The debate about public vs private schools repeats itself consistently, ignoring the more relevant debate about whether so-defined excellent teachers, excellent resources and excellent exam results unequivocally equate with excellent education. Funding and fees often masquerade as a convenient code that celebrates education as a commercial commodity exchanged for cash over the counter. The significant focus must be about education per se; not disguised by a privilege vs poverty debate that misses the point.
As dux of Year 7 at a central school, my academic student record in a co-ed, public high school in the 60s was mediocre. Despite posing as a quasi-private school that was selective, prestigious and intrinsically academic, I was bored in class, talking incessantly and thrown out of class with regular monotony; my teachers telling my mother on parent-teacher day ‘I could do better if I applied myself to the work and stopped talking’. Putting my head down, I completed Year 12 with honours, won a Commonwealth scholarship and attended Melbourne University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree that qualified me for nothing. What did my education really represent, to me and to others? A Year 12 Glen Waverley Secondary College student, Alexander Gunning, fourth in the world in the recent International Maths Olympiad, said maths taught at school was “quite boring to be frank”. He added students would be more interested if the content encouraged independent thinking. Indeed, the same applies to most subjects, I believe.
I qualified as a secondary school teacher in 1990, abandoning teaching after just two weeks; bored with the curriculum as were the students. The reality is that schools are of paramount importance, but the curriculum is too often divorced from the real world, with students disengaged and disenchanted with learning. It is not so much what is taught and how it is taught, but understanding the raison d’etre of education itself. Is it to inspire a love of learning and knowledge or simply to regurgitate boring facts designed for top marks and a top job at the end of it all? Recent education surveys discovered not much academic difference between private and public schools and literacy and numeracy NAPLAN results suggest likewise. Disappointingly too, education, it is now claimed, is increasingly focused on enhancing students’ employment opportunities, not on a more enriching and enjoyable learning experience. Employers notice students’ schools with all their supposed significance and ignore too often a potential employee’s innate attributes as education has become ‘externalised’, with employment criteria distanced from the person themself. Professional respect is accorded to high status and prestigious careers, but I’ve engaged in more stimulating, intelligent conversations with tradies who’ve attended technical schools and TAFE more than with doctors who’ve attended salubrious, snobby private schools and universities. I’ve also enjoyed interesting conversations with many early school leavers at the TAFE I worked at for seven years as a publicist. As a society, are we really so impressionable that a purportedly ‘good’ school and career transcends natural intelligence, knowledge and understanding; moreover, are we even interested in challenging ourselves about the assumed importance of a good school more than the more intangible and invisible benefits of a ‘good’ education. What price do thinking and understanding deserve? Do they even have a value in the marketplace today?
As a recalcitrant school student, I have always felt indebted to my parents for ‘my’ education; loving to learn, reading everything and anything, discovering new thoughts and ideas as well as enjoying a Saturday afternoon vocalising loudly at the football as much as sitting quietly enthralled by an MSO recital of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Saturday nights.
My late mother left school at 14 working full-time in retail, while my late father attended a technical college in the 1930s and graduated with an engineering diploma, not a degree. Unable to afford private schools, their spare money was instead invested in football games, concerts, theatre and ballet performances, opera and books. Now, commonly parents work tirelessly and continuously to pay private school fees, but how often are they paying for sports or arts events? Do they have time and energy at night to just ‘talk’ to their kids? The ‘education’ I received within my home and outside it was far more valuable than my exam results attested to. Rote learning was the name of the game, textbooks the source of knowledge and independent thinking was not on the curriculum. I disagreed about many ideas and opinions of my parents, but our ‘rich’ discussions didn’t stop because a bell rang at recess. There were no lesson plans. With positive encouragement to think and speak my own mind, I worked out my own opinions about politics or pop music et al. Books abounded, some bought, but mostly borrowed from the local library, Plato’s Republic shelved alongside Peyton Place.
Instilling a love of learning should be the significant quest of education; be it the three Rs (call me old fashioned but our illiteracy and numeracy rates are well below other OECD countries), or more creative pursuits that enhance individual thinking and critical, rational analysis. Education is a lifetime experience; the piece of paper, be it private or public issue, irrelevant.