Friday, December 04, 2009

In Praise of Public Education

A few days ago the excellent (rather, the honourable) Michael Kirby, former justice of the high court), gave a speech at Melbourne High school's speech night. I heard part of it on the radio the next morning, especially the bit in favour of public education in this country. Kirby said we should all blog and twitter in support of public education.

So here's my contribution.

Over the last week or so I've been to two school music concerts. The first was a cabaret organised by the parent-teacher liaison at Joel's school: parents loaned rice-cookers and a dedicated team cooked up wonderful curries to serve at the school canteen. The weather had been wild that afternoon, but we were able to sit outside and watch as the kids performed. I've written about the school's music before. What I loved on this night was to see the music staff up there on stage with the kids, playing along with them. And, when the parent who was going to MC the event had to withdraw at the last minute, and when Joel offered his services, there was not a moment's hesitation, and he was given the running sheet and complete freedom to compere. And his parents and friends all thought he was terrific, naturally...

Special praise for the year 8 student, Susie, who sang "Stormy Weather" with passion and verve, and the wonderful multi-talented Lena (trumpet, clarinet [and either trombone or saxophone, possibly both], who, sadly for the school, is leaving this year.

Then this week, one of the music teachers had organised an evening at Penny Black, a cafe in Brunswick. It began with the brilliant Claudia (year 10?) singing "I Heard it on the Grapevine" with great gusto and strength out in front of a band of about 16 musicians: keyboards, guitars, drumkit, and a fabulous brass section.

The school is stronger with jazz and swing and Latin ensembles than it is in orchestral terms: and the string ensembles can't compete in energy and numbers, though I like their ambitions (Barber's Adagio, for example). But the vocal performances are the most amazing to me: one after another kid — mostly girls - just stood up and sang, often quite difficult material. They don't always move with much confidence; and some struggle to perform the song's emotions. But they still blow me away. The kids are also encouraged to improvise and jam; so they have a wonderful facility with different styles.

This year one of J's electives has been a kind of music master class, where amongst other things, they were put into groups and asked to choose, arrange and perform a couple of numbers. Joel's group was a little diminished in size on Thursday night, so they just did one song: Tom Waits' "New Coat of Paint", with J on keyboard and vocals, sharing the stage with two close friends — Lenny, on scorching guitar solo; and the adorable Meg on lead vocals — as well as a couple of others. Oh, I did think it went very quickly. But it was lovely to hear these friends singing together: "You'll wear a dress; and I'll wear a tie".

I'm sure Australian Idol has played no small part in investing these young performers with a sense of what's possible, and what works when you stand in front of an audience to perform. But there was something magical about seeing them in a live, commercial venue, even if the entire audience was comprised of the school community. So while I understand this school is one of the better government schools, it still shows what is possible with energy and enthusiasm. And while I understand that not everyone in the school feels this way, there is an undoubted core of love for and identification with the school amongst its community: without badge or uniform to bind them together, and without the idea of financial investment in the young.

2 comments:

froginthepond said...

I will say that our (Montessori) primary is a private school but we are totally confident about sending the kids to the local high school. I love that the kids I've seen seem comfortable in their own skin - no matter how outrageous that skin is at times - and that there is a similar commitment to a full, wide ranging music program. They work with our school generously and perform locally with such confidence, humour and skill. No fancy blazer required.

David Thornby said...

I have struggled with the idea of commenting here since you posted this, and I'm still not sure that the benefits to be gained from discussion are not outweighed by the negativity that some of my thoughts may bring. Anyway, since this is the internet and you posted something thought-provoking, I may as well just have at it. I'm deeply reluctant to even entertain the sentiment of disagreeing with Michael Kirby (and I don't, not really) but one's thoughts are what they are.

I went to rural government primary and high schools and was proud and happy to do so. My daughter started school this year, and she's attending a private school, which is causing me some internal conflict. I'm at once happy and sad to say that from all appearances, she will have many more opportunities to pursue excellence, in more fields, than I ever did. I believe the best education possible should be available to all and on an even basis, and it causes me quite a bit of guilt to admit that, at the same time, if there is an unfair advantage in the education system I intend for my daughter to fall on the advantaged side of that.

As you alluded to, I'm sure you do understand that the experiences of students at selective government schools is not typical, and while I have not a lot of knowledge about a lot of public schools nowadays, the kind of enthusiasm for achievement that you described is woefully distant from what happened where I went to high school. There, the culture of achievement went as far as sport and no further, and from all reports things have not changed there. I don't think that was an atypical culture, for a rural secondary school. I see banners (actual and metaphorical) at my old school that tout interest in the academic, implying some phantom program in which those who are already academically competent are not just ignored with a sigh of relief, and wonder if things can really have changed from how they were.

I'm not sure where the store of enthusiasm for creating programs of excellence (as well as programs of competence) resides, except at the bottom of a big bag of money, perhaps; a bag that public education and particularly less 'prestigious' (less imaginative?) schools could sorely do with. I would have loved it were the sorts of things J appears to have gotten up to at school (and critically the culture and enthusiasm for creating them) 'normal' in my rural high school, but they weren't. At my daughter's new school it looks rather like they are -- the programs seem wide ranging and the teachers imaginative -- so as I say while I feel some guilt around it, I'm happy for her to have these opportunities. My hope is that she can feel that she achieves things throughout her life because of what she experiences at school, and not in spite of it. How big a bag of money do we have to come up with to make sure that kids in the outer suburbs or the bush have the same chance?