School choice

There’s been an interesting set of posts started by Elizabeth at Half Changed World about how people choose their childrens’ school. Jody at Raising Weg had a very thoughtful post about the choices she made for her children.

So I thought I’d give it a go. My theory is that the schooling you had does influence you enormously. So first, disclosure: I went to my local comprehensive co-educational high school (5 minutes walk), in a very WASP middle class area. My brothers got scholarships to a selective private school which was the only prestige one in Sydney that wasn’t religious. It was an hour long commute away by train.

So the only real diversity in my education came from educational ability; also a little around income, and of course, gender. My brothers were in a group that was very ethnically diverse (because of the lack of religion at the school, there were lots of Jews, Asians, anyone who found an anglican or catholic education unpalatable), mostly upper middle class income, only one gender, and no diversity of educational ability.

The lesson I drew from that was that gender diversity was a good thing. I swore never to let a child of mine go to a single sex school. Also, having been to a selective primary school for two years, I was jealous of my brothers for having been to a selective high school. And without any real basis than ideology (certainly nothing well articulated about the importance of any kind of diversity) I became a strong supporter of state schools. Most of my support is on the basis that it’s really important that state schools don’t become a sink for children whose parents can’t afford anywhere else. Given that 32% and rising of Australian school students go to private schools (ABS,  although two thirds of these are parish catholic schools) this is starting to become a real issue.

So Mr Penguin and I were very keen to send Chatterboy to our local school – walking distance away. He would have friends in our street, he would be able to walk to school (after a couple of years by himself), and he would mix with a diverse group of children – both ethnically (mostly asian) and income (we are in an area which has, unusually for Sydney, a mix of income groups for children – a surprising number of families in flats).

But we’ve been fairly definitive that we won’t do that if it is clear that he would get a worse education there. Our phrase has been “we won’t sacrifice his education for our ideology”.

Reading some of the links from Half Changed World, though, has made me realise that I should be careful how I define a “good education”. The main benefit of a private education, it seems to me, is not so much in the academics (although I do imagine your chance of a really hopeless teacher is reduced) as in the sense of entitlement the students get – not everyone would think of that as an advantage, but that, plus the social networks, is what is really behind the incredible popularity (to the point of increasing fees by over 50% in the last five years or so) of prestige private schools. The people I knew at university who had been to a private school had much more expectation about their place in the world.

But the advantage of a state education could be a genuine understanding of the diversity of the world. We live in a place where this is great public transport, and hence four prestige private schools, and two selective state schools. The ethnic diversity differences are obvious. The state schools have the Asian, Mediterranean and Indian kids; the private schools have WASP looking faces with a few token Asians.

Right now, we’ve sent Chatterboy to a state school a suburb away; the local one wouldn’t take him a year early (he was six weeks too young for the cut-off). It’s much less diverse, both economically and ethnically; the neighbourhood is more middle class. But it’s a great school; the parent body is incredibly involved, and they have a rich range of extra-curricular activities (Chatterboy has just started doing chess on Tuesday lunchtimes with a parent volunteer, for example). The facilities aren’t as new as the local private schools, and there’s only one computer per classroom, but the education seems excellent, so far.

In the discussion that Elizabeth sparked at unfogged (fascinating by the way) one thread of the comments struck me; the benefits of diversity for the ordinary social interaction of the children:

diversity gives your kids some protection from what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,”

This seems pretty accurate. I don’t know if I’ve said this here before (a little, here), but one thing about my high school was that it was balkanized into a bunch of different groups so that no one group could make the others miserable.

So diversity isn’t just about making you feel virtuous, it has its advantages in improving your life.

It’s a work in progress for us; Hungry Boy will go to the same primary school as Chatterboy, but we have no idea about highschool yet. I’d like to think we’ll stay in the state system, though.

  6 comments for “School choice

  1. September 13, 2006 at 10:29 am

    I’d like to think we’ll stay with the state system too.

  2. September 13, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    I went to Catholic schools right through, a single sex school from fourth grade onwards. It’s given me a slightly off-kilter perspective as I feel that I didn’t quite go to private schools (my schools were not elite) but didn’t know anything about the state system. As I’m not religious, catholic schools were out of the question for my son. In fact we started out with him in a Montessori as I was interested in alternatives to the conventional educational system – but that didn’t work out and we ended up with him in the local state school. Although we ended up there by default, we’ve been very pleased with it, especially in the social sense. Feeling that all kids are in there together is very important to me – I want that to be taken for granted in his life. Although we have him on the waiting list for a non-religious private high school, I’m now leaning towards sending him to the local state high school. I’m keen for him to go to co-ed schools and I don’t want to ‘jump ship’ as John Howard wants us all to. I think there’s a lot of scaremongering about state schools – maybe some of it’s deserved, but your point about ‘entitlement’ vs education is a good one. Of course, we’ll also have to confront the scramble for selective high schools, though I’m averse to entering into that.

  3. September 17, 2006 at 7:59 am

    These have been very interesting posts to read — yours and Elizabeth’s and the others. The town I live in is quite small, there are not many private schools (we do have a lot of charter schools, though). The one private school which is non-denominational seems to me to exist only so that superrich kids don’t have to hang around with the rest of us.

    I didn’t know I was so bitter about the wealth in Bend until I started commenting on your blog! I think it’s the entitlement issue.

  4. September 19, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    We were very relieved to leave the UK just as we were poised to make the decision whether to send our daughters to the local state school or the posh school for girls in the next village. In Germany, there is practically no decision: almost everyone goes to the local school, from those whose parents drive Porsches to those who don’t have cars. In other words, a healthy mix. There is no private or independent school tradition here at all. Kids who go to private schools are generally regarded to have social problems, they ‘can’t fit in at normal school’, as one friend told me. As you know, she is now about to start and it’s going to be very interesting watching her progress through a school system very different from our own (we both went to private, single-sex schools) and in a different language. We find German society extremely egalitarian, and mix with a huge variety of people. Here it really doesn’t seem to matter where you come from – it’s who you are that matters. After England (classist) and South Africa (recovering from racism), it’s an enormous relief to live in such a society.

  5. Mel
    October 25, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    My ideal for Mr Bear is a co-ed, non religious based primary school, can’t find a private school that meets my criteria, so state school seemed to be the answer. The back of my mind I was thinking, private high school, state primary school.

    I took myself off to the open day at the local state school which by all accounts was deemed to be really really good, and I was left feeling grim and disillusioned. So when a local private school was having an openday, off I went. I was gobsmacked at the difference in what the year k kids at each school. Not to mention the facilities.

    From my perspective, Mr Bear has one shot at education, and I can’t afford to get it wrong. Private it will be. The other realisation I had was that the grounding they get in their early years is important, not to mentioned how would they ever catch-up if you decided the state school wasn’t up to scratch.

    A friend with a child at this very very good state school decided to send her daughter to private high school – she didn’t pass the entrance exam!

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