We’ve been talking a lot recently about the options for Luella’s education. I’ve had reservations about schooling in Australia since before she was born, mainly due to not knowing enough. Now that I’ve been able to do more research… well, I still have reservations. Before I get into that, here’s a bit about my educational background.
I attended public schools on Long Island for K-12. New York public schools are known for being amongst the best in the U.S. (which is why my parents moved me there from Florida where I was born). I maintained good grades most of the way through but in high school started to get absolutely bored and restless. By the time my senior year rolled around I was skipping most of my classes. I couldn’t wait to get out.
One difference between the U.S. and Australia (and I’ll get to more soon) is that for better or worse, in the U.S. higher education is seen as a must unless you want to sling burgers your whole life. I chose my university because it was in Manhattan and they offered me a substantial scholarship. I hated it, dropped out after a year, moved around worked a lot of jobs, tried school again a few years later, hated that and dropped out after two years, moved to San Francisco, worked more and then finally found the progressive school where I got my eventual degree: New College of California.
I refer to it now as my hippie college, but the fact is I LOVED most of the classes I took there. I got to take classes with interesting topics like “Issues for LGBT Youth in Education” and “Adolescent Rites of Passage” – a far cry from the Macroeconomics and Public Speaking courses I was shoehorned into in my previous schools. It was very alternative – I never took a test, did a lot of independent study, stretched myself creatively and it changed my perspective on the world. More than I can say for any other education before or after.
So, since then I’ve been very interested in alternative education. But Australia seems to have fewer alternatives. So here are some other differences… In the U.S. there are a lot more secular independent school options. I worked at one in SF for a few years, in fact. There are also different forms of public schools: magnet schools and charter schools, neither of which exist here. And Australian public schools have two features which really put me off: mandatory school uniforms and scripture in the classroom.
The former I could probably live with. Jim swears uniforms make everything easier. But the whole scripture thing has long made me very uneasy. I get that it’s optional and a small part of the curriculum, but I just feel there’s zero place for it. Furthermore, now that we own a home and we have a specific public school to look at, I worry that in Ashfield with its huge Catholic population, Lu will be the odd one out when opting out of scripture.
So here’s where I start to feel really torn. Because I totally support the principle of public schools. I absolutely think all children should have free access to education. But now that I’ve started meeting the kids and families who will be Lu’s peers I just feel like the culture and teaching style just run so counter to many things we are teaching her.
The parents at our playgroup are constantly hovering over their kids, yelling at them not to do things, teaching them “how” to play. There’s the conformity of uniforms, the emphasis on testing and grades, the lack of autonomy given students, the strict scheduling. None of it sits right with me. It’s one thing to support something in theory and another to imagine the reality of putting your daughter through it.
So where does that leave us? There are a small handful of secular private schools here (Montessori and Steiner mainly) but the tuition is prohibitively expensive and Jim’s not convinced about those educational models. Then there’s homeschooling or unschooling. If you’d asked me about them a few years ago I’d have said “No way in hell!” But now, looking at the limited options out there I can totally understand why parents would go for this option.
I don’t think it’s for us, though. It’s a huge commitment that I don’t feel particularly qualified for. I put a lot of pressure on myself as it is, in raising Lu and I think if her education fell solely on me as well I’d be highly stressed about getting it right. I lamented to Jim over the weekend “Why can’t there be a secular school that costs a little money, but not too much, still offers quality education, but in an environment that’s more in line with our progressive values?”
Sound like a pipe dream? I thought so too. But then during a play date yesterday I learned about Democratic Schools. I’d never heard of these before and there’s only a small handful in Australia. But the more I read, the more I fell in love! In particular, with Sydney’s Curambeena School. The tuition is about half that of most independent schools. They offset the fees by having parents do things like school maintenance, running the canteen (cafeteria) and assisting in the classroom. It’s like a co-op! They’ve got a blog where you can read about the projects students are working on. The daily schedule is flexible. Students are encouraged to manage their own time, work independently, but also work together to create classroom policy.
It sounds amazing. The criticisms levied at a school like this are along the lines of “These kids need to learn to respect authority. How will this prepare them for going into the workforce and having to answer to a boss?” I get that instinct to be worried about how your child will adapt to the “real world”. But I guess I’m more interested in raising a young woman who will make the world adapt to her. That is to say, that she’ll challenge the accepted norms.If she hates reporting to a boss then maybe she’ll create her own tech start-up. Maybe she’ll found a nonprofit organisation. Maybe she’ll run for office. Maybe she’ll sell jewelery and travel around the world. Maybe she’ll become a stay-at-home mum who homeschools her kids.
I guess that’s what appeals most to me about alternative education – challenging the paradigm while keeping open as many doors as possible for my daughter’s future.
However there’s always a drawback. This time, it’s that the school is nowhere near us so we’d either have to subject Lu to an hour+ commute each way or move out of our beloved Inner West. They’re big decisions and while we don’t have to make them right now, it really isn’t too early to be thinking about them so that we can do more research and planning.
I’ve not totally ruled out public education. We can apply out-of-area to Summer Hill or somewhere else a bit more progressive, but that’s a gamble. I’m just hoping that we send her somewhere where we feel inspired and optimistic.