The best education …

WA Schools table 2014OK, one of my favourite topics – education.

I was a classroom teacher for 13 years (3 jobs on 3 different continents) which gave me an insight into perhaps (along with health) the most important of all industries.

When I began my first teaching job way back in 1986 (almost 30 years ago, my goodness) I was a starry eyed freshly minted teacher set to change the world. Well, change the world of as many of those students I came into contact as possible, and change for the better I would hope. Provide them with opportunities, like a university education for example, open their eyes to how the economy or business worked. Maybe give them the confidence to go into business themselves (I taught business and economics).

That first year was momentous – there were teacher strikes in England (I taught in a government school), and although you might think this odd, it does take some prodding to get teachers to take action like this. Many were conflicted (what sort of example does this set, etc?). Teachers are, by their nature, humble and selfless people on the whole, doing a job they know is not highly paid, but a noble one nonetheless. Like nurses and other caring professions, people don’t go into them for money. However, after 2 university degrees and 18 years of education, I did feel my 6,500 pounds a year salary was a little on the low side. (Although compared to the 2,000 a year I had had to survive on at uni the 4 years preceding, I felt like a relative rich young thing.) Teachers were being blamed for everything by the government of the time, from high unemployment to soccer hooliganism. What the?

Wind on almost 30 years and now I am a parent, have recently sat on the board of our local primary school, and also lecture once a year in eBusiness at UWA Business School. I have seen education from all sides – as a student, teacher, administrator and parent. And my position has really not changed that much – I am an avid believer in the public education system, while totally understanding that a private system sits alongside (now worth about 30% of all students in Australia).

When it comes down to it, education is about three things – the school, the student and the home environment. It’s a triangle, and each corner has to do their bit. I fundamentally believe you cannot absolve yourself of your parenting duties and expect the school to do everything. Nor can the student do it alone. It takes all 3, acting together.

I also feel competition within schools and between schools is healthy, as are assessments, exams, trying out for orchestras, debating or sports teams. The pursuit of excellence is what it is about, finding out what you can do, where you can go. Developing your skills and confidence. Trying some new things. Stretching yourself. Being at school is a much a time of your life, as it is a preparation for life.

When we moved into our suburb 17 years ago it was before we had children. We chose it for the peacefulness, the lake opposite, and the excellent private and public schools on offer. I was teaching part time at a local private one (a boys school – even with my Uni of London teaching degree and 11 years of teaching experience I did not have the qualifications to work in the public sector in WA). Roll on a few years, and the time came to decide to send our own children to private or public schools. The choice was fairly easy – take advantage of the excellent local public schools, and roll our sleeves up and contribute to making them even better. Even before my 5 year old first born had joined kindy I was dragooned into trying to ‘save it’ as the building was subsiding and we had to raise money for a renovation. A few years later I ran for the Board of the primary school and then became Chair. By then the excellent IPS (independent public school) system had been introduced into Western Australia and our school was in the second year of intake. It meant we could hire staff directly rather than having them imposed on us without choice, and, critically, when the time came, appoint a new Principal (and boy, what a new Principal we got). The whole school lifted, we went through a rebrand, with a new logo and tag line, injected money into classrooms (every room with an interactive white board, at $6k a pop) thanks to an amazing P+C that raised $60k a year. It was the best example of the parents, community and staff all pulling together in a common goal. Last year the school turned 50 and a huge fete was organised with dozens of stalls, live bands and such. It raised $30k in a single day.

So, don’t tell me public schools can’t be excellent. Private schools have their place (I was sent to one myself and have taught in a couple), but public schools can be at least as good, and perhaps better in many respects. Secluding children of ‘those who can pay‘ off into a single sex environment for their most impressionable years does not make sense to me. Anyone who wants to go to a good uni can from get there from almost any school in the state. Private schools seem to be less critical in terms of determining career options. With 2 children, we simply could not justify dropping them off in single sex schools 5 kms apart, and paying $45k a year for the privilege.

Which brings us back to competition and those end of the year league tables (above). You’ll notice that 12 of the top 14 are private schools (“top” as measured by the average schools of the uni entrance year 12 exam results – a narrow and incomplete measure, of course). However, nearly all of these students would have had public education along the line, during their most formative years, primary school. Behaviours are learned early, and by aged 5 to 7 most of people’s behaviours are set in stone. (I’ve seen 50 year olds fly into tantrums – obviously they were not told ‘no‘ aged 5.) Certainly by the time students came to me aged 14-18 to learn economics or business, I found it hard to reach those that had switched off years ago and no longer saw the point. I wish I’d got to them aged 5, 6 or 7.

Self select students by the ability of their parents to pay, and no doubt you will gain a 30% cohort who, as a group (but not necessarily individually), will do better in Year 12 exams. Charge them $25k a year and rising, drum into them the importance of exam results (for the good PR of the school?) and you will secure what you want. Anyone who does not make the grade (even if their parents can pay for it) will be dropped along the way, either into non-TEE subjects or out of the school altogether. Those average end of Year 12 exam scores will be safe.


But that does not mean there is better education in these private enclaves, nor does it follow that that privately educated student has done any better than might have been the case going public. I remember one year the top  Year 12 student in the State was from one of those private schools, yet up to Year 11 had been at the public school that is #16 position. Was this result really the result of that private school?

We live in a society where many people have free choice to buy a nice car or not, to take time out for a family holiday or not, to give their money away to charitable causes or not, to pay for private education or not. That’s fine. I would argue that, given a well run public school down the road, the benefits of having both sexes in the school, from all demographics and walks of life, are real. It’s more normal. We do pay quite a lot of taxes and these schools are provided for us. The IPS system (now covering 55% of all students in Perth metro) allows the parents and communities to get involved and help lift the school higher, as I’ve seen at our local primary. It’s interesting that for the past 3 years, the % of students going to public schools in WA is on the rise, after a previous period of 30 years where it fell every year. Could this be post-mining boom blues, the impact of IPS or the realisation that public schools offer a great option? Maybe a mix of all three.

Other States are now seriously looking at the IPS system.

Meanwhile, I am proud that my first born is off to the #16th in the list, the #2 in terms of non selecting public schools. I am sure she will do well there, as will her brother who will join her next year.

2 thoughts on “The best education …

  1. Great post Charlie, I agree with all you have said. I was on the board and Chair of the council of our local primary school where our boys went. They were just considering becoming an IPS but, although the principal was keen, many of the staff were not. Now, as it turns out, or oldest son goes to the local public high school (secondary college) and our other son to a local (single-sex) private school (I am also not keen on this gender separation). It’s interesting the comparison. Excluding the huge focus on sport (a bit over the top in the private school, if you ask me) and resources (which the private school obviously has in abundance and the public school not so much), I think their schooling is quite similar. The only clear and obvious (to my wife and I) differences are the expectations of the students seems much higher in the private school and the private school does some little things, which we think are very important, that our public school doesn’t but could very easily do so little extra effort and cost. For example, all homework is clearly listed in a diary in the private school, there are no extensions, no excuses and parents have to sign off on all marks. Whereas in the public school we see our son work hard to get an assignment in on time, only to have the due date extended for other students who have not completed the work; we see work submitted after a lot of effort and receive no feedback, and no diary of work due and assessment dates. It could just be a few teachers but, generally over the last two years, this is what we have seen. As I said, this is not to say the teaching is poor, quite the contrary, we are very impressed with all the teachers, the programme that our son is in, and the extra-curricular activities. Generally speaking, we are very happy with the public school too. I guess it is time though to get involved with the high school and see if I can help with some changes alone these lines…

    • Agree with everyone you’ve said. Maybe talking to the public school about the homework diary might also tie in the 3 corners of the triangle ~ the student, the school and the parent. I sometimes wonder why private schools hark on about this – a by product is always better exam results for their league table rankings (which they claim to not worry about of course), and it SHOWS the parents they are doing something (who are the paying client, after all). Not always for the right reasons, but I am a advocate of homework done correctly, for the right reasons, but not hours and hours of it every night. Kids need time off too. They need a life. They need to do sports, music, collaborate and get outside, etc. Homework is visible, but not the be all and end all. (And NOT required at primary school.)

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