Private Schools don’t own Excellence

[tweetmeme source=”ChazGunningham” only_single=false]  Aged just 10, I was packed off to a private boarding school, where I would complete my education over the next 8 years. I had no choice in the matter, and I had a good time and got a decent education. With two older brothers at private boarding schools, my parents would have made sacrifices to afford this, and I am sure they believed they were doing the right thing, and doing the best for us. Their intentions were honourable, and I love them for that.

Aged 23, bright eyed and ready to change the world, I started my teaching career in a government school just north of London. During my teacher training year, I had practiced teaching classes that were so tough, if half the class were sitting down for most of the lesson, it was an achievement. I shudder to think back on it now, I must have delivered some pretty ordinary (but spirited) lessons. I was hooked. The dynamic of the classroom, the raw energy of the classes, the challenge, the amazing non monetary rewards. I was changing the world, well, some of the worlds of those I came into contact with. Education is a change agent.

When I moved to Singapore, a local government school was not an option, and I had seven happy years at a large expat school. When I later moved down to Perth, a private school worked as I wanted to complete a full time MBA, which then changed my whole career around. So I’ve had experiences of private and public, both as a student, teacher and now a parent. From all sides you might think.

Today, my children are both at the local primary school, which last year became an “independent public school” (IPS), meaning the Principal could select and retain staff rather than have that decided by the rules of the Education Department. It also means the school has slightly more autonomy, an elected Board, writes its own Constitution and business plan, and decides how to spend some of the discretionary funds (such as maintenance money). I was elected to the Board, and have just taken over as Chair. We have a new Principal. We select our own teachers, and last year appointed a former State Teacher of the Year from 168 applicants. There is a buzz about the place, parents are more involved (the P&C raised over $50,000 last year) and there’s a feeling we are going places.

All this for the good. Why can’t public schools strive for excellence? Should we apologise for demanding this? Aren’t our children as deserving as those that ‘go private’? I have nothing against private schools (went to them, taught in them) but they do not own the word “excellence”. Their model is a self fulfilling one – make something expensive (infers higher quality), select the brightest talent from the population that can afford it and select the teachers, and hey presto, your academic results are better. This then breeds an aura of excellence. The buildings shine, the school uniform shines, the sign at the entry way shines. It’s a sacrifice for most to afford it, but the education of your children is worth it right?

When I taught at the nearby private school, I enjoyed it, but towards the end of my time I realized that a cardboard cutout could really have been teaching my TEE class, and 80% of them would still go off to UWA to do a BComm degree. No challenge left. I was also shocked to witness the worst bullying ever (some by the teachers), and then be told “it’s much better in this school than the others“.

This week I was asked to attend a nearby primary school meeting as they are contemplating ‘IPS’. Some parents agonized over selecting the best teachers. “What about the hard to staff schools, shouldn’t the best teachers go there? … our kids will do OK” (an exact quote). I have a few issues with this thinking, noble though it aims to be. Why can’t we have the best for our children? Are we to decide that mediocrity is OK? Why should the public system just be an amorphous blog of “doing OK”? Why can’t our children aspire to be whatever they want or imagine to be? Why should parents feel they have to make huge sacrifices ($20,000 per child per year) to get excellence from the private system? Who is going to stop the good teachers going there?

In fact, IPS allows the parents to get more involved, and the school to self manage more. That’s it. This means the government can concentrate on the tougher schools, sorting them out. This is precisely what does and should happen.

Excellence does not mean elitism. It means striving for the highest standards possible – in behaviour, manners, hard work, respecting others, taking pride in what you do and your school and the work of your team/others… and yes the best possible in academic, sporting, arts and music. It means having the best resources (teachers yes, but also interactive whiteboards, tablets and computers, classrooms, trips, art, music programs, sport). These are NOT the exclusive domain of fee paying schools. They can be the domain of the local village primary school. No question.

So let’s not be scared of excellence, let’s embrace it. We cannot solve all the problems of the state education system, but we can have excellence in our public schools, from K-12, school by school.

2 thoughts on “Private Schools don’t own Excellence

  1. Couldn’t agree more Charlie. First of all congrats for your election to the school board and subsequently the chair.
    I have three adult children who were all educated by WA State schools from K to 12. The eldest is now MD of his coy in the Emirates, the second is a staff engineer in the states and the youngest is a researcher and currently studying for her Masters @ UWA. Now, if my children’s achievements are not excellence by these gov schools that educated them then I don’t know what is. That is even before IPS model is even thought of.
    I believe the IPS takes the gov schools to the next level including allowing parents greater involvement, greater say, greater ownership etc as well as teachers being given greater recognition for their work.
    I see the bar of excellence of any school, private or gov would be even raised higher.

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