Why rural public education matters

Our eldest - how is it high school already?
Our eldest – how is it time for  high school already?

Our eldest kid just went off to high school. I wonder if he will ever know the emotional wrestle that went on to choose a school?

We live in a small rural community in Victoria’s north serving a population of about 7000. If Australia rode on the sheep’s back then this town surely has the dairy cow’s teats to thank. Agriculture is the backbone of this community.
Our town has one public school that accommodates prep through year 12. It also happens to be about 50km from two larger, more diversified towns. Both of these towns offer an exclusive, expensive private school option. This is great – because it provides choice, and choice is good.
However, I am concerned at the rate at which middle class families are jumping ship (sorry to stereo-type, but this is a fairly safe sweeping statement). I am talking about families just like you and me. Mums and dads, who work hard, earn a decent living and want to provide the best education they can for their kids.

I call it – Middle Class Drift.

For much of the past year, too many of my conversations over a cup of chai tea have been dominated by this decision. “Where are you sending your child to School? Why? How much?”

It has bothered me that this issue has taken up so much of my brain space, mainly because it might just be first world problems at their ugliest.

But it has been a genuine, gut-wrenching, sleep-stealing dilemma for us. Every parent wants the best for their kid. Do we leave our children here at the local public high school or send them out of town?
Now we need to get one thing straight. The reasons a family sends their child to private school are genuine and varied. I am respectful that every child has individual needs. I do not judge other families for the decisions they make and am quite thankful that as a small community we have choices.
For example, our Kid No 3 started at one of the above-mentioned private schools this year. Given we are a blended family there are extra layers of complexity when selecting schools. There are co-parent wishes to consider and living arrangements to think about.
In the case of Kid 3, we share custody with his mum. She has always felt strongly she would like him to attend the school she attended. We don’t necessarily agree with her views but we have respected her wishes and agreed Kid 3 can attend. It is a private and individual choice.
I would never pretend to know what motivates other families to make the decision where to send their child.

But here’s what I do know….

Whilst our rural public schools remain unfinished, under resourced and in a state of disrepair, families WILL send their kids out of town to a private school. They will find that ten grand a year to send their kids to a school that has the facilities to optimise their child’s education.

So what’s the big deal about this?

Journalist Sarah Wilson sums it up better than I can. She says;

“The two hallmarks of a just society are the same high standard of education and health for all. What chance does a kid have if these things aren’t accessible? With a decent education a kid that comes from nowhere has choices.”

I recently completed my post grad in Education. It required me to investigate equity issues influencing student achievement in Australia. I learned there is an unacceptable link between disadvantage and low achievement. Furthermore, I discovered if you are from a low socioeconomic (SES), indigenous, non-English speaking or rural background – you are disadvantaged.
There you have it folks – if you live rural Australia your kids are already educationally disadvantaged.
What does this have to do with Middle Class Drift? The Gonski Review (2011) found increasing the concentration of disadvantage in schools exacerbates under-achieving. The government My School website shows over the past few years our local high school numbers have gone down and the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ECSEA) has reduced.

Code for – middle class families are leaving.
Bourdieu’s theory of social capital highlights the importance of mixing high and low SES students together – for both ends of the spectrum. If increasing one’s social capital is considered to enhance opportunities in life, and public schools continue to become dumping grounds for low SES students – how will these kids ever break the cycle of disadvantage?
So, considering the lop-sided current government funding regime – what can we do?
Sarah Wilson thinks we should just send our kids to public school.

“Good, engaged, smart parents have an obligation to all kids, not just their own. Good, engaged, smart parents can turn a school around – make a public school a vibrant, nurturing space that attracts great teachers. They can assure their children get a good education; kids don’t need fancy tennis courts and excursions to Tuscany. The more good, engaged, smart parents that proactively support the public school system – the better for our society.”

Me?

I think our local public school needs to be finished ( I wrote an open letter to the Minister for Education here). It needs to be raised to the highest possible standard. I myself don’t give a toss where your kid goes to school – because this is everybody’s problem.
It’s not all doom and gloom. You should know our local public school has some amazing, new, functional teaching spaces for the prep to year 4 village and ditto for year 10 to 12. They are truly awesome and oh so inspiring to teach and learn in.
But guess where you lose kids? Guess when they really decide if school is for them or not? The middle years, years 5-9. Here in our town, this is when our local kids find themselves sweltering in airless, dreary, white-ant infested portables.

I have taught in those classrooms. They suck. Big time.

So I say thanks a million to the State Government for half finishing our school. You have left our middle school kids high and dry.
But wait, it gets worse.

The State Government has not only closed down a whole campus, left the remaining campus uncompleted and failed to make our middle school classrooms comfortable or safe. They have now given us one final kick in the guts.
The most decent of the middle school buildings are those housing the year 9 students. These students were moved back to the main campus after the separate year 9 site closed. I understand it is reasonable to expect surplus buildings to be removed – but don’t take the decent ones and leave the condemned ones.

That’s just down right nasty.
Sometimes things need to get really bad for change to occur. Things are officially bad.
I love the story of how the new Echuca hospital came to be. When their hospital buildings became unserviceable a bunch of community members came together and launched the “It’s buggered” campaign. They raised $20,000 and placed a full paged add in the paper calling on the minister to urgently fund a new facility. I can clearly recall the large, red, dripping-with-blood cross which became the media symbol.

That got the governments attention.

I think it’s wonderful our government has provided funding to upgrade some of our rural hospitals (ours included); we are an ageing population after all. I am proud of the work our local communities have done to attract this funding. But without investment in rural education, where are we going to source the doctors and nurses to staff our fancy new hospitals?
I don’t want this to be a public vs. private school debate. Rather, I want finishing and resourcing our local high school to become a whole of community concern. This has to shoot to the top of the list – right now.
I am not deluded. I don’t think an amazing, finished, well resourced, local high school will stop Middle Class Drift, and neither should it – choices are great, but I am absolutely convinced it will slow it down.
If we are genuinely concerned about the future of rural kids – not just my kid – and not just your kid – then it is time to fight for our fair share of the funding pie.

Rural kids matter. Rural education matters.

We can fix this people.

Blend it your way,
Leese x
As always, would love you comment or come chat with me at Booken Blend on Facebook. #middleclassdrift

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