Thursday, February 01, 2007

What Is In An Education?

Recently released figures concerning the "pitiful state" of Australia's government spending on education among the Rich Nations' Club otherwise known as the OECD has added new sparks to the debate of private vs public education (primary & secondary).

Meanwhile, the real problem is in the inadequate public funding for tertiary education by a government completely flooded with cash but more concerned about buying votes through middle-class welfare than ensuring sustainable prosperity of the country beyond its elected term.

However, primary and secondary education remains a much more emotive issue because a larger number of parents/voters feel directly involved. Most of us are too wrapped up in our own lives and needs to sense the danger of collective complacency brought on by a natural resource based boom in our economy; should we neglect long-term investments in a well trained workforce with not just any tertiary education, but a high quality one, we would not be able to maintain a prosperous society when the supply of our natural resources run low. It should be a serious issue regardless of whether we have children.

Going back to the divisive debate of private vs public, we have numerous friends and relatives with children in both education frameworks on either side of the world so while Guillermo and I presently have no personal interest in this debate, we are nonetheless interested in the dynamics involved.

Guillermo and I were both privately educated but we have different ideas when it comes to whether ideologically (let's put financial considerations aside for the time being) we would send our own children to a private school...

His own experience and observations on his relatives who have gone to the two most prestigious (and expensive) schools in Belgrano R tell him that a private education does not necessarily equip a person with better knowledge or abilities to deal with life.

In plainer words, Argentine private schools are not necessarily there to provide a more academically focused learning environment; their focus is often on providing a protected environment where the privileged can mingle.

Given BA is an unapologetically class conscious society, he sees little merit in putting our children further up and deeper into a delusional ivory tower (the so-called Argentine middle class is largely a sand castle in the air where earning little more US$800 establishes one firmly among the top 5% earners).

There are also a large number of less exclusive private schools in BA which charge a much lower fee (below A$500 per month). However, their existence is more a testimony of the appalling public system; facilities in these private schools are often no better, if not worse than those of a good public school in an affluent country.

Since the Argentine public system is not really a viable choice, my husband concedes that he would be open to further investigations into private schools should we still live in BA when the time comes.

While I agree with him that an academic focus is very important, I would also like to put our children in a pleasant (preferably green and spacious) and synergic environment whereby we can feel, as parents, we are supported in guiding them to become worthy human beings with integrity, discipline, fairness, compassion and good manners.

It seems many parents with children at private schools in Sydney were trying to communicate similar sentiment in latest issue of The Sydney Magazine (Jan 25, Sydney Morning Herald). Reportedly, one father often reminds his four kids that they are privileged to be attending their schools (each child would have set him back a cool US$200,000 by the time they finish secondary school) therefore, he expects effort and commitment from them in return.

On the other hand, despite the Howard government, public education is still relatively healthy in Australia. The approach is somewhat flexible and progressive; it makes sure that gifted students are not "buried in the system".

To begin with, should a child be recognised by a qualified psychologist specialising in early intelligence as gifted as well as emotionally mature, the child can start attending primary school earlier than the statutory age of 6.

Within the framework, academically inclined children are grouped to attend class at a more suitable pace. In the last year of primary school, anyone who wishes to sit for a public selection exam may qualify to attend one of the selective public schools which consistently yield the best scores in the country, outperforming even the best equipped and increasingly academic private schools.

Australian public education is not only a viable choice but an appealing alternative if one's child is an early achiever. However, children who require special assistance and attention to blossom may need more than what the public system can provide.

The great divide, it seems, is that private education produces young adults with a rounded experience beyond academic achievements. However, there is no money back guarantee that private schools would provide the "soft skills" which parents feel lacking in the public system.

Throwing money at your children's education (in schools which often provide elocution classes) doesn't necessarily turn them into true gentlemen or refined ladies as hinted in those schools' glossy promotional brochures and DVDs targeting parents with "aspirations".

In that same article, one parent from a prestigious girls' school in leafy Wahroonga, not too far from where we are staying (at my parents'), told the Sydney Magazine reporter "Of course we have nice cars; we're that sort of school". I suppose that's just a plain and simple illustration that one can buy a status symbol of an education but one may still fail to acquire refinement.

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