course, the overall cost is significantly cheaper.
The community is just as strong.
There's a strong school spirit here. Yes, the movie night fundraiser wasn't held on the private lawns of a building acquired last century which now serves as the headmaster's residence. And yes, it wasn't catered by one of the finest restauranters in the city, whose child happens to attend the school.
But the kids still had a blast. And the school still raised money. And those were the only objectives of the night.
A lot of people say that sending your kids to a private school is about making connections for the future. I guess you do get to be in contact with other privileged families. But I'm not sure that translates to any guarantees for success.
Whilst my son was beginning to suffocate with the competition in his old school, in his new school he is being recognised almost weekly for his general knowledge, contribution to discussions, kindness and effort.
He is positively thriving.
And so, I am very glad I was wrong about public schools.