The life of public education

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] For a fictionalised account, see my first published novel, Obsession (Fremantle Press, 2001)

[2] See; also Bradley, D, Chair, Review of Higher Education in Australia, December 2008, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p30.


Perth Writers Festival

Yes, it's lazy to post pictures, but it's all I've got at the moment.  More of substance later!  (Also, darned if I can work out how to place pictures on the page where I want them, but you get the idea.)  In these photos:  Morris Gleitzman, Marele Day, Kirsty Murray, Dianne Wolfer, Anita Heiss, Sally Murphy, Amanda Curtin, Robyn Mundy, Craig Silvey, Amanda Betts, Jon Doust, Susan Hayes, James Roy, and others ...

Chess Nuts launch

It was a wonderful night.  And I've had some wonderful launchers in my time, but 13-year-old Andrew Forbes-Macphail really showed how it's done.  For those who were wondering, I hadn't met Andrew before last night, and his speech was the result of his very diligent research alone (well, his mother might have given him some insider info about the dayjob, but the rest was an astonishing synthesis of masses of web-info).  He was mobbed afterwards by writers wanting him to launch their next books, so he might have a bit of moonlighting to do over the next few years. 

The chess pieces were courtesy of the Fremantle Council, at the instigation of Sally from the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre: the Centre was a glorious place to have a launch on a sultry summer's evening (even if we were all rendered perhaps a trifle too windswept and interesting after a stint on the verandahs!), and many thanks go to Lesley Reece, Mailee, Sally and the rest of the crew for all their hard work.

Thank you to everyone who came, and send their good wishes, for making the night so special.  I shall treasure the memories.

So, Chess Nuts, go out into the world and thrive!

Just say yes

No, this isn't a reference to the Great Virginity Debate.  It was a new year's resolution of sorts, and so far it's bearing fascinating fruit.

Chess Nuts! is my tenth publication in ten years.  Last year I was overwhelmed by the dayjob and other projects, and I was frustrated at all the writing-related things I had to say no to.  So this year, prompted by a comment by a friend (thanks Danae!), I decided, wherever possible, to say Yes to writing-related activities, whatever they were.  No matter how scary-looking.  And look what has since cropped up:

  • the first chapter for The Age MS Readathon (which, to be frank, scared the pants off me - but I did it!)
  • a column on public education for the Education Department's magazine, School Matters
  • a cover endorsement for the wonderful Carole Wilkinson's YA novel, Sugar Sugar
  • Perth Writers Festival gigs
  • lecturing and workshopping at Bunbury ECU
  • Chess Nuts! has been taken by Australian Standing Orders
  • writing with Delphine Jamet (even if it is slower than we both would like!) - joint authorship being a first for both of us
  • script editing for Tawdry Heartburn
  • touring Melbourne for Children's Book Week
And, most wonderfully, the virginity novel is going be published - more detail on that later. 

I am famously skeptical about the magic of wishing, but maybe - just maybe - there's something in it. 

Have you got your Vplates?

When I read this by Alexandra Adornetto, I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, or wonder whether I'd woken up in 1950.  (I will try to put down some of the more naive comments to her youth, but Tony Abbott has no excuse.) 

All of my YA novels have dealt, to greater or lesser degree, with female sexuality, past and present - not least my most recently completed one, which deals with the ramifications of four girls making a deliberate decision to lose their virginity.  I have therefore had some cause to reflect on the complexities faced by young women and how they negotiate the tricky area of sexuality and desire.  In the process of writing the last novel, I took a quite extensive survey of my female friends and acquaintances on their first times, and was astonished at the sheer variety of experiences women have had - although they probably came down more on the negative side, regardless of who it was with, one night stand or just-married husband.  I was also astonished at the number of women whose first sexual experiences (not necessarily sex) were not at their own instigation, but were the result of predatory uncles, family friends, older brothers etc.  For us to be having a conversation about female sexuality, this vast and undiscussed underbelly of experience also needs to be taken into account. 

But I want to ask: why are we having this debate about virginity?  Why the focus on what young women are or aren't doing?  Where is the discussion of young men's behaviour - which to me would seem the more worrying?  Is it because girls are acing boys academically?  Is it because Julia Gillard scares the bejesus out of Tony Abbott?  Are girls going to be told to stay home and reproduce next?  And my goodness, don't we have more important things to worry about?

This isn't to say that sex can't be dangerous territory for young women: Alexandra is on the money when she mentions the damage that can be done by mixing sex and alcohol, and the sexualisation of girls and women - which also reduces females to their bodies - is concerning to many commentators (thanks Cassandra for the link).  But it's not enough to say to girls to just say no: it merely shifts the responsibility for the problem of our porn-obsessed, hypersexualised culture.  It would be far better for Alexandra and other young women to challenge the stereotypes they are confronted with: what do they say when boys of their acquaintance call someone slutty-mc-slut-slut?  Smile politely?  I hope not.

If I had any advice for young women and sex, it would be: do what you do when you want to do it.  If your peers equate your reputation with your level sexual activity, virginal or otherwise, go find different peers.  Equating a girl's worth with her hymen is demeaning.  Actually, equating sex with penetration is a problem in itself - ask Bill Clinton.  What about questions of pleasure and desire?  It seems to be a no-go area in discussions of female sexuality. 

The only cheering thing about this whole debate is that Tony Abbott, presumably, would appear to approve of young lesbian women.  A silver lining, indeed.

And at least it turns out I may have written a topical novel for once. 

"Violence is one of the most fun things to watch"

The quote in the title is, perhaps unsurprisingly, attributed to Quentin Tarantino.  It no doubt refers to film rather than real life violence, but lately I have been pondering the massive apparent increase in violence of all kinds, whether it's drunk guys smashing each other on Saturday nights or the appalling violence visited upon Indian students in Melbourne or sexual assaults or kids filming fights at school and posting the results on YouTube.  I say 'apparent' because I'm not sure whether there is actually more violence, or whether it is being reported more often.  Growing up in what my sisters call the ghetto, there were fights all the time, in school and at parties: sometimes the police turned up, sometimes they didn't, but these days it would turn up on the news: back then, everyone turned a blind eye.  Having said that, the drugs that are around these days does make people crazy with violence, and I've spoken to enough nurses to know the effect drug-fuelled violence is having on EDs around the country (and particularly in the country).  But drugs aside, what is causing it?  Is it only drugs?  And what effect does media saturation - 'if it bleeds, it leads' - have? 

I don't have any answers.  I worry, though, that the media portrayal unintentionally glamorises and normalises violence for those inclined to be violent.  I worry that the images and news we have of the latest beating or stabbing or assault creates paralysing fear and dread amongst the rest of us.  I also worry that if we don't ask questions about how people come to be violent, we will never know how to address violence.  And don't forget that a large component of violence - in the home, against children - is invisible, and its victims largely silent.

I do think, though, that it might behove the media to treat violence in the same way it treats suicide - journalists recognise that reporting suicide leads to an increase in suicide attempts, and they voluntarily desist, unless there are important reasons to do otherwise. 

Fiction, as opposed to news stories, lets us have more than a one-dimensional view of what makes humans tick.  I've recently finished Barry Jonsberg's Ironbark, which deals with a violent kid, the kind most adults would avoid on the street.  The book doesn't offer any answers, either, but it made me ponder families, violence and self-control in ways I hadn't before. 

I know fiction isn't the answer to the perils of the modern age: I only wish it were.  But it's better than screaming headlines that aim to provoke primal emotions and a mouse click.  It's a shame that Quentin Tarantino is right.

For a sneak peak ...

of Chess Nuts, click here.  The official publication date is the first of February, and I'm getting excited.  This book is entirely different to anything else I've done, and I'm proud of it.  My mother, who has never played chess and does not dispense praise unless it's necessary, loved it, so I take this as a good sign. 

I am working on something with the gutsy and amazing Delphine Jamet at present, who I think needs a few more lives running parallel to fit in all the many and varied things she's into: I don't think I've met anyone with so much energy.  Not much more I can say on the project yet, as it's in its infancy, but it'll be fascinating when it's done.  I've never written with anyone else before, and it's very different to mucking about on the page by yourself.

And, if you would like to donate to help the benighted folk of Haiti as they cope with disaster, Avaaz is one of the organisations accepting them here:  you can check out the bona fides for yourself here, or donate to the other charities who are on the ground. 

Why it's okay not to be okay

I haven't read this book by Barbara Ehrenreich yet, but I intend to.  I have long held a deep suspicion about the cultish spin-offs of the 'think positive' movement (in business, in alternative health care, in management models), not least because of the way they do not acknowledge or honour pain, grief or suffering.  In doing so, think-positive proponents deny the experience and reality of those who do not share their belief system, a system which aims to narrow and control people's responses to difficult events. 

On a personal level, the people I know who've lived the longest in my extended family have been those with an ascerbic, take-no-prisoners approach to life.  There may not be a causal connection between longevity and an absence of rose-coloured glasses, but I'm taking notes.

When I finished the V Girls draft a few days back, I wondered what people did when they weren't writing.  Then I remembered: they read. And I have been reading:

Brown Skin Blue by Belinda Jeffrey
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson
The War by Marguerite Duras
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
The Fifth Child (again) by Doris Lessing

All marvellous and absorbing, for different reasons (now you know why I'm not a reviewer).