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Edition 11

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Essay

Moving private

IN 1991, I did something that once would have been beyond imagination. I enrolled my eldest child in an elite private school. Financially, the six years were to be a terrible burden. Emotionally, it was not easy. I was acting against my background and my culturally formed inclinations. However, there was no choice. The local state primary school failed my daughter so badly that she needed both a clean start and careful nurturing. At the start of sixth grade she was functionally illiterate and could write little more than her name.

When Lucy was in first grade and I realised she was not beginning to read, her teachers told me I had unrealistic expectations. In later years, I was told a story about "Lenny the late developer" and assured she would catch up in her own time. By fourth grade she was teased by other children because she could not connect letters to sounds. I was told she had "to learn to roll with the punches"; then she was "becoming a behaviour problem". When she was in fifth grade I had a full-time job and could afford to have her privately assessed. This was how I discovered the precise nature of her dyslexia (auditory conceptual dysfunction). The school principal told me that she was not the kind of student who would be helped by the excellent Macquarie reading program. I persisted, and she was allowed to begin to learn. Private education removed my daughter from the children who had bullied her throughout primary school and the system that had failed her. The school gave her one-on-one tuition at no extra charge throughout Year 7 English, and taught her the rudiments of mathematics, which she had not learnt at her state school. Rowing and other school activities boosted her self-esteem. She later graduated from university.

Three of my four children have now completed their education at private schools. The fourth dropped out of her state school at the beginning of Year 12 when she realised she was not taking the right courses to get a University Admission Index (UAI). The school had not discovered the error until it was too late.

Other children at Lucy's primary school had learning problems. Their parents could not afford to move them. The only reason I was able to do so is that in the 1950s and 1960s I received an excellent state-school education that gave me access to an elite university and the tools to achieve an academic career. My children's access to private education stands on the shoulders of those who taught me. Friends and colleagues, all proud products of state education, are now sending their children to private schools.

Graduates who wish to be the kinds of teachers who can make a real difference to their students' lives find that the best private schools encourage innovation while state schools often regard it with suspicion.

It is easy to criticise this trend as elitist, but I am not the only person with horror stories of children not taught, of teachers overstretched, poorly motivated and ground down by years of bureaucratic trivia. With my children, I was more concerned with their personal happiness than high grades, and their schools were chosen because of their records in pastoral care. In the crude measure of academic success there is no argument. Every year, when HSC results are announced with the usual politician's fanfare, the evidence is loud and clear: with the exception of some schools in the leafy suburbs and some selective high schools, there is a direct correlation between success at matriculation level and private education. There is an assumption that this has always been the case. Most seem to believe that elite private schools have always outperformed the rest. But it was not always so.

 

IN THE DECADES after World War II, Australian governments, both federal and state, recognised that the population was under-educated. The country's leadership knew that unless Australia developed its intellectual capital and professional expertise, we would have long-term problems in coping with the changing world. In the postwar years, state and federal governments made a concerted effort to expand secondary education. The Board of Studies' statistics for the old NSW Leaving Certificate show that the number of students completing high school more than trebled from the mid-1950s to the mid1960s. It was not just the huge immigration-fuelled boost to the population filling the senior high schools, there was also a growing sense that if governments were supporting education and high-school graduates were getting better jobs, then perhaps it was worth supporting children for those two extra years. Even so, most who entered first form did not complete high school. In 1967, Samuel Cohen estimated: "Of every 100 children who started secondary studies in government schools in 1950, eight stayed to matriculation level. Of children starting in 1960, the comparable figure was 20 in 100." [i] NSW Board of Studies figures show that just 20 per cent of the students who started high school in 1962 sat for the first Higher School Certificate in 1967.

The reason my generation is called baby boomers is that for almost two decades after World War II those who had spent the 1940s at war turned their energies to procreation. The school system was stretched to bursting point. My primary school at Hurstville in Sydney's south, had clusters of temporary buildings to take the overflow. Our teachers fell roughly into two categories, the very old and the extremely young. It is not just the distortions of memory that make my teachers old. Miss Murphy, who taught third grade, told us of catching a stagecoach to her first teaching post in the outback.

In order to encourage students to finish school and become teachers, departments of education expanded their bonded teacher-training programs. Teachers' college scholarships paid students a modest allowance and provided two years' free training in return for an undertaking to work anywhere in the state for three years. Teaching was an especially attractive career for women, as it offered a good salary and professional status without threatening male supremacy. In 1959, after concerted industrial action, women teachers in NSW won equal pay for equal work, which made it even more attractive, as women in other jobs were paid no more than 75 per cent of men's salaries. Some employers, including banks, forced women to resign when they married.

Asthma meant that I missed a great deal of primary school. In fourth grade, my mother would take me to the city for physiotherapy then leave me in the Sydney City Council Library in the Queen Victoria Building while she went to a Workers' Education Association class. I remember shelves reaching to the ceiling, all with books, and the low window seats where I would read. Children's books soon led to colourful illustrated art books, then novels by Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas. I would pick the books by their titles, not knowing the authors, so had a random introduction to literature. The librarian suggested I might like Gombrich's The Story of Art, and pictures began to make some kind of art historical sense.

When I was in fifth grade, a new teacher, Mrs Groves, whose Welsh accent was so strong that she spoke in pure music, noticed that although my left-handedness made my writing illegible, I knew far more than I could write. Teachers had tried to force me to use my right hand, without any success. Mrs Groves brought a handwriting primer and a sheet with slanting black lines. Every lunchtime I sat and painstakingly learnt to write cursive with my left hand, without jumbling the letters. In sixth grade, I was placed in the small group of girls destined for the selective St George Girls' High.

My experience was not an especially happy one. Many of the teachers were old girls, returning to their comfort zone after stints in less salubrious environments. Most were set in their ways. The classes were rigidly streamed with Latin at the top of the hierarchical tree and art firmly at the bottom. The influx of immigrants from Europe had transformed the country but this school remained a curiously Anglo-Celtic island where the occasional Italian, Jewish or Chinese girl was a curiosity. One year, the senior statistics class did a survey and announced that the overwhelming majority of St George girls had blue eyes. I understand the school demographics have now changed.

Some classmates left on their fifteenth birthday, others waited until the end of third year. For the first three years of high school, the novels were old friends from my primary school days: Wind in the Willows, Kidnapped, A Tale of Two Cities. I deeply resented the way they were reduced to tools of boredom. The history teacher taught from the prescribed book and the past became dull. The one saving grace was the school library, where Miss Jones occasionally made wry comments on my reading habits and directed me to Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom and Kitto's Greek Tragedy.

 

THREE THINGS SAVED me. In 1964, in order to encourage education and also to obliquely direct funds to private-school students, Robert Menzies established the Commonwealth Secondary Scholarships for senior students. They provided enough money to seriously encourage students to complete high school in the new six-year regime. There were, at the time, many complaints that they were not awarded on school recommendations or internal exams, but on an Australian Council for Educational Research aptitude test. At the end of 1965, I was one of the 3,776 NSW and ACT students awarded a secondary scholarship. The same year I sat for the first School Certificate, which was at that time marked without any internal school assessments. The school told me it was a mistake when I was awarded one of the top marks in English. Then, at the beginning of 1966, St George cancelled the Higher School Certificate art class, so I transferred to the co-educational comprehensive Kingsgrove North High. I remember the principal being shocked that anyone would make such a choice.

One reasonably objective measure of a school's academic success in the 1960s was how many students were awarded scholarships to attend university or teachers' college. In NSW, in 1968, about 20 per cent of all matriculating HSC students were awarded Commonwealth scholarships. The NSW Department of Education provided teaching scholarships to 4,149 students. According to the Department of Education archives, 74 students from Kingsgrove North High sat for the 1967 Higher School Certificate. Forty of us were awarded either Commonwealth university scholarships or teachers' college scholarships. I have not been able to confirm the figures for Commonwealth scholarships alone, but from memory it was 27. By any measure, it was a remarkable result, even more so considering the nature of the school and its student cohort. Kingsgrove North was then believed to be the largest school in the state. It had opened in 1959 as a comprehensive high school to teach the children of the suburbs that had mushroomed on the old dairy farms and market gardens south-west of Sydney. Most of our parents were tradesmen, unskilled workers or local shopkeepers. Some were immigrants who owned small manufacturing businesses. One boy's father was a policeman. The headmaster was a former industrial arts teacher whose son aspired to be a country bank manager, which he saw as the ultimate cushy job. The long-term fates of the class of '67 were reflected in our results. My fellow students included John McIntyre, who became president of the Law Society of NSW, George Gittoes the artist and Chris Cosgrove, who topped the state in maths and moved as an undergraduate to a long-term berth in the Mathematics Department of the University of Sydney. Many became teachers, some are solicitors, engineers, one an architect. Others understand well the art of life. I have not been able to find the comparable results for the 91 girls who sat for the HSC from St George, but there are many teachers and two doctors. Of the 75 HSC boys from Trinity Grammar, an elite private school that drew students from the same general area as Kingsgrove North, eleven were awarded Commonwealth scholarships and two won scholarships to teachers' college.

What was it that made Kingsgrove North High an exceptional school in the late 1960s? The facilities were ordinary. I once went to use the library, expecting something like St George. It was almost without books. The headmaster was not exceptional. He had been posted to the school only shortly before my arrival; its foundations were laid by an earlier hand.

The strength of this school was its teachers. By the time I started fifth form in early 1966, the school was nine years old and many of the original teachers were still there. They had bonded in the early days on the school's construction site when the first pupils enrolled well before the buildings were complete. These experienced teachers were tempered by a cohort of young teachers, some of them only two-year trained; teaching high school because of the staff shortage. Because they were so close to us in age and came from backgrounds similar to our own, it was easy for students to identify with the young teachers and their aspirations. Some of them were doing university degrees at night and they were encouraged in this by the older staff. When one teacher wrote an exceptional essay on the imagery in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers for her university course, the English master arranged for her to read it to our class. The students were given a sense of how things could be done and that university was waiting for us.

After the constraints of art at St George where everything was on a small scale and painfully neat, I was surprised at both the energy and the intelligence of the art department at Kingsgrove North. Our teacher had spent her childhood in a refugee camp in Europe and constantly challenged our preconceptions about the world. She saw that I was not confident with paint, so encouraged me to make my HSC major work as a wall hanging embroidered in wool. I did not do science, so I was in a small group of ancient-history students, taught by the remarkable Mr Burns, one of the originals. Because of the space crisis, we were taught in the school's first-aid room, which had the effect of dissolving any sense of hierarchy. He cynically prepared us for the examinations while turning his real energies to teaching us about life and telling us about the latest marine archaeological discoveries near Crete. Our English master was the actor Don Reid, who arranged for our class to see every production at the Ensemble Theatre free of charge. That was a priceless gift. We were also sent to HSC workshops at the University of Sydney, which had the effect of showing us where we could go after leaving school. The modern history teacher might have mispronounced every French name, but he taught his subject with so much passion that even today I can tell my children the causes of World War I. The only problem was losing the brilliant maths teacher who left to go to Israel after the Six-Day War, but by then maths was making sense.

 

THE HEADY MIX of youth and experience that so enlivened the teaching staff at Kingsgrove North is rare now in NSW state schools. When universities became free in 1973, teaching stopped being the safe pathway to a university education for women and working-class men. By the end of the decade, the baby boom was over and the temporary drop in the number of school-age children meant fewer new teachers were employed and the bonded scholarships ended. The effect of this was compounded by the consequences of the feminist revolution. Teaching was no longer the only well-paid female profession and women turned to those professions of medicine and law that had once been the preserve of men. Indeed, by the 1980s, teaching could hardly be called a well-paid profession at all. Not only did the salaries go down in the 1980s, so did the marks required to enter a teaching degree. According to Barbara Preston, this situation was coupled with ageing of the teaching population.[ii] These two factors combined to cause a bottleneck so that when teachers were ready to take on senior positions, there were no vacancies. It is not surprising that so many young and talented teachers either left the profession, or at least left the state-school system. As the state system stagnated, the private system grew.

While some of the growth of the private system can be sheeted home to the support it now receives from government funding, from my observation it is management practices rather than lush green sporting fields that are the basis of its success. State schools operate under one large system. The state, not the school, employs the teachers. The rules are inflexible. Recently, the parents of Maroubra Junction School tried to persuade the NSW Minister for Education that the popular acting deputy principal be confirmed in the job. The arcane rules of promotion and priority that rule the department said he had to go. The wishes of the parents, and indeed the school, were not taken into account. A system like this runs on lists and positions on the list. Private schools can run to their own rules.

When Lucy, my eldest daughter, was in Year 11 at her private school, she was taught maths by a new graduate, a young woman of exceptional brilliance who had a first-class honours degree and a mind that did not stop. The school had scooped her up with an offer that the creaking state system could not match. It was not money but influence that was the key to the seduction. Five years later, this woman, still only in her twenties, was head of mathematics at one of the country's leading schools. She was therefore in a position to influence the way mathematics was taught to students of differing abilities across the country by her position on state and national curriculum committees. If she had accepted the offer of an accelerated position with the state system, she would have had to wait many years to get so far. Good schools value their staff. In the case of some private schools, this means supporting them while they complete their master's degrees and even doctorates. By way of contrast, the funds allocated to in-service training for state-school teachers are a pittance.

Poor conditions in the classroom and enticements to work elsewhere have led to a shortage of specialist teachers, especially in maths. Scholarships are returning to the public-education system in an effort to stem the flow. Education departments are even making noises about the need to support young teachers. Theoretically, it is possible to reverse the downward trend of public education. It would, however, require the kind of political will (and funds) not seen in this country since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, those of us who took our children out of the state system to ensure that they had a future, have to keep on reminding our friends that our children should not be required as sacrifices in an ideological battle. 

 


[i] http://john.curtin.edu.au/jcmemlect/cohen1967.html#Deficiencies

[ii] http://www.aare.edu.au/02pap/sac02165.htm


From Griffith Review Edition 11: Getting Smart © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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