St Posh vs Bog Standard High: how the school system can fight poverty and privilege
OPINION BY JANE CARO
I often think that the greatest risk any of us take in our lifetime is to be born because none of us have any idea the circumstances into which we are going to arrive. Even in prosperous Australia some kids are born lucky and some kids are not.
And that is something it is vital to remember; no child is disadvantaged through their own doing. They are disadvantaged because they have been born to parents who have been less able to navigate their way through life than another child's parents.
Poverty is still intergenerational in Australia and so, unfortunately, is privilege. And that's the trouble with handing over all responsibility for educating kids to parents. It can do nothing else but entrench privilege and under-privilege.
Universal, secular, public education provided by taxpayers, open to all children regardless of their parentage, religion or circumstances remains the best mechanism any society has ever come up with for narrowing the gaps between kids and their opportunities.
Yet Australia is an outlier when it comes to governments, particularly federal governments, doing all they can to encourage the parents of the luckier children to desert the public education system. It seems to be government policy to create ghettos of privilege and underprivilege, to the detriment of everyone.
Indeed a recent OECD report warns that Australia's disadvantaged kids are becoming less likely to overcome their background than children from similar countries. What a criminal waste of talent, potential and hope.
Poorer schools need more
Public education and a well-functioning, robust democracy are indivisible. You simply can't have one without the other. Any tin pot dictatorship can (and does) create a highly educated elite.
It is the mark of a civilised society that it has a well-educated general population and does everything it can to equalise opportunities for kids.
However, it is true that there will never be a completely equal education system. Even in those countries that have very few private schools (most other developed democracies, as it turns out). This is because if you offer a place to every child, you must zone schools to local areas.
A well-heeled neighbourhood, therefore, will accrue advantage to the local schools. A struggling neighbourhood will do the opposite. That is one of the things the Gonski loadings for disadvantage are meant to help. But even they can't do much about the very different social and educational capital kids bring to a school.
That's why the schools serving poorer communities really do need more teachers, more remedial programs, bigger and better libraries, breakfast clubs, homework clubs, tutors, IT and lots and lots of opportunities for enrichment.
It is the schools that serve the poorest that should be the best equipped and resourced because they do the heaviest lifting. In Australia we shockingly combine private and public resources to create the opposite.
Indeed, some seem to argue that because no school system will ever be entirely equal we should just throw up its hands and instead do everything we can to make such inequalities worse. Perhaps that's why we hear fatuous pronouncements about how "throwing money" at the problem won't help.
No-one is throwing anything at poor schools, let me promise you, unless it is thinly disguised insults. I still struggle to make sense of the common attitude in this country that large public subsidies apparently make no difference to poor schools but are absolutely indispensable for rich ones.
St Posh vs Bog Standard High
So, when it comes to choosing a school for your child, what should you do?
First, don't believe the gossip about your local schools, particularly from people who don't send their kids to them.
Remember that if you are paying anywhere between $5,000 and $35,000 for something you can get for virtually nothing down the road you have to claim the nearby public schools are ghastly, otherwise what kind of idiot are you?
Second, remember that even the poorest schools have high achieving students who go on to do great things and the richest schools have abject failures.
Kids do both well and badly in all kinds of schools and if you want to see what really makes the difference, I suggest you look in the mirror. Do you have books in the house? Do you read to your kids? Are you well-educated? Is your home comfortable (not glamorous just warm, dry and safe), are meals regular and sufficient? Do you have a reasonable and dependable income that covers your expenses? Is your family relatively stable and secure with no substance abuse problems or mental health issues?
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If the answer to most of those is yes, you can send your kid to any school with reasonable confidence. If it's no, there are no schools that can overcome those issues on their own, not even St Posh. (Actually, especially St Posh.)
Third, teachers and principals are all trained in the same universities and many work across systems, so the single most important element of a school — its staff — is no different in Bog Standard High than it is in St Posh.
There are good and bad teachers in all schools, just as there are good and bad practitioners in all professions and workplaces. Indeed, in NSW, the top graduates from education degrees are specifically targeted by the Education Department and snapped up for public schools.
Even better, there is a good case to be made that teachers who have worked in difficult schools are much more highly skilled than those who have had a cushier workload. Necessity being the mother of invention, teachers in tougher schools often have to be more creative and inventive to engage their students. Real innovation (not "wellness centres") is often found in lower socio-economic schools.
Fourth, while students from private and selective schools tend to get slightly higher ATARs than those from comprehensive public schools (which you'd expect as they select their students, either by exams or via ability to pay fees) there are numerous studies which show that, by the end of their first year of university, the public school kids are outperforming both their private and selective school peers and continue to do so.
Fifth, the most important thing you can learn that will help you make a success of life is not calculus, or STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine), or any other academic or even creative subject.
It is social skills and the richer (I don't mean financially) and more diverse the educational environment your kids find themselves in the better their social skills are likely to be. And, as a bonus, they will also learn calculus, STEMM and all the other subjects.
Go public and increase your house value
My advice? Save your money and send your kids to the local public school from kindy to year 12.
Not only will you be able to spend the literally hundreds of thousands of dollars you save on much more useful and cost-effective things than school fees, you will likely increase the value of your house, especially if you persuade your neighbours to support the local school too.
You will also reduce the financial stress on your household making you better parents with more energy and time to help your kids with their homework, get involved with their school and read to them — all the things that have been proven to make a real difference to your kid's chances of success at school.
Even better, by participating in our public schools, by lobbying for them and supporting them, you will be making a difference to every child learning in a public school, including the ones born with the least. By leaving it you are doing the opposite.
Educational apartheid based on the lottery dip of birth is not a recipe for a successful, stable or competitive nation. Nor is it a recipe for producing successful, stable and productive citizens.
Jane Caro is a board member of the advocacy group Public Education Foundation and has written two books on education: The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education and What Makes a Good School.