Public vs private school: Why it doesn’t matter

Yesterday we asked a simple question about education: Is it worth the expense of sending your kids to a private school? The question triggered a flood of responses.

Some readers argued that attending a state-funded school gave a child the same career opportunities as a student who was educated at a private school. Others pointed out that the determining factor was parents, not teachers or the cost of the education. A teacher at a country high school said he would not send his own daughter to the school he worked at because of the substandard facilities, while another parent argued that it is harder for a child to succeed if they have not had a private school education.

It is an issue with as many points of view as there are parents wrestling with decisions about how to educate their kids.

Today, we look at four points of view which go to the heart of the matter: the parent, the state school teacher, the private school teacher and the principal. Here are their stories.

The parent

When I told my, then, fifteen-year-old daughter, Ruby, she had to move to the local high school because we could no longer afford private school fees she cried for days. Six years later, and set to begin her third year at university, she has a very different perspective.

“Public school opened my eyes to issues that were much larger than students at the private school seemed to be aware of,” Ruby says. “At the private school I felt sheltered, like I was in a bubble.”

Ruby believes her Year 12 outcome would have been the same regardless of the school she attended. “The state school teachers were great; very supportive.”

She said there were positives at each school, and neither was better than the other.

Is private education worth the money? “It really depends on the student.”

But from my perspective there was a huge difference – one school cost $15,000 per year, the other about $1000. I sent my kids to private school because I wanted the very best for them. I wanted perfection. In the process our family almost went bankrupt and I’m certain the financial burden of trying to privately educate four children contributed to the break-down of my marriage.

I lost sight of what mattered most. I didn’t go in for blazers and boater hats. The schools we chose were informal, child-centred and creative. It was my own mediocre experience in the state system, and determination to give my children better, that informed my decisions.

But I can’t regret the years my children spent at an independent primary school in a farm-style environment complete with roaming chooks, pigs and cows. It was a school we attended as a family – parents cooking, gardening, sharing skills, making costumes, dressing up for Book Week and much more.

Would my children have done as well at a state school? Probably. But sometimes measuring the experience is more about the journey than the final numbers on a page. – Michelle Hamer

The state school teacher

David*, 42, accepted a $10,000 drop in annual income to move to the state secondary system last year after teaching at a Victorian private school for six years.

“I found that private education was becoming too corporatised,” he said. “I saw that state schools were getting a bad rap, and I felt strongly that I wanted to be able to give back to the community.”

“I became a teacher to do something that would be personally fulfilling. It’s my aim to make a difference to kids – and that’s why I went back to teaching in public schools.”

Does he think private education is worth the money?

“It really depends on the student,” he said. “Some students need that extra push that they’ll get in a private school, while others will flourish in the state system.

“I’ve seen high-quality teachers in both private and state schools. The teachers at this school (a non-selective secondary) are inspiring and motivating. They have inspired me to do great things as a teacher.”

The biggest contrast David has encountered is with the facilities and conditions. “I had two students in my Year 12 class at the private school, in the state system I had 27 and that makes a huge difference.”

He said a small number of private school parents had very high expectations. “They say things like, ‘I pay $25,000 a year, why isn’t my child doing better?’ without maybe considering what they themselves could be doing to help their child,” David said.

School costs

The costs of private school education can go beyond the money. Photo: Shuttertstock

The private school teacher

Joanne* has taught in the private school system for 21 years but sent her two children to state secondary schools where each flourished.

“I teach at an independent primary school and parents often ask me if I think they should send their child to a private secondary school,” she said. “I say, ‘they certainly get great surroundings and facilities, and probably a bit more support, but at the end of the day the thing that absolutely matters the most is what happens at home’,” she said.

“I’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to watch children move through primary and secondary school and into adulthood. I often used to wonder if those who went to private secondary school would come out differently to those who went on to public school.

“And what I’ve found over the years is that children who were inspired and motivated students remained that way, and did well, no matter what school they went to, and the same happened with kids at the middle and lower end. Basically who they were and what their family was like, mattered more than where they went.”

“A private school is certainly not going to make a child any more intelligent, that’s for sure. Education is very important but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all,” she said.

She said that parents thought that by paying for an expensive education they had done their bit. “Sometimes they expect us as teachers to do miraculous things – but when parents are interested and engaged children will do better, no matter what the school.”

The principal

Mike*, a former state principal and teacher of 40 years, said his “social conscience would never have allowed me to work in a private school”.

“Even within the state system there are levels of schools and as an educator I found that the higher the socio-economic status (SES) of a school the more parents were likely to believe that their children were gifted or special, and refuse to allow them to be challenged socially beyond their comfort zone.”

“In other words, ‘I want my kid to be brilliant, but I don’t want them to be unhappy’.”

He said at the lower end of the SES scale some parents didn’t value education because they hadn’t received a good education themselves.

“In the end the biggest determinant of a how child performs academically is their post code.” he said. “A lot of teachers in the state system work their guts out to overcome this social disadvantage.”

He said the best state schools had strong curricula and strong curriculum delivery.

“It’s important for parents to gauge what their school values the most. You want your child to get the education basics and then see the school use those basics to extend the child. Some schools do lots of airy-fairy extra curricular things like running their own radio stations – they focus on the shiny stuff, not the basics.”

What’s your view? Drop your thoughts into the comment field below. How did you decide which school your kids would go to?

* These interviewees spoke to The New Daily on the condition of anonymity.

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