THE month of January brings with it several inevitabilities.
Sporting personalities become Australians of the year; bushfires destroy large tracts of scrub and woodland; and all sorts of unqualified people, especially politicians, pontificate on education and, more often than not, criticise teachers and/or teaching at government schools.
This is sparked by the release of Tertiary Entrance Examination results for the previous year’s final year students.
Then come predictable newspaper reports on WA’s top across-the-board student and those who topped certain disciplines. And comparisons are made between public and private schools, with the latter more often than not topping most measures.
Now, State Scene claims even handedness in the often highly emotive issue of comparisons.
The first educational institution I attended was Wyalkatchem State School; then came that town’s new Presentation Convent, followed by five years at another bush school, St. Ildephonsus’ College, New Norcia. (Not Idol-fon-sus or Idle-fon-sus as one politician once publicly claimed.)
Two years after leaving New Norcia I enrolled at Leederville Technical College to once again undertake the matric, having failed at St Idlies.
My children attended an excellent suburban State primary school.
One went on to five years at an excellent high school, while the others are still attending an excellent Anglican secondary school.
Moreover, for several years I was a trainee teacher.
That’s possibly as even handed an educational background as one can get.
All this is by way of background, laying out credentials to comment further.
So, back to some of the familiar contours of each January’s public-versus-private schools imbroglio.
Critics of the latter generally lead-off by claiming private schools are better funded, so are privileged and can offer more.
That’s an interesting contention because several private school teachers I’ve known complain that the market advantage their sector once had in offering diverse extras no longer exists.
Anyone wanting their child at secondary level to study, say, music shouldn’t look past State schools, where so many now have classical orchestras and jazz bands.
And they offer vacation interstate trips, including skiing ones, camps, flying and golf instruction, and diverse language classes, among other things.
Such criticisms are thus based on a bygone era, the early 1980s, or perhaps even earlier.
These critics should visit a high school, even one that’s somewhat run down, to come to grips with the new diversity.
Incidentally, one of WA’s less salubrious high schools is an excellent performer in a range of disciplines and cultural and other activities, showing that ivy-covered walls aren’t crucial.
That, of course, doesn’t excuse persistent failure by governments to tastefully refurbish and modernise so many of our schools.
I’ve heard complaints, though not recently, that private sector teachers are better (a never defined, vague term) than those in the public sector.
Whenever encountering this one I point out that so many teachers in both sectors have moved between them.
For instance, one of my children was taught by an excellent music teacher and fine saxophonist/ clarinettist who spent several years at a good performing Perth private girls school, but now prefers the State system.
Perhaps the old chestnut of smaller classes still has some validity, though it’s been a long time since I’ve heard it raised.
So, do any differences remain?
The answer is undoubtedly yes.
First and foremost, private church-based schools tend to stress their traditions, elan and pastoral care. St Ildies certainly did. Their students have uniforms, not dress codes, and their governing councils and headmasters can be choosey.
But high schools can now also do the latter once children reach the post-compulsory age and aren’t performing to expectation.
Because parents opting for private schools pay fees – from about $2,000 annually to more than five times that – most, though certainly not all, are understandably more focused about how their child performs.
And it’s here – the role of parents, not the cash – that we get to the hub of the matter.
In too many cases parents sending children to public schools fail to monitor or make any concerted effort to enhance their child’s performance and outlook towards learning and knowledge.
All insightful assessments of educational performance show that the crucial factor in any child’s education is the parents, not the outlaying of enormous sums of cash, private or public.
Parental guidance is something that begins not when children are in Years 8 to 12 but rather from when they’re five or four years old. It’s an ongoing endeavour, and, dare I say it, duty, which should seek to infuse respect for learning.
Forget criticising schools situated near under-utilised aquatic centres with Olympic size swimming pools alongside well-manicured sports ovals.
Let’s not forget, some of WA’s most outstanding minds were initially trained in some pretty dilapidated bush and suburban schools.
In those cases, more often than not, success primarily sprang from the positive role of at least one parent, not pools, ivy covered walls or Eton-style uniforms.
What’s required, therefore, is a quiet revolution in parental attitudes towards the seeking of knowledge and learning, not necessarily more taxpayers’ dollars.
If that pervaded across WA we’d become like educationally trailblazing 16th century Padua in less than a generation.
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