Across the Great Divide
Public versus Private Schools
Scene from a public school, circa 1978. © Newspix/News Limited
Australia’s two-tiered education system puts parents who believe in a classless society in a morally invidious position.
In the mid 1970s, my conservative, town-dwelling parents uprooted us on a whim. From our comfortable home in a fantastically uneventful suburb of Geelong, we decamped to a farm five hours away, in the north-east of Victoria.
Our new house, wedged between large leasehold properties growing tobacco, looked out across a wide valley towards Mount Buffalo, an enormous prehistoric-looking escarpment with vertical scores on its rock face, a bit like the ones Richard Dreyfuss, in a deranged frenzy, scraped into a pile of mashed potatoes with a table fork in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
My parents weren’t about to start a hippy cult and grow chokos. They were at best apolitical people, at worst disengaged Liberal voters, and about as far from alternative, bohemian folk as it’s possible to imagine. Our treechange was to amuse my father in his early retirement. In fact, very little changed for my parents. They ate and drank as they had in town, listened to the same records, and played at being farmers when they got the urge. They were living the same life, but with better views.
In my case, though, I was about to be given an enduring lesson in the differences that existed between schoolchildren in one social class and those 400 kilometres away, in another. I was about to have my eyes opened to something big and serious and deeply troubling.
In 1975 I began my second year of high school at the public secondary school nearest our farm, in a town serving, among others, the local woodpulping communities. The tobacco growers in the valley, predominantly southern European families with a long-held regard for a certain disciplined getting of wisdom, sent their kids, if they could afford it, to the town’s Catholic school. My parents, being well-heeled cynics and only nominal Presbyterians, sent me to the laic public high school.
That school was situated along an unmade cul-de-sac on the edge of town, and housed in some spectacularly grim buildings; it was easily the saddest school, if not the saddest set of buildings, I had ever clapped eyes on, but I soon got over the aesthetic disenchantments. It was what was going on inside those concrete bunkers and outhouses that I found harder to come to terms with.
School X, as I’ll refer to it, was a place where many young graduate teachers, a number of them from the United States and most of them inexperienced and heavily bearded, were brawling with the Department of Education. It was, by then, 18 years into the Victorian Liberal Party’s grimly draconian 25-year reign.
There was a lot of industrial action at the school in those years, but there was a protracted, and sometimes bloody, battle being played out in classrooms and playgrounds, too: a struggle between young, underpaid teachers trying to figure out how to teach and young students trying to convey what it was they knew, namely frustration, boredom and rage.
It was a fraught place, desperately under-equipped, poorly maintained and clearly abandoned by an indifferent political class. In my first months, I wandered around its grounds and in and out of its classrooms in deep amazement. If I’d glimpsed that kind of impoverishment before, it had been at an imaginative remove – in some social-realist novels I’d been reading, lying on a bedspread in Geelong, or on TV newscasts spied, mid-sandwich, from our kitchen – and I was at a loss comprehending its significance, seeing it firsthand.
School X’s teachers were doing their level best but getting it from both ends in what, I now understand, must have been a virtually unwinnable gig – short-changed by employers and overstretched by a difficult student population. What played out in their classrooms was a consequence of this general neglect and the overwhelming demands on their professionalism.
While I diligently carted my textbooks from one miserable, makeshift portable to another, I began to feel like I was part of a fantastic charade of an education; if I used those books a dozen times, that sure as hell was it. There were far more compelling dramas in the classrooms, dramas that took precedence over schoolwork.
A number of boys at the school – very tough, fast-talking kids with intelligence to burn – were there only because they weren’t quite old enough to be legally working a bandsaw in the timber mills, or helping work the surrounding hop and tobacco concerns; and maybe because they sensed what was about to be taken from them, they let it be known, loud and clear, that they thought school was for boneheads. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade these soon-to-be-evicted kids from treating the school as the dysfunctional and failing holding pen that it was.
After a few months, I managed to control the abject terror I’d initially felt, thrown in to the lawlessness of these new classrooms ruled by uncontrollable, insolent, mouthy kids, and fronted by hapless, yelling teachers, and I learnt to give in to the chaos. It was a relief to let go of my fear and resistance, and it felt important to join the revolt (even if it wasn’t properly mine, and even if I always had one eye on my unopened books), because there was no fighting it.
I learnt to shrug it off when kids abused teachers, or when teachers became enraged with kids who would or could not learn. I watched with panicky adrenalin surges when students’ anger spilled over into something dangerous and criminal.
Once, a very strong, clearly disturbed boy pinned our social sciences teacher by the throat to the blackboard, until one of us had the good sense to raise the alarm with the headmaster. The teacher was eventually released, falling to the floor, purple-faced and gasping.
On another occasion, a boy in the same class turned to the window next to him and with a quick, staccato jab of his right arm shattered both the pane and the nerves of all who saw him do it. I went about my school business after such incidents, but I and the other students were affected – they marked us.
Until my family’s move to the foothills of Mount Buffalo, I’d been a student since kindergarten at a parochial private girls’ school in Geelong. At this school, crotchety but effective schoolmarms coddled their barbarian, middle-class charges in small, calm, girl-filled classrooms, an environment privileged by the school’s bourgeois values and the entitled bullishness of its parents.
I’d been introduced to literature, to Greek and Roman history, to chemistry in its science labs, and to new languages; I’d acted the best male parts in its pompous little theatre productions, become good at tennis in its sports ‘academies’, and taken up the piano with gusto. My spare time was spent in its brand spanking new library, my dirty little shoes up on its soft furnishings, consuming whatever the librarians, plural, had produced that week for me to peruse. I had, in short, thrived on the nauseating principle that, as a product of patrician entitlement and its money, I would be handed countless openings into bookishness, into learning and experimenting and knowing and doing, and feeling as though I was achieving something. I was a confident and outspoken child, often deliriously happy, who felt purposeful. I had adored the school’s focused, industrious, high-functioning atmosphere.
So I had some adjusting to do in the countryside. It took me about three months at School X to get it, this crash course in a new way of being treated, and to process and absorb what that treatment seemed to be suggesting. Wreaking havoc in class as a response to the school’s ethos, the very air in its corridors and classrooms, seemed to be a weird game of child-versus-adult one-upmanship, eventually to be stopped and righted by some powerful, concerned grown-up. No such adult ever appeared.
After years of thinking about this transition – from a privileged school to a chronically underprivileged one – I believe that what was going on in School X’s classrooms was an entirely comprehensible, legitimate, urgent, enraged, intuitive ‘Fuck you, too’ from children who were getting a seriously bum deal. Students at School X were being treated with the utmost contempt by those in the bureaucracy whose remit it was to take care of them, and at some level they must have known it.
As a child who had dropped in from a parallel universe of purchased educational opportunity and order, I could have confirmed to those kids that they were right to be furious, had I known how. But, of course, I had no idea why such difference existed, nor of its consequences.
In fact, my knowledge of that reality – that two schools in the same state, at precisely the same time, could be so fundamentally different – produced a great deal of tension in my thinking and behaviour then. I distinctly remember telling myself during those years that it would be best if I never mentioned what I knew to anyone at School X: that a grossly unjust, undeserved, stomach-churning split between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ was going on in the world. I was right to believe that this was not something to mention lightly.
Without regular class work, without dedication to our books, I was losing ground academically, but what surprised me was how little I cared. Within a very short space of time I’d learnt not to give a toss that I no longer knew any French or Italian, nor could be bothered to read a novel through to the end, nor could formulate an argument and defend it, nor could care whether I passed a maths test or not.
I’d instead been busy absorbing a culture whose predominant messages were dangerously unambiguous and had been sent, either with conscious malice or just a casual but equally unforgiveable disregard, by those whose job it was to influence and convey them; messages that I, and my fellow students, were more than able to receive and comprehend.
Those messages were: Nothing really matters. Books are useless where you’re headed. Get a job, any job, and quickly. Girls, try not to fall pregnant, but if you do, marry and get on with it. Never take anything too seriously. You are all on your own from here on in. We did our best with nothing, now get out of here and make the most of it. By the way, never come back to complain about what you have been denied.
Those at the school who, in their mid teens, began to feel that this screed was unacceptable – and I knew a bunch of them – were obliged to take things into their own hands. They went on, with admirable determination and self-discipline, to tertiary education and decent, if not their most desired, careers.
For my part, I begged my parents, after two vividly memorable years, to reconsider their decision. I was promptly sent to a highly academic private boarding school in Melbourne, where I tried to pick up the pieces. I’d fallen so far behind in maths I failed it in Year 10, an enduring and shaming regret; I’d lost too much ground in languages to join my city peers, another loss I raged about for years afterwards. I scrambled to catch up with my much luckier private-school cohort, suddenly aware of what I’d just missed out on.
After I was well through university and working and raising children, I returned to that country high school for my 20-year reunion. Among the hearty and balding farmers, the dedicated beer fiends planted at the bar, the thirty-something grandmothers still working as sandwich hands in town, I found my old friends – respectively, a musician, a primary school teacher and an accountant, the latter two now a couple with three children.
The most memorable conversation, out of dozens of interesting ones that weekend, was between these people and the then principal of the school, who, trying to flatter us, gestured grandly around the room and said, “When I look around this hall and see what’s become of you, I feel a great deal of pride about what our struggling school managed to achieve, in spite of all its deprivations!”
My old friend, by then a partner in a large accounting firm in Melbourne, who got there by leaving for another school in a bigger town, and by calling on a steely discipline and self-belief beyond his years, responded to this boast with bitter laughter. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “Imagine who we could have been with an education!”
Yet his anger rested with himself. When I questioned these friends, more recently, on their decision to send their children to private secondary schools, they talked with the same forthrightness they’d always used when arguing at School X in the ’70s. It was a no-brainer, they said, to send their kids to the best school they could get them into. Did I really think they’d let their kids get screwed on education, too?
I asked them if they felt frustrated, as I did, about the persisting discrepancies and injustice of our two-tier education system. Of course, they told me, but this was how it was in this country, and there was no point in trying to pretend otherwise; they weren’t about to risk their kids’ futures for the sake of political and cultural principle. They felt deeply for people who didn’t have the ability to go private, who were stranded in areas with very poor public schools. But what could they do about that?
It seemed they’d long ago absorbed the idea that a reliably good and rounded education must be paid for privately; no Australian government could be trusted to provide one. Even federal Labor governments proved perversely resistant to making this goal their highest priority; it was extraordinary that the current Labor government vowed to maintain government funding of private schools, when public schools, in stark contrast, were in such obvious and dire need.
I sent my youngest child to our zoned public high school in Melbourne, which is one of the highest-achieving in the state, but I faltered at the 12-month mark and sent him to a small private school. The former’s problems (funding shortfalls, challenging student population, stressed and demoralised staff, costly vandalism) had started to impinge, to my mind, on its mandate to teach effectively.
I was again painfully aware of the tremendous differences between the two systems. Trucking back and forth between an inner-city public high school and an outer-surburban private school provoked the same feelings of guilt and intellectual distress in me as I’d experienced in the ’70s.
There is, I have discovered, a very particular type of cognitive dissonance to be managed, when sending your children to join the middle-class drift from public to private education. It is a morally repugnant position to be in, as is belonging to, participating in, and perpetuating a culture that will not commit fully and unconditionally to funding – to insisting on – equitable and excellent public education. The question for all remains: how to effect real change?
At the last parent–teacher interview I attended at our public high school, I sat down to discuss the year’s progress with my child’s teacher. This teacher wasn’t young, nor did she seem inexperienced, but she was certainly morose and fighting a deep fatigue. After my allotted 15 minutes, in which I struggled to tally what she told me with my son’s character, I stood up, shook her hand, and went to leave the room. Suddenly she called out to me and confessed she’d just made an error.
“I am so sorry,” she said, in genuine apology, but also with a defensive cock of an eyebrow, as in: ‘I’ve been in this shitty little gig way too long.’ “I have just given you the report of somebody else’s child, told you about the wrong boy! Please,” she cajoled, pleasantly. “Come back, sit down, and let’s start over, shall we?”
Let’s start over. The essence of that plea has hung around in my head, insistent, for years. In another context, it’s the very same appeal David Gonski has just issued the country, in his recommendations for a more equitable distribution of school funding. Really, what fair-minded person could fail to heed it?