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I feel guilty my son is at a public school

By Leslie Cannold - posted Thursday, 8 November 2007

I've been wanting to write this column all year, but dreading it, too. Because I don't want to be misunderstood and I don't want to offend. But the truth is that there is something horribly rotten going on in my personal world and - because the personal is political - this nation. The rot comes from the way we fund our schools. And it is making me so angry (or is it so grief-stricken and guilty?) that I can hardly breath.

The Federal Government's education policy, and that of the Rudd Opposition, waxes lyrical about parental choice. But while most of the parents I have known since our babies napped side by side at creche ummed and ahed between private schools A, B and C - and the one local public school - our finances meant that even though several of the independent schools are just down the street from our house, my choice was between the local public school and well, the local public school. Some choice.

For every dollar the Federal Government spends on a child in public school, $5.63 is expended on a child in a Catholic or other non-government school. Among OECD countries, Australia ranks third in the amount of public money spent on private education. In the last budget, federal funding to private schools increased by $1.7 billion over five years, while public schools got just $300 million.


Despite the stark disparity of such figures, parents of public school kids find it hard to cry foul. Mainly, I think, because of a fear that doing so makes us look like we believe money is everything, and that admitting the truth - that depriving public schools of funds makes private schools "better" - damages our kids' schools even more.

The truth is that public school teachers and administrators are the moral heroes of our time, sewing more silk purses from the sow's ears of tatty and diminishing resources than nearly any other group of professionals. And there should be no underestimating the toughness of the job.

Look, I know that gardens, swimming pools, music rehearsal rooms, dining areas, grassy quadrangles, polished floors, school-wide climate control systems, post-1957 plumbing, regulation sized ovals and the organised sporting teams that go with them aren't the heart and soul of a good education. I know, because my son's secondary school doesn't have any of them.

But what about enough specialist teachers to ensure adequate interest and diversity in the curriculum? Enough to craft the specialised curriculum required by students at the top and bottom end of the bell curve? Class sizes appropriate to the subject being taught? Can anyone really suggest these are peripheral to the central function of secondary schooling? Yet, here too, our school struggles.

The justice issues here are so acute they hurt. In what way do the 70 per cent of children attending public schools deserve to miss out on the resources necessary for them to obtain the fundamentals of a good education when the remaining 30 per cent get enough for this, and so much more? Why do only the wealthiest parents in the community, and the most religious, deserve a real choice about where they educate their kids?

But what I really want to talk about is how it feels to be a parent who, week after week, and - as I look into the future - year after year watches her child trek out the door to spend all day in an institution that try as it might (and it does really try) cannot meet his needs. A parent who struggles daily with the worst of all parental emotions: the feeling that she is letting her child - this beautiful, intelligent, eminently worthy creature whom she loves more than life itself - down.


Because while it is not a bad school, I always knew it was not the best school for him. Not best for him because he loves art, but several of the art teachers are known terrors. Not for him because he's passionate about sport but there are no pitches or pools, coaches or competitions. Not for him because he is a talented student and - while there are signs of change - ideological resistance persists to catering for kids who need extension rather than remediation.

"I want to go to Private School A," he said a few months ago, after hearing his closest friend rave about his school camp, curriculum options and sporting tutelage. "We can't afford it," I replied. He won't ask again. He can see how frustrated I am at my inability to give him the wonderful educational opportunities we both see dispensed like lollies all round us; how sad and guilty I feel that despite the fact that we are doing the best we can, our best isn't good enough. He knows I need to stop thinking about it, so I can breathe.

It doesn't have to be like this. True, the gleeful dismantling of the public education system by the Howard Government seems more than OK by Rudd's ALP, which recently pledged to preserve the inequitable funding formulas that has caused this unjust mess. "No Schools Hit List," a recent Labor press release trumpeted to The Parents Who Matter. But for parents like me, there will be no Help List either. Instead, Kev has offered to pay part of the cost of a laptop. Thankfully the Greens and the Democrats have policies that are far better. Can you imagine how different things would be if the 70 per cent of parents whose children would benefit from them sent first preferences their way?

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First published in The Age on 5 November, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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