Mem Fox

Mem Fox

Bio: Mem Fox is the author of the acclaimed Possum Magic and many other children's books. She taught at Flinders University in Adelaide for 24 years.

The public/private school debate continued

I was once so perplexed by the private/public school debate I wrote an article to examine my own views on the matter and to sort out what I felt to be the peculiar views of others. Its title was Private education vs. private schools, or why my heiress went to the local high school. My puzzled irritation was directed mainly at middle class professionals, many of whom were my friends and colleagues, who appeared to lack the confidence and the self-esteem they needed in order to trust the state system to educate their children.

In the original article, published in May of 1989, I described the successful State and 'private' education of our only child Chloë, whom I called Phoebe, to lessen her embarrassment. She was then in the second year of an Arts degree at Adelaide University. In the final paragraph of the article I promised to write an up-date in seven years to reveal what had happened to her as the result of our having sent her to an excellent high school rather than to a private school. Had it been a disaster?

Ten years have passed, not seven. In the light of the continuing debate about private and public schooling the original text follows, with the promised addition of the latest breath-taking episode in the Life of the State School Heiress whose name is no longer disguised.

“A favourite topic at Adelaide dinner parties is the relative merits of private and public schools. The discussion isn't only about education, however much it might appear to be. It's as much about status. A sound and broad education is available in both systems. There's no denying that, although some might try. However, in our small world, status is only available if it's brought through the private system. So why don't those with the means purchase the goods? One answer might be that status has no status in their value system.

Another answer might be that there's a debatable return for the money spent. Yet another might be that no school can provide all the education available to a child so the money might be better spent on travel or special cultural events. It all depends on one's definition of 'education.'

“Having no money is easy: there's no choice. Huge wealth is also easy: have it all. In our family we fall between these two extremes: have some means, have some choice. We, who could afford otherwise, let down the side by choosing to send Chloë, our dynamic and adored only child, to the local high school. To the Establishment, which has always educated its children privately because it's the tribal custom - which we respect - our decision was not only incomprehensible, it was irresponsible. One woman in the neighbourhood went so far as to suggest that Chloë might have failed the scholarship exams. Who said we needed scholarships? And who needs private schools?

“It's true, we started in a private school. They took Chloë in at four and a half because her father was a teacher at the school at the time. But in Year Two there were forty-two children in her class—a shocking situation for which we were actually paying. The following year, and forever after, she was in small, comfortable classes almost free, at the closest State schools.

“A popular reason for sending one's children to private schools is discipline. I'm alarmed at the insecurity of those who use this excuse. Has the authority of the home been so undermined that we must now rely on external discipline to whip our darlings into shape? In our house parents are They Who Must Be Obeyed. Eventually. Oh, there are shouting matches. It's not all plain sailing, ever. But in the end agreements are reached, satisfactory to all parties. So much for discipline. We have the confidence to provide our own.

“Uniforms are another excuse. They look so nice, don't they? The problem is they're the beginning of uniformity: a convergent way of dressing, a convergent way of behaving, a convergent way of thinking, a fear of being different, of standing out, of standing up alone to be counted. But isn't business, science, and engineering in Australia begging for lateral thinkers? Isn't divergent thinking exactly what we ache for in our future leaders? Chloë's state school had a compulsory uniforms policy but she was one of a minority who had express permission to be excused from uniform-wearing because we believed it to be so dreadful. The school wanted its students to look smart. Rely on us, we promised.

“Better teachers are another excuse. That's a laugh, as anyone who's ever attended or taught in a private school knows only too well. A good education is certainly partly to do with good teachers but there are good teachers in both the school systems. In moments of wild panic at the thought that she might be taught by such and such a teacher the following year Chloë did consider changing schools but wherever we looked–and we did look at private schools–the same basic ratio remained: about four out of six subject teachers were superb and we just had to accept the fact that in any school not every teacher will turn out to be God's gift to the profession.

“What about peer-group pressure? We know that the abuse of alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs isn't confined to the state school system, but I must confess to being amazed that Chloë still doesn't smoke. When I asked her how she resisted the peer-group pressure, she replied: 'I am the pressure.'

Once, a classmate poked her in the back in class and said,

'Do you smoke dope, Chloë?'

'No,' she replied.

'Why not?' he asked.

'Because my mother would approve.'

“Thank heaven we've been able to raise a young woman who can laugh and joke about her values and be socially assertive. We didn't expect her school to provide her with a moral framework. We did it ourselves. It was our private education and it cost nothing.

“What about friends? My husband, who taught at length in both systems, is certain that schools aren't as powerful as people imagine against the dual influences of home background and the friends children make. In both systems, like attracts like, unless you're unlucky. We've been lucky. I admit we lived in Blackwood, a pleasant neighbourhood with a good high school close by. But let me say also we chose to live there because of the schools. Moving house is a viable option to sending one's children to a frightful local school, and some are frightful whether one's paying or not.

“It seems to me that a few parents (not all by any means) who send their children to private schools believe it provides them with status, no matter what it does for their children's education, religious or otherwise. Because of our professional achievements, my husband and I both have such a great feeling of self-worth in Adelaide that we don't believe we need to build our social reputations on the name of our daughter's school. As I said, it's only a few parents who demean themselves by attempting to lord it over us but I do wish they wouldn't. Many of our close friends and colleagues send their children to private schools without ever going on about it. Just as many send their children to state schools. We accept each other's choices as valid. But in the wider community the rejudices are pronounced and it saddens me, especially when they're manifested in our children's divisive attitudes towards each other.

“Of course no school can provide an entirely adequate education. Bearing this in mind, and with the natural confidence of parents who happen also to be teachers, we dared instead to spend most of our earnings and more on travel. Travel has been Chloë's private education. Its cost might have been considerable but it's still been cheaper and more effective than any formal schooling. We've seen the effect of the cliche about travel broadening the mind so our message of encouragement to parents who are in two minds about their children's education is to pay Qantas rather than St Trinians.

“How does it happen, this broadening of the mind? When Chloë was almost six, we spent Christmas in Islamic Iran, staying with friends. She was so staggered by the sight of children going to school on Christmas Day, of shops being open, of business as usual, that she's commented on it every Christmas Day since. On the same trip we went to Persepolis and visited nearby, the tomb of Darius, the king who sent Daniel to the lion's den. The Old Testament leapt into life. Private education. Unavailable at private schools.

“In Egypt, Iran, India and Zimbabwe, and even New York, this child of mine brought up in security and comfort, has been forced to come face to face with poverty. In South Africa, aged nine, after observing the manifestations of apartheid in the streets of Johannesburg, she was appalled enough to write a poem so haunting that Kath Walker would have been proud to have called it her own. It was a privatee ducation of incalculable value.

“Chloë's French is now fluent after many visits to France including one three month exchange and a return summer holiday this year to the same rural, utterly French family. In Italy she has leaned at Pisa twice. She knows who La Befana is and why Italian children eat confectionery shaped like pieces of coal, on twelfth night. Whenever she returns to Australia, 'ethnic' takes on a new meaning because her understanding of multiculturalism has been heightened.

“Who can say what the value is of seeing the thickness of the paint on a Van Gogh original in the National Gallery in London? What value is there in being in the House of Commons in 1986 listening to Margaret Thatcher answering questions about the Peter Wright spy book scandal? Who can tell what she gained from being stranded for eighteen hours on the Orient Express one January in a Hungarian blizzard interacting with fellow-travellers of six different nationalities? And why is it important that after seeing King Lear in London and A Winter's Tale at Stratford within two days of each other, she turned to her father at Finsbury Park tube station and said, 'By your favour, kind sir, dost thou not think the Victoria Line much to be preferred to the Piccadilly?'

“Chloë's outside-school education provides her with a million hooks on which to hang her inside-school information. What she learnt at school and is learning now in her second year at Adelaide University means something to her. It's real. It matters. It connects, because her parents spent their disposable income and more, not on private schools but on education of a better kind.

“I realise how fortunate we were to have a choice about our child's education. Many have no choice for financial reasons or conversely because anything other than a private education has been unthinkable for generations and they can afford the travel anyway. But to those who are currently umming and aaahing might I suggest that being bamboozled by the media and others into fleeing the state system is worth a second thought. There is an excellence possible and available in public schools, at least in my state, which would astound those who adhere to the theory that goodness, truth, and light are available only in the private system. My only child was far too precious for me to dream of compromising her chances of a good education, yet she attended Blackwood High with my full confidence and full purse. I emptied the purse during her unique rather than private education in other parts of the world.

“My writing this article has nothing to do with the fact that my father was educated at Scotch College in Adelaide [in the1920s] and threatened to disinherit us if we attempted to confine Chloë in a similar manner. And I do promise to write a follow-up article in seven years' time explaining how Chloë can't join the diplomatic corps because she doesn't wear an old-school tie so has reluctantly become the first unemployed Ph.D. in Ethnography to act in Much Ado About Nothing in the winter season at Stratford-on-Avon, England, in 1996.”

So what did happen to Chloë and her immediate circle of Year Twelve, female, State school friends? One of the friends won major prizes in law at Adelaide and is now in our diplomatic corps in Brazil. Another runs a successful youth hostel in Amsterdam. Another completed her Ph.D in English at Sydney University earning her own way handsomely by writing scripts for Home and Away. Another is a prosecuting lawyer. Yet another is a doctor.

Chloë went to London after her BA and completed an MA in international journalism. She worked as a journalist at The Adelaide Advertiser for three and a half years, thrilled to have clinched the job after a series of tests and interviews, when hundreds of hopefuls had applied for six cadet-ships. She’s now a journalist in Paris working (in French) as the editor of on-line services at Elle magazine. Before that she was a journalist at the Arab desk at UNESCO. Poor thing. As I write at the end of January, 1999, she's been short-listed for a similar job in cyberspace-journalism with Medicins sans Frontieres in Brussels, but she hasn't decided yet whether to take it if it’s offered. And this last Christmas, aged almost 28 and needing something good to read, she spent a book token on a new biography of Elizabeth I.

Bit of a worry, this state school education, don't you think?