Private thoughts about public schools

There’s always a debate over public and private education in Australia. People always gab about money and whether or not paying large sums of it ensures a child performs better at school.

Nonetheless, debates about funding ignore less quantitative aspects of education, which can be just as important. Things like facilities, leadership, and sports or music programs are often measured in terms of how much money is poured into them. But they can unite – or divide – students socially. It’s a facet too often overlooked.

I went to a public school in suburban Melbourne. It had all the basic things: facilities, leadership, sports and music. But everything about it was lacking. It seemed perpetually on its way to something better but never quite got there.

My school painted the basketball courts bright blue in an effort to ‘improve’ them. Its idea of Leaders (‘Prefects’, in Private School Land) was a bunch of people who collected gold coin donations toward school property on out-of-uniform days. Music classes were an excuse to get out of anything – we got extensions on deadlines to make up for the hours spent practicing or performing. (Those perks were offset by taunts of ‘this one time, at band camp’ from non-music folk.)

But private schools have the luxury of spending up to $20 million per year on revamping their facilities. When you’ve got your own indoor swimming pool, you would never even think about painting another sports amenity blue. If you offer music scholarships, maybe people would take the music program seriously – and drop the American Pie references. And if you could afford to do all that, you wouldn’t need to collect gold coins as charity for the school on out-of-uniform day.

According to the Report on Government Services by the Productivity Commission released in January this year, government funding for non-government schools (including private and independent schools) has increased by, on average, 3.4 per cent every year since 2007.

Funding for government schools has increased by less: an average of 2.4 per cent annually over the same time period.

Public schools need money. Good facilities improve the fabric of the school. That’s why schools enjoying substantial sporting programs boast about their students’ ‘success’ and ‘passion’.

That much might seem obvious. But a good secondary school life also helps friendships and can improve the gritty realities of adolescence. For me, those gritty realities were caused by what my school was lacking. I was teased for attending ‘band camp’. I was laughed at for getting hit in the face with a basketball during PE – I also had braces, then so the whole experience was not pleasant.

When I got into Melbourne University, I revamped myself. I started trying to buy expensive things, because I thought that was how I could match the private school people around me (I was also obsessed with Gossip Girl at the time). I refined the way I spoke: I cut down on dirty jokes and replaced ‘orright’ with ‘alright’.

That’s the kind of pressure that comes from being surrounded by friends who wore blazers and ties and had rowing as part of their curriculum. No one judged me outright for coming from a public school. But there was a social atmosphere around the many private school people I met that made me feel inferior. I thought the best thing to do would be to adapt to it.

However, my desire to ‘shake’ my public school image transcended into something I could be genuinely proud of. Rather than hating where I’d come from, I loved knowing I had come from shitsville and achieved so much regardless.

Despite the outcry from many public schools or studies showing private school children perform no better at university, private schools have an inherent quality about them that public schools don’t. There are still more students attending higher education from private schools than from public schools. Private school kids seem to hold themselves with a social confidence that public school kids just don’t have. Having never been to a private school, I can’t say whether this is taught. But I can say expectations were not high at my school – when I revealed the score for my course was 85, I was met with cries of ‘you basically have to be Dux to get that, don’t you?’ (nb: I was not Dux of my school). Public school students have ingrained in their minds this idea that a university degree is beyond reach, or that someone has to be a genius in order to get one. I would love not to support this. I would love to say I was super proud of everything my school has achieved. I would love to not be ashamed of the fact that I wore polo t-shirts as ‘official’ uniform. But I learned about Jane Austen and factorials in rundown classrooms with wobbly tables covered in gum and tags. It shouldn’t make a difference – the curriculum is the same state-wide, isn’t it? – but learning environments do impact the way students perceive their school. If students don’t have better quality learning facilities, their self-worth lowers.

And yet people refer to schools like mine as ‘good’ public schools. It’s like there’s a broad distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ public schools. You never hear anyone doing the same with private schools – we just assume they’re all ‘good’. Parents perceive private schools to be overall ‘better’ because they would likely have a stricter screening process for teachers, and class sizes are smaller. The same process of sorting through the shit to find a diamond doesn’t apply to private schools.

It’s unfair to force parents to select secondary schools based on something that will happen six years later. You’d like to think no matter where parents send their kids for school, the kids can make a choice at the end of it about their futures. But the debate about schooling is warped. It’s almost as if people believe the public school system dooms its students to a life of teen pregnancy or drug addiction. That’s not true, and I am definitely one example of a student who wasn’t doomed to that fate. But I can’t forget that about a quarter of the students in my cohort dropped out as soon as they could, because, in the words of one of them, ‘school is so fucking shit’. They felt our school was so bad they rejected education altogether.

There is nothing wrong with not going to university. But it’s an issue that universities are so filled with private school-educated students. It shows those schools have the quality resources and skilled teachers helping students excel in exams and ATAR scores.

Moreover, it breeds a culture of elitism. That’s what gave me a sort of culture shock when I first met people from private schools. I felt pushed to view public school as an aberration – something I had to hide.

But I didn’t hate my school. There are many things I’d rather forget about it – not all of them were in the school’s control – but I still turned out okay. I had supportive parents and I worked hard, regardless of the shouts of ‘nerd!’ and ‘PT!’ I had to tolerate.

I’m always going to say public schools should have increased funding. If mine had had more funding we mightn’t have needed to collect coins for our own personal charity. But social behaviours instilled in students are beyond funding. It’s going to take a long time to change parents’ and students’ perceptions of public schools. You can’t teach those.

Michelle See-Tho

Michelle See-Tho is editor of Farrago and a freelance writer. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Crikey and Junkee. Find her at

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  1. nice piece. my take… the amount of funding for schools is irrelevant from a private school perspective (although the funding is always loaded in that direction) because it is not a matter of education (what you know) from the wealth (old money) perspective, but who you know (your old school contacts). in that sense, the poverty classes have more in common with the upper classes (in a relationship sense) than the lost generations stemming from those amorphous middle class, who remain stuck in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere, politically, forever beset by existential problems

  2. The same process of sorting through the shit to find a diamond doesn’t apply to private schools

    This sentence buys into the myth that the majority of public schools are shit. Maybe you didn’t mean it that way.

    Actually, (this is probably an age thing), as a parent-of-high-school-student age person, I don’t see “all” private schools as good. If I had the money to send my son to one, for instance, I wouldn’t be choosing Xavier for instance, as their entitled asshole antics have been documented in the press for some time. I believe they kept their noses clean last year. We’ll see. But I wouldn’t send a child there. And there are many small, faith-based schools which I don’t believe are any better resourced than public schools, with maybe a dose of Creationism and other bad stuff to boot.

    (Daughter attended Melbourne Uni after doing VCE at Footscray City college – quite a few students get TERs in the high 90s each year from there! You may even know her as she is/was active in the Student union.)

  3. But I can’t forget that about a quarter of the students in my cohort dropped out as soon as they could, because, in the words of one of them, ‘school is so fucking shit’. They felt our school was so bad they rejected education altogether.

    It would be fair to mention here while private schools have a more privileged pool of students in the first place, with less likelihood of poor diet / poverty related stress / deprivation of resources / no access to help, counselling, tutoring / etc, they also cherrypick the able students from the public system and boot out the underperformers. They simply reject these students and don’t have to deal with them. The public system is required to deal with them. So, apples and pears there.

  4. Thanks Michelle – I really appreciated reading this. I can really relate to what you say about feeling the need to alter the way you act/speak/dress on arriving at Melbourne University. And yes, I stopped swearing as much as well! It was a serious culture and class shock arriving at Uni for me, although I went to a pretty under resourced local catholic school in the western suburbs not a public one.

    The feeling of dislocation was just as pronounced within the student left I found, perhaps more so as people talked as if they understood the sort of issues you go over about privilege. When I ran for an officer of the Student Union in 1994 someone was sent to ask me what I would wear during the campaign. Another argued against me running on the basis I was unelectable – on the basis of how I looked and spoke – and another said (to my face) that it was like I had ‘working class tattooed on [my] forehead’. Although I went on to get the highest vote ever of any candidate in a MUSU election, I still feel the sting of those sort of experiences.

    And yes, my school was not ‘bad’. Just poorly resourced and in a working class area. A school with all the difficulties that comes from those things.

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