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Go public to improve equity in all schools, parents urged

State selection: Alan Gardiner chose to send his sons, David, 17, Michael, 9, and Peter, 12, to public schools.

State selection: Alan Gardiner chose to send his sons, David, 17, Michael, 9, and Peter, 12, to public schools. Photo: Steven Siewert

Australia's middle class and wealthy parents need to send their children to public schools to improve the country's increasingly polarised and inequitable education system, a report released on Tuesday argues.

The proportion of Australian private school students - about 35 per cent and climbing - is the highest since Federation and far greater than most developed nations.

"They're my kids and I want them to have the best": Liz Hurley with her son, Hamish Waddell.

"They're my kids and I want them to have the best": Liz Hurley with her son, Hamish Waddell. Photo: Supplied

A survey of more than 1000 Australians commissioned by the Per Capita research group found the perceived quality of education was the main reason parents chose private schools, followed by discipline, facilities, class size and status.

Discussions with parents also revealed a belief in the importance of attending the ''right'' school for making professional connections, the ''old school tie'' theory.

Public education's main benefit was financial, or doubts that private education was worth the investment, while concerns often focused on the perceived poor quality of teachers.

Confidence needed: Former NSW education minister Verity Firth.

Confidence needed: Former NSW education minister Verity Firth. Photo: Quentin Jones

''There is this kind of anxiety about the public system, this sense you're at the whim of fate in a way that you aren't in the private system,'' researcher and co-author Rebecca Huntley said.

''Sometimes the fear can be about the quality of education and sometimes it can be cultural issues and this idea there is less bullying and more discipline in the private system.''

Despite system loyalties, most respondents did not think the type of school had an impact on a student's career success. Only three out of 10 believed public school children were less successful.

Former NSW education minister Verity Firth, who is chief executive of the Public Education Foundation and co-wrote the report, said parents needed to be given greater confidence in the public system to stem the move to private schools.

''The best performing education systems are always the ones that are also the most equitable,'' Ms Firth said. ''Now we are not an equitable education system and we are getting less equitable.

''We're not going to succeed in global economic terms if we're just leaving a whole lot of our people behind based on their socioeconomic class.''

If anxious parents left the local school, its performance would fall, forcing more to flee.

''Having proper, robust parental engagement that is taught in teacher training at university is something the public sector has to seize and own,'' Ms Firth said.

 

Parental perspectives

Alan Gardiner, from Killara

David (year 12) at North Sydney Boys High, Peter (year 7) at Killara High School and Michael (year 4) at Killara Public School

''My wife and I both came from a public school background and I certainly remember my school days fondly. It set me up well for my life, and I was hoping for the same kind of education for my own children.

''It's perhaps an easier decision where we live because all the public schools are very highly regarded. I really don't know what I would have done had I lived in another part of Sydney because it's just too hard to put myself in that hypothetical situation.

''We'd be paying a lot more money in the private system and we might have had better facilities and less crowding. But, while we could have afforded it, I don't think that would have had any bearing on the quality of education they receive.

We've had a lot of very good teachers and principals at our public schools, not universally but in general, and the schools have provided excellent opportunities for our children.''

Liz Hurley, from Erskineville

Son Hamish Waddell is in year 11 at St Andrew's Cathedral School

''The pastoral care and access to teachers in the independent system has been really top-notch.

''I think because there is a sense of being a customer because you are paying that there is a level of security and accountability on both sides. I guess there's that sense of control or access that you have if you think things are going wrong. It's also the school's values and the type of all-round student it was producing.

The opportunities the school provided really appealed to us. It's not every day you get to see your child sing a mass at St Peter's in the Vatican.

''Our children are the most precious things in our life. It's not been an easy thing, financially, for us to do - it's not like we're rolling in money - but they're my kids and I want them to have the best.''

198 comments

  • I am sorry SMH but your story would have had a lot more credibility if the Public School family chosen as a case study did not use a Selective High School (north Sydney boys) and a highly sought after very tough boundary High School as their choices. Of course they are excellent schools, but simply not a viable option for many Sydney parents. I too would have sent my children public if Killara was my local choice. It is not. I also think Selective schools are a large part of the problem, great if your kids get selected, bit otherwise it pulls the upper stream from the comprehensive schools and then many more parents pull out for private and the comprehensive schools do not perform as they should. First step should be to remove the selective school criteria and introduce better options for those bright kids in the comprehensive schools.

    Commenter
    MaxB
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 11, 2014, 8:17AM
    • Agreed; a lot of wealthy parents send their children to selective public high schools. It's not the same as sending them to Bankstown High, not by a long shot.

      Commenter
      Jace
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 8:23AM
    • Spot on MaxB

      Commenter
      Apples&oranges
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 8:29AM
    • Exactly. Sure, if our local high school was in an area where majority of parents earnt good money and valued education (North Shore) it would be a likely option. Where we live, there is a divide between wealthy/middle class and a lot of government housing. The local school achieves extremely poor results in the HSC, the students have no respect for anyone, dress like they are off to the beach (uniforms seem optional), smoke at the station etc. Why would I chose that for my child? There are schools within our area that appear to be very good, but we are not in their catchment so we will look to go into the independent system.

      Commenter
      Jen
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 8:37AM
    • Well argued MaxB; This entire article is holding the Independent schools to account for what the State does within its own system, with the handful of Selective High Schools taking away the cream of the students from the hundreds of local high schools, thus depriving them of their leadership and drive. The phrase from the old song in show "Oklahoma" comes to mind: "You are accusing me of what you are doing yourself"..

      Commenter
      The Beak
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 8:50AM
    • That's exactly what I was going to say - how about using an example where the local public high school isn't so highly sought after. What does it say about SMH journalism if they are using this sort of comparison to illustrate a point?

      Commenter
      peter
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 8:58AM
    • @MaxB - can't say I entirely agree. Selective schools aren't the problem - the public system as a whole is.

      I went to a selective school and I'm glad I did - I came from a poor inner city area, and for the most part the local high schools were ill-disciplined, many of the kids didn't want to learn and they were under-resourced. Rather than demanding I make "the sacrifice" to somehow better the local schools - how about fixing them first, then people will be happy to send their kids there.

      Commenter
      Schoolie
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 9:15AM
    • Max, the difference is that selective schools do not discriminate purely based on the financial means of the parents of their students, they allow those children who are naturally gifted to learn in an environment where their abilities are aptitude are not diminished because of the need to teach to the lowest common denominator.

      Why should naturally intelligent children be forced into classrooms where they will be bored and unchallenged just to artificially inflate the results of regular comprehensive public schools?

      Private school students graduate and become the self-serving bankers, corporate accountants and lawyers of the world. Selective school students graduate and become the scientists, engineers, doctors, and innovators of the world. And you think the latter of the two groups is the problem here?

      Commenter
      Dan
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 9:18AM
    • MaxB nailed it.

      It's all good fun if you live in Killara. Erskinville is another matter though.

      My local area has all the clever kids taken out to the selective schools, most of the kids of families with financial resources taken out to private schools and a local area high school that markets itself as a sports high school attracting every kid who wants to be a football player from far and wide to potentially sit in a maths class with my kids.

      I believe in public education enough to send my kids to Killara High too.

      Commenter
      DC
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 9:19AM
    • Selective schools actually compete with top private schools for top students.

      Parental care and involvement is the key factor in educational success. That 'care' is reflected in the students' academic results and social benefits.

      The biggest millstone for the public system is its inability to ensure discipline/consequences.

      Commenter
      marky
      Location
      beach
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 9:25AM

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