I loved my primary school. It was the epitome of what public education could and should be. I was not an easy student: I cried every day before school until I was in year three, I was painfully shy, and, when I got over being painfully shy, I was as naughty as I could possibly be. But I had teachers who were patient, caring, and knowledgeable. We had a library staffed by a teacher-librarian (imagine such a thing!), and a comprehensive musical education that gave us such joy we still sigh over it on Facebook, thirty years on. We had a principal who cared about us, and instilled in us the pleasure of learning for its own sake. There were no duxes at our school: we were encouraged to learn because of the intrinsic pleasure in it, not because we were competing with other students. There were no benchmarking tests, no grades assigned. We were surrounded by gum trees and a river we forded even though we weren’t supposed to. It was glorious.
And then I went to high school.
It was like descending into Dante’s hell without a guide. The violence and suffering were epic. Fights were a daily public spectacle: in those days they weren’t posted on YouTube and tsked over by Ministers, parents and education administrators. Your main task, as a student in such a school, was to work out how to avoid being subject to the bullying that was considered part of a secondary student’s lot. The actual educational function of a school was secondary, it seemed to us.
At our reunion parties last year, we survivors took turns describing the humiliations we had seen or been subject to: the girl who was kicked down the stairs, the boy who was beaten up every day after school, people who were shoved against walls for looking at the wrong person the wrong way – not to mention certain teachers who were rumoured to have affairs with year 12 girls as a matter of course. We marvelled that we never discussed it at the time. It was like background noise, one woman said.
We also discussed the things that made school bearable. The Creative Arts camps. The maths and science teacher who would deal with our restlessness by getting us to run twice round the oval (it worked a treat). The drama teacher who put her soul and her time into endless rehearsals for the school musical. The year coordinator who became like a second mother. The friendships forged in adversity.
Of course, public schools have changed a lot since we were at school. There are time out rooms, bullying policies, school psychologists. But as a visiting writer, I am still struck by the difference between private and public schools – the difference in atmosphere and resourcing, in the expectations and, crucially, support of the students. Even the best public schools cannot hope to match what is given to students in good private schools – the tutoring, the school trips, the exposure to the best education has to offer. The author of the Bradley report on higher education recently noted that there is a huge difference in how students from public and private schools fare in Year 12: a class divide, as it were. But interestingly, once students from low socio-economic backgrounds (and ipso facto public schools) go to university, they do as well as their peers from medium and high socio-economic backgrounds. As someone who never finished high school but subsequently gained several university qualifications, including a PhD, I am cheered to find that I am part of such a surprising statistic.
What accounts for this narrowing of the achievement gap in higher education? Clearly the factors are complicated, but I have a theory. What I have come across in public schools, particularly the rough ones, are passionate teachers who go the extra mile – without remuneration or, necessarily, a great deal of support – to make up for what the school milieu may lack in getting the best out of their students. And for students who want to learn, these teachers are a lifeline. Recent graduates of non-selective public high schools (which are a whole different kettle of fish) that I have spoken to all cite the great teachers that helped them find their path.
It’s not only having inspiring and spirited teachers that makes public schools valuable for later life. I would wager that a lot of kids from public high schools like the one I went to, having learned to stick up for themselves at school, are less likely to be intimidated in the workplace (anyone care to do a study on that?!) The achievement-driven anxiety I’ve observed in my privately schooled friends doesn’t exist in my public school mates: we measure success by a different yardstick. And dealing with others from all walks of life can make kids turn into more tolerant adults. Some comments from more recent graduates are:
I'm glad I went to a public school. There was a richness of experience, exposure to diversity, a strength gained in being smart and different and defying the norm. In surviving. On the whole, I have good memories.
I wouldn't have preferred to go anywhere else for school and while public schools may be rough around the edges it gives you a taste of what's to come in life and doesn't set you up with unrealistic expectations like some private schools might do.
Public schools are in danger of being judged by a league-table mentality that does not adequately cover either the strengths of public education, or its weaknesses. And we need to acknowledge these weaknesses, rather than pretend they don’t exist. The gay younger brother of one of my respondents was harassed mercilessly during his (recent) school years; the school either could not, or did not, protect him. Public schools can be tough places. They are home to troubled students they are not resourced to deal with, and there is no system that can easily absorb students with such entrenched difficulties, still living in the home environments that created them. There are no quick fixes, but public schools and their teachers should be acknowledged for the work they do in trying to educate and socialise such kids – work that won’t help those schools end up anywhere respectable on a league table.
I’ve heard many people say, who would be a teacher – especially a teacher in a public school? There is one easy answer for that: because it matters. It matters to the students, whether they are gifted and ordinary, delightful or troublesome. Whatever they take from school, it lasts for life. As simple – and as complicated – as that.
Note: a version of this article will appear in the Western Australian Education Department's School Matters later in the year. You may be interested to compare and contrast the content of the two.
 For a fictionalised account, see my first published novel, Obsession (Fremantle Press, 2001)
 See http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/sto