School is back this week.

There are a few things I have to attend to for my two teens – haircuts, new shoes and uniforms – but nothing that’s too onerous.

Nothing that will keep me up at night, like, say, finding around $60,000 for their school fees. That’s what I’d be paying if I were sending my two to Year 12 at  Scots College ($30,900) or SCEGGS Darlinghurst ($30,501). That’s $100,000 before tax! And doesn’t include the extra charges for sports, technology, excursions, camps, extra subjects, uniforms and the rest which can pile on another $10 k.

I can only imagine there will be many discussions over dining room tables tonight about whether it’s all worth it as private school fees go through the roof.

PrivateSchool_375For some it’s money easily found, but for others – and the promoters of private schools always say there are many parents who “scrimp and save” – it must be a waking nightmare.

Do we forgo the holiday?  Take out a loan? Take another job? Ask the grandparents to help?

This past weekend Mr Abbott spoke of his and Margie’s “struggle with the school fees”. (Of course he could have sent his daughters to Mosman High, in his electorate. It’s one of the schools that topped NSW in academic achievement last year. No struggle required.)

But just imagine having to take your kids out of their school, away from their friends because you don’t have the money.No wonder our forbears came up with the excellent notion to make a good education free for everyone.

Justice Michael Kirby calls it the “great Australian experiment”. “We were the first continent that from sea-to-sea that had public education, free, secular and compulsory,” he says.

Beyond the ethical questions about private schooling and public money – and Australia spends a higher proportion of public money on private schools than any other developed country except Chile and Belgium, according to the latest global education snapshot – just what do you get for your dollars when you send your kids to private school?

For that $30,501 a year, SCEGGS says it will turn out young people who are confident, competent, individual, articulate, capable and who can make “a valuable contribution to our society in a nurturing and caring environment which values diversity and individuality”.

We reckon we can do all that our place…for free.

As for the “enviable reputation” SCEGGS is so proud to mention? If you don’t envy the kids who went to private school, the decision’s rather easy, really… it’s down the road to the local high school.

So here’s how we made our decision to go public…


Private schools can boast of the “wellness” centre, heated swimming pool, recording studio, barista, performing arts complex, technology laboratory, sound proof recording studio, sports grandstand and a “tandoori chicken, mesclun, capsicum, sundried tomato and tzatziki wrap” on the menu at the cafeteria.

However, we’ve got that covered.

All these extra facilities are available, if required, at a fraction of the price either at home or in our community. (Yes, lucky us.) We pay for extra sport and music lessons. There’s a heated pool down the road. I can make a tandoori wrap (minus the mesclun because I’m still not sure what that is) and the kids don’t drink coffee. As for a technology lab? We’ve got the internet.

When it comes to the performing arts… I figure if my kids have the passion to make a career in the arts they will make their own way there, like I did in my late 20s.

Those lavish annual school excursions? Because we don’t have to find that $100,000 my husband can be a stay at home Dad and take the kids himself. We can spend our money on our kids in the way we see fit.


Ethics? Discipline? That’s what private schools say they have on offer, but we say that’s also our job as parents. We’re doing quite nicely on that, thank you, and are ably assisted by our kids’ school.

As for wanting a religious education? My late father-in-law wanted Catholic schooling for his sons so my husband was a boarder at St.Ignatius College, Riverview from age 11. (Same school Tony Abbott attended.) That was back in the day when the place was staffed by priests and it made sense for the Government to subsidise their employment. There are no priests left teaching at Riverview, so if it’s Christianity we want for our kids, we don’t look for a school chapel and, instead, avail ourselves of the local church.

 Academic results

“For Top HSC Marks, Go Public” said The Australian in December. “BATTLING public schools have returned amazing HSC results, leapfrogging many selective and private institutions on the top schools honour list for 2012.”  

And this excellence was achieved with the inclusion of many children without English as a first language, too poor to pay top fees to go private. Examine the stellar results from comprehensive high schools and there goes the argument that private schools have better teachers.

There are now also numerous studies that say that public school kids who go on to university excel, citing better motivation and self-discipline.

The Old School Tie

As sense of “belonging” is how it’s quaintly promoted by private schools, but for the less-wealthy children who stay home every Christmas holidays as classmates jet off to Aspen for a skiing trip, “belonging” can be an elusive concept. My husband learned to joke about the fact that over 12 years of schooling for he and his two brothers his Dad only ever had two cars, and one of them was second hand.

He adored his time at private school and enjoys his re-unions with classmates who are now doctors, lawyers and corporate types as well as builders and tradies.

But he has no desire for his own children to go private. “I saw kids given everything and piss it up against the wall,” he says. “I saw kids turn to drugs, I saw them fail or succeed and it can happen anywhere.”

I too loved school, but as a graduate of old “ScrapHeap High” I don’t see any of my former classmates. No idea how they turned out. Instead my alumni is made up of the colleagues and friends I’ve made over 40 years in the arts and media. I couldn’t tell you which school any of them went to, in fact I can barely recall the topic ever being raised.

Whenever I talk about my decision to send our kids to public schools people say: “You are lucky to have a decent high school down the road. The ones around our way are terrible”.

Of course the irony is that the more parents opt out of these schools – especially the ones like us with time and money to spare (see school fees, above) who are able to participate in school life – the more deprived they become.

Imagine if all the high-flyers on the boards of private schools, the corporate clique as documented by Crikey , were to turn their efforts to making the State system better? Imagine if they took a day off work to be an official at the school sports day carnival and run the gardening club, as my husband did for years. Imagine if they were committed to the ideal of every child receiving a first-class education?

Think of the money they’d save on school fees. Think of the money the government would save.

But of course I’m being ridiculous. It’s terribly gauche around our way to talk about money when it’s your children’s future that’s at stake. I’ve been told that if we truly cared we’d find that extra $1ook for the trip, the tie and the blazer.

We’d struggle and sacrifice… Except that we won’t.

We’ll just go on loving our kids in a sort of second-class, public school kind of way.


How did you decide on which school to send your kids to?


PS: For those who are interested, here’s a pic of my Dad as headmaster at Warncoort Primary School in the Western District of Victoria, 1960. Guess which one is me… ( too easy, third from the right, bottom row. And please excuse Dad’s ciggie.)

first school








The Teacher who Inspired Me

To the Back of the Class, Mr Premier

“Hush Money” for Private Schools?


You can follow Wendy on Twitter: @wendy_harmer.


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