Jennifer was named the NSW Young Australian of the Year 2012, and is Director of International Education NGO Tara.Ed. She is studying for a research degree in Education at Oxford University.
As a well-rounded young Australian, there is one question I am often asked that never fails to cease a conversation.
The question may seem innocent enough: What school did you go to? My answer to this question is (with a hint of pride) "My local public school." The response is initially a shocked silence, followed by amazement, and sometimes even embarrassment.
The increasing frequency of this occurrence has left me wondering - why is the revelation that I am a product of public education even a revelation at all? Why does society imply that I should be embarrassed or hide this fact somewhere on the lower rungs of my CV?
I attended Bowral High School and I am proud of this fact. Like so many of the state's public schools, my school is well connected to the community, raises significant proportions of its own funding for additional resources and is filled with high-quality, dedicated and hard-working teachers. To put it in a nutshell, given my time over, I wouldn't dream of going anywhere else for my education - even if it meant my dinner conversation was that little bit easier. But the fact remains - not very many people have heard about my school. It is not a selective school, nor does it rank in the upper echelons of the "MySchool" website. It doesn't fall into the 'disadvantaged' category, nor is it considered remote or isolated. When I graduated in 2004, I was simply one of the tens-of-thousands of students who gained their HSC from a NSW public school and went out into the big wide-world.
It is somewhat disheartening to know that popular perception exposes a lack of faith in the public education system, although, given the beating public schools and its teachers often get in the media, this should hardly be surprising.
After the initial, embarrassing falter of small talk, the general consensus is that I must be the exception. Surely an ambitious young Australian with a star-spangled CV is not the norm? Certainly I must be out of the ordinary in that I am a (proud) product of the NSW public school system?
The fact of the matter is, however, that I am not the exception. While yes, I might be surrounded by the trappings of success; founding an innovative international education NGO, representing my country in sport and studying for a postgraduate degree at Oxford, these perceived "talents" can be traced back to the education I received at a NSW public school.
As in any other public school within NSW, I was provided with a broad range of opportunities both within and beyond academia. While I was at High School, I made my first Australian judo team and medaled at the Youth Olympics. I was engaged with my local community through Service Clubs, ANZAC day and work experience. I completed the HSC, supported by a group of brilliant teachers and gained admission to university. Indeed, it was my high school mathematics teacher who originally sent me to a World Vision leadership conference, igniting my passion for India and leading to the conception of Tara.Ed, a successful international education NGO which uses Australian teachers to increase the quality of education in rural and remote India.
In comparison to other countries, we can take pride in the fact that Australia is towards the top of the education ladder. With the introduction of a four-year university level teacher education program, Australian teachers can be counted amongst those who are considered the best in the world and a quick glance at PISA and other indicators of educational success leaves no doubt that our nation is in the upper echelons of educational excellence.
However, with almost 70% of our students attending a Public school, it's time to give recognition to where it is deserved. The Education Minister is expected to present a "game-changing approach" to education funding in January, and it is time we conceded that our public schools deserve a funding model which shows what they are truly worth.
The Australian Government needs to demonstrate that it values the public above the private and invest the figures that reflect this. It is only then that the general public will start to acknowledge the significance of our public schools and the exceptional people that emerge from them...and I won't stop a dinner conversation simply by uttering my school's name.