Challenging the Educational Paradigm


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.

3 thoughts on “Challenging the Educational Paradigm

  1. Hey Sharon,

    I understand your concerns regarding scripture in the classroom. Please rest assured though, that a very significant proportion of most graded goes to non scripture, and therefore she would in no way be left out. I attended Anglican classes for a while and later ditched them. No one ever said a word.

    As for school uniforms, I’m actually for them. I think it means there’s less discrimination between the kids. And I think a little discilpline is good for kids, and I think it’s good that kids don’t spend all day obsessing over what they are and aren’t wearing.

    Steiner schools have a very good reputation, as do Montessoris. There are also some agricultural high schools if you think that will be more Luella’s style, when she gets there. Public schools, well, it depends on getting into a good one. My first school was pretty poor, though it was in the top 200 of the state; to be fair, my siblings and I had IQs well outside the norm and they were a little challenged by that. I got by, my brother struggled. He switched to another public school and absolutely took off in terms of personal development. Honestly, it’s more about the individual teachers than the school. You also may not be aware of the existence of Opportunity Classes. These are academically selective classes run at particular schools for kids in yr five and six who excel beyond the norm. Kids change to the school for their last years even if they’re not in the normal catchment area, and get a much more rounded and advanced education. Most schools also run Gifted and Talented classes. You may also be interested in the Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre, run by UNSW, who offer all sorts of holiday programs to bright kids.

    High school is in some ways easier. Academically selective schools like the one I attended are high pressure environments, but they also offer opportunities like nothing else. Again, there are also agricultural schools, and I think there are some language schools around as well, which have a different focus again. Also, there are private schools, mostly religious, but not all. And public schools are secular and usually don’t run scripture classes beyond year eight.

    Hope some of this helps. feel free to ask any questions. πŸ™‚ I was public schools all the way, and my brother and sister went both public and private. So I know a fair bit about it.

  2. Hi Georgia, thanks for your comment! Opinions like this are really useful because so much of my knowledge of Australian education is based on Jim’s obviously limited experience. He had a good public school experience. His siblings both did agricultural schools for high school so I’m sure I’ll pick their brains when the time comes.

    At any rate, people seem to think I am overreacting about the scripture thing but I guess it’s just such a foreign idea to me. I guess I worry about our little vegan not wanting to get ostracized and I had no idea how religious our suburb was when we moved here. Uniforms, likewise I guess are just a product of not having grown up with them.

    I’ll have to look into the other local public schools a bit. Do you have any sense of how easy it is to apply out of area? Sounds like your brother had no problem transferring. I guess I’m more concerned about school culture than academics.

    I sort of feel like if she’s struggling academically or not being challenged academically there are ways I can support her outside of school. (And there are options you mention like Talented and Gifted programs, etc. Notably I did that in younger grades, but our program stopped after grade 6 which is when my interest in school waned.) But I can’t do anything to change a teacher’s classroom management style or a school’s sense of community and inclusiveness. Not sure if that makes sense. But anyway, lots to think about and look at!

  3. Democratic schools sound really interesting! My friends Andy and Chris sent their kids to a Montessori school and have said good things about it. I’m sure Christine or her daughter (who’s 20ish) would be happy to chat about it if you want me to hook you up πŸ™‚

    Regarding the scripture thing, I totally agree that it has no place in school at all. At my high school it was opt-in and offered only for Catholics (a small proportion of my school’s population). In my primary school, almost everybody attended some denomination of scripture. I decided in about 3rd grade that I didn’t like it and wanted to go to non-scripture (where you could sit and chat or read books in the library – who wouldn’t prefer that?) but can you believe that the Nananator wouldn’t let me opt out? I was so upset because she’s not even religious! In any case, I’m sure if Lu ends up in a school that does scripture she won’t mind having the time out rather than having to sit through boring bible stories, and there will be other kids doing the same thing for sure.

    And I second Georgia’s attitude on uniforms. I mean, they shouldn’t be over-the-top and too strict with it like many private schools, but I think it does even things out in terms of differences in socio-economic status between the kids and keeping up with with each other in terms of fashion and brand names. At our school that was limited to school bags, accessories and shoes but it would have been worse if it were clothes as well, I think.

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