Alice Garner

Alice Garner

Bio: Alice is an actress, historian and musician. She is also the mother of three children.

A strange thing has been going on in my neighbourhood in inner city Melbourne, for a good few years now. Parents at our kids' primary school have been overlooking the local high school for other schools (state and private) further afield. And yet I have spoken to a good number of parents at the high school - thoughtful, intelligent people who are active in our local community - who say their children are happy and engaged there. I've been trying to figure out what it is that those who shun the school are scared of. Is it the large cohort of students whose families are from migrant or refugee backgrounds and who speak another language at home? Am I odd in thinking this might be a reason to go there rather than to avoid it?

A child of bohemian Anglos, in the mid-to-late 1970s, I sat and learnt alongside children of recent migrants at primary schools in West Melbourne, North Fitzroy, Moonee Ponds and Northcote (we moved a lot). Our home lives may have been worlds apart, but we played together happily (and, naturally, fought sometimes). Johnny P and I rode our bikes around the block. I threw a rock at Con's back and got in trouble with his sisters. I drank sweet coffee at Alexia K's grandma's house in grade 6. I played word games at lunchtime with a Chinese boy called Joel, and monkey bars with Paul B who boasted that in the White Pages there was only one entry under his family name. In early high school I had an unrequited crush on two Italian boys (who will remain nameless). In later high school I made a new friend who was half-Chinese. She's still one of my closest friends and she now has two children with a Flemish-speaking Belgian. Our kids go to school together. This is a long way of saying: mixing it up is a good thing. It makes life interesting. We learn stuff from each other. And I want this for my kids.

But back to our local high school. Is it the small-ish grounds and slight sense of physical neglect? The ugly concrete classroom block that towers over a hodge-podge of buildings of different eras connected up by walkways? The unloved toilets? Maybe. It is true that the physical grounds need work. Underfunding is a problem we can't ignore. But perhaps the answer is to work at this. Not to turn away, deny any responsibility, and say 'that's too hard'. I think a properly funded school system for all is worth fighting for-from within.

Last year I joined the school's Parents and Friends Association, recently revived by some current and prospective parents and grandparents, with the full support of the new principal. We're a small group but we're all very committed and can already see things moving along. A Farmers' Market has become a regular fixture at the school, and now the grounds are full of local people every Sunday – people who, before this, may never have stepped through the school gates (let alone sent their kids there). We've been working together on a new garden designed by a new parent, digging it in on a Sunday morning. Organising information nights at feeder primary schools. Raising money with sausage sizzles. Of course we'll never compete with the grand environs of the private schools. We can only fantasize about a real oval. As for a swimming pool or a fully equipped theatre, forget about it. But we'll make the most of what we have. We'll be resourceful. We'll try to ignore the problem of serial underfunding and work on improving the physical environment of the school as well as building its links to the broader community. We'll support the school's efforts to attract new students.

Now that's something that baffles me. Some parents have decided not to enrol their kids in the school because 'enrolments are too low'. Can anyone else see the illogicality here? It is true that there are only two year 7 classes this year. But it seems obvious that the only way to build enrolments, to help the school develop a vibrancy that will attract more students and more funding, is to enrol and get involved. That's what my husband I have decided to do. We can't be sure how things will go, given the inequities built into current funding models, and the infuriating lack of action by both levels of government since the Gonski Review - but it seems ridiculous not to try. I care too much about public education to let our local high school go under for lack of community support and interest. And having got involved, I feel excited instead of fearful. Ditch the fear, oh parents of grade 6-ers. It feels good.

May 2012