Do I give a Gonski? Damn right I do
Let me take you back a few weeks. It’s a Sunday afternoon and I am at a BBQ on Sydney’s Lower North Shore. In the midst of social chatter, where among other political issues, the Gonski Review came up, I casually announced that I did my entire schooling in the public education system and was supportive of any kind of extra attention it got.
‘But you’re not really a typical public school person,’ someone says.
‘Excuse me?’ I ask.
The responses come thick and fast:
‘You’re different. You have a good job…’
….‘You grew up in a middle class suburb…’
‘Your school was almost like a Private School…are you sure it isn’t selective…?’
‘ How does any of this make me less of a publicly educated person?’ I ask.
‘You know what we mean’, they say.
NO. I. DON’T.
To be perfectly honest, this isn’t the first time I have heard this sort of thing. In my graduate year after university, a colleague told me I should tell people I went to private school because I could ‘pass as someone who did.’
But I am getting a bit tired of people wanting to discredit examples of good public schools by trying to undermine how public they are. Some people just seem to want to live inside their own prejudice and associate public education with poverty, poor academic achievement, teen pregnancy, drug use and a plethora of other stereotypical nonsense. Well guess what? With almost 70% of Australian kids attending public schools, there are schools in almost all locations, across almost all socio economic and geographical areas.
I also thought it was pretty bold for people to tell me that my school was not typically public, particularly when none of them had set foot in it, or indeed visited a public school of any kind. Sure, my school was slap bang in the middle of a pretty affluent area (yet I still did my HSC exams in a demountable classroom as the hall was too small and we had no money to upgrade it) but money has little to do with it if you ask me.
What makes public education ‘typical’, is the fact that it promotes the idea of a fair go for all. Whether or not you can attend and what you can achieve or have access to, doesn’t depend at all on what your parents pay packet is like. For a country that prides itself on not perpetuating the class systems of England or the user pays mentality of the United States, surely this should be something to celebrate?
And on the whole, public schools offer a wider range of subjects like psychology, society and culture and choreography. In my experience, not only are they offered, they are encouraged. More than the other systems, public education actively encourages you to play to your strengths and recognises that people offer a broader range of skills than just doing well in maths and economics. Here’s a novel idea, rather than scare kids into taking subjects they hate and trying to get them to ‘influence some magical scaling system’, how about encouraging people to do what they love and what they are good at?
What binds public education for me, is the idea of self responsibility. If you don’t turn up to class or put in the hard work, you fail. It’s as simple as that. There are no endless calls to parents or pep talks or teachers trying to meddle in subject choices. If you want something, you have to earn it. That’s a lesson I have taken with me through life. My public education prepared me for university and the real world, better than what I think any other system could have.
When I dared to suggest that I would send my own (as yet nonexistent) children to public school, the reaction was even worse. How can you not want what’s best for them? I was asked. This idea that ‘my kids deserve the best’ is fundamentally elitist. First of all, all kids in this country deserve the same access to good quality education without having to worry about how much it costs. Secondly for an annual (and voluntary) fee of around $200, I was offered more subjects and more independence than my private school counterparts. Not to mention my school academically outperformed or was on par with most of the surrounding private schools in the area.
You can buy rowing boats and fancy uniforms and huge sports grounds. But you can’t buy values. And more than anything else in life, values are what influence your choices, determine your careers and ultimately say a lot about what kind of person you are. Makes me wonder what people feel they are getting for those hideously high private school fees, if not just the feeling that they are better than everyone else.
So despite the fact that people want to discredit my experience and say that I have achieved what I have because I am bright, or have supportive parents or whatever else they come up with, I believe a lot of it, in fact most of it, has to do with the fact that I went to public school.
The democratic values of public education have contributed greatly to the person I am today. They are hardwired into me and have helped me form a broader life view, which is more in line with the kind of society I want to see. Investing in equality of access, supporting diversity and promoting the Australian value of fair go for everyone, can only be a good thing. So do I give a Gonski? Damn right I do.
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