I drove past a billboard the other day advertising a particular private school. “The Caring Alternative,” it said, and there was a picture of a couple of sweet looking little girls in their school hats. Now, I have no problem believing that this particular school is caring, but ‘alternative’ to what?
I continued to drive. We were in the deep south of my city – an area known for its disadvantage. I was taking Adam*, my short term foster boy, to his school.
“What’s your school like?” I asked him.
“It’s great,” he said. “I’ve been there ever since prep so I know everyone.”
“Do you like your teacher?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s calm. She never yells, ever. And she spoils us.”
“Spoils you?” I asked. “How?”
“She brings us in treats. Things she makes herself at home. Biscuits and pizza and stuff. And she lets us play a game at the end of the day and if there’s someone who’s been really good, she lets them choose the game.”
Photo source: iStock
“Wow,” I said. “Have you ever chosen the game?”
“Yeah I got to choose it last week,” he said, “‘cause I’ve been doing a good job calming myself down. Jake runs out of the classroom or pushes things over when he’s frustrated. I don’t do that anymore. I just stay at my desk and put my head down.”
“That’s great,” I said. “What game did you choose?”
“Ultimate frisbee,” he said. “It’s Miss’ favourite. She plays it with us.”
I drove home after that and found myself looking back to see the billboard again. The Caring Alternative. I felt my blood pressure rise.
The Caring Alternative?
Alternative to what?
The word caring is on the signage of just about every private school I come across. In our area, "caring", together with its bedfellow "nurturing", outrank all other private school descriptors. I can only assume then, that the non-caring schools to which the billboard is advertising an ’alternative,’ are the state schools. In particular, the state school that our foster boy loves.
Kindergarten students explain their first day of school. Post continues below.
Which leads me to ask, what the heck does ‘caring’ mean? If a schooling system that will accept everyone - despite their ADHD, autism, blindness, dyslexia, low IQ or middle class entitlement - is not caring, then I don’t know how a pick-and-choose private school could ever claim to be. And what about Adam’s teacher? She bakes biscuits and pizza to make the kids feel special (and, I’m guessing, to ensure that the disadvantaged ones have something decent to eat). She runs around with them in the 30 degree heat and teaches the traumatised ones how to calm themselves down! Could a private school teacher beat that for care?
I ranted to my mother-in-law about this. She said the problem is that nobody is telling the story of public schools.
“Private schools have an advertising budget,” she said. “They pay someone to do the market research and put together a narrative. Their bottom line depends on it. But no one is telling the story of state schools.”
Then she added, “You could do that.”
So here is my story: Private schools do not have a monopoly on care. Over the last 35 years, in my capacity as a student, a high school teacher, a primary school teacher, a parent, a foster carer and as a friend to many teachers, I can honestly say that I have seen care and nurture of students in the state education system that could not be topped by any fee-paying institution. I’ve seen teachers buy shoes for disadvantaged kids, agonise over the best teaching strategy to help the struggler, spend weeks in January setting up classrooms to get the atmosphere just right, fight hard to give gifted students every opportunity possible, rehearse school musicals all weekend, show patience and calm while dealing with an autistic child’s meltdown, weep over the tragic death of a family of students, raise money for a child’s ill parent, and countless other selfless acts of care - all while managing classes of 25 or 30, teaching them with great professional skill.
On the school-wide level, I’ve seen administrations nurture teaching staffs so that they, in turn, can better nurture the kids. I’ve seen schools invest in countless resilience programs to help kids cope with disappointments and griefs, employ counselors to work with high achieving anxious children and give teachers release time to focus on those class members who often go under the radar. I've even seen whole school calendars shuffled to make sure the junior school play is on at a time convenient for the girl undergoing chemotherapy.
Photo source: iStock
Research shows that private school attendance does not give students an academic edge and it makes me angry to see private schools selling the idea that their education is somehow more 'caring' when I see public schools doing a perfectly admirable job. Are parents who choose public education skimping on care? Certainly not! The teaching profession tends to attract compassionate types, and regardless of their sector, teachers care deeply about their students.
The only type of ‘care’ that may be done better in the private system, is the kind of ego-stroking 'care' of the entitled parent. If you want Tommy's every finger painting mounted and framed as if it were a master piece, if you want your little Grace to only associate with 'nice' children, if you want Suzie's teacher and the school admin available at your beck and call, if you want to be indulged, assured that your child is indeed very special and will have his (your) desires put ahead of all else, then certainly, choose a non-government option. Money speaks and keeping parents happy obviously matters more in a private than public school.
I called up Adam’s school to let them know that I would be a little late to pick him up. The foster agency were going to look after the afternoon school run but couldn’t at the last minute and I couldn’t leave my work until 3pm. His teacher said not to worry. She would happily watch him for another half hour.
When I arrived, she was eager to meet me.
“Adam won the cross country,” she said. “He gets to go to districts now and I’d love to see him do well.”
I hugged Adam who was wearing his athletics medal and looking very proud.
“I’m a runner myself,” she continued. “I wondered how you’d feel about letting him train with me. Just a couple of times a week. If you dropped him to school early, we could run together.”
I laughed and nodded, feeling a little sorry for the very many families who fork out thousands of dollars every year for… what exactly?
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.