Choosing the right school is giving me 'educational anxiety'

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt is the host of our parenting show Kinderling Conversation - catch it weekdays at 12pm

My daughter is starting school next year, and I find myself wrapped up in what I’m calling “education anxiety”.

There was a time when parents just sent their kids to the local public school. When I asked my mum why they chose our primary school she simply said, “the kids in the neighbourhood just went there.”

Now, I keep hearing about overcrowded classrooms, debates about who is going to fund public schooling, and anxiety-inducing tests like NAPLAN.

Then I read this L.A. Times article by Professor William Doyle about how awesome Finnish primary schools are, how children don’t start formal education until they are seven, and how they concentrate on learning through play. For PE, his son was given a compass and a map and told to find his way out of the forest next to the school.

I started thinking: what kind of education will my daughter get when she goes to the local public school?

Don’t get me wrong, I was educated in public schools, both primary and high school - and I was always a huge advocate for the system. But now, everything seems to be telling me that the system is breaking down

I’m not a ‘Tiger Mum’. I actually feel quite deficient when it comes to my ambitions for my children. I would like them to enjoy learning, to be happy at school, and learn how to read and write. I haven’t any aspirations for them to be top of the class or to win entry to prestigious universities and on to top earning careers.

I don’t schedule in music lessons, gymnastics, ballet or tennis lessons in the hopes that they will be able to “stay ahead” or compete with their peers. Maybe that will change when they start school (I have been told that it will), but for now, I like the idea of letting my kids enjoy their childhood and to enjoy learning.

Recently, I interviewed Andrew Hill, the head of Glenaeon Steiner School in Sydney about the Steiner approach to learning. At Steiner children don’t start formal education, like reading and maths, until they turn seven (just like the Finnish school).

“Those earlier years [before that] are the time for play… play is the child’s work in those early years,” he told me.

I love the idea of it. It backs up everything I’ve read about how children learn best, and it seems to bear good results by the time the kids leave high school.

I also spoke to Bill Conway, the principal of Montessori East Primary and preschool. It had similar ideals and aspirations for their children.

But before I can weigh up the benefits of these styles of teaching against standard mainstream education, I have to consider that as independent schools, they are expensive. We’re only just coping with the cost of childcare, I can’t afford 13 years of high fees.  

So why am I so unsure about the local public school?

When I think about it, the only real reason I can come up with is that it’s big.

Given the amount of thought I’ve given this (including the idea that we should move to another suburb) it doesn’t seem to make a great amount of sense.

It was time to get some no-nonsense advice from Jane Caro, author, social commentator and passionate advocate for public education.

Jane Caro says that parents have been led to believe there’s a school somewhere that’s perfect for their child, and that this is a total myth. “I think it suits governments because in that way they can transfer the cost of education from government to parents,” she said.

Believing that the perfect school exists might lead you to choose a private school, or to search for a public school in another suburb, but Jane says all this does is create more anxiety for parents.

“Choices are always a compromise. If you go to one school you have to give up something that’s offered by another school. So in fact it’s a no-win situation and this is why the creation of the right school for your child has just created a monster because it’s a nonsense, it’s a myth you tell yourself.”

But what about NAPLAN, and the mountains of homework that some kids get, when they should be outside playing instead of worrying about exams and doing homework?

Jane says that there’s a myth that everything we don’t like is only in the public system, when every school actually has NAPLAN and homework.

The key, she says, is to trust and respect our teachers.

“Teachers know full well that homework is useless as a learning tool, it doesn’t achieve anything. Do you know who insists teachers give homework? Parents.”

Ultimately, Jane says parents need to take a big chill pill. How our kids will go at school ultimately rests with how we as parents interact with their education - both the things they do at school, and at home.

I might just have to accept that orienteering won’t be on the school agenda for my daughter at her local primary school, but that with my support, she will get a good education that we will both enjoy.

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