I researched Perth school choices for six weeks. Here’s what I learned

Six weeks ago in my sweet naivete I committed to undergo, publicly, a research process about how I will select a high school for my toddler in due course.

It seemed to me that parents all have to reinvent the wheel when it’s their turn, and I hoped to help us all with some kind of guide.

I really, really wanted to end this series triumphantly reporting back the results of my research that public schools in WA are just as good as private schools. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

It turns out that while the school sector itself, public or private, doesn’t make a difference to results, where wealthier people choose to congregate their children does make a difference.

My needs, I thought, were simple. To send my son to a public school near home, so he can become as embedded in our lovely community as we already are, with friends close by, and walk, ride or bus to school.

It doesn’t have to have fountains or solid gold doorknobs, just an when I walk through it.

We are taxpayers in a and is the nation’s economic powerhouse. The government holds such popularity and such a commanding majority it can do whatever it wants.

Why, then, do so few of us trust our local high school?

Only , indicating parents trust the public system when stakes are not so high, but don’t trust it to provide equal opportunity for their children as they approach adulthood. I’ll warrant the private proportion is a lot higher in the city.

Education is meant to be an equaliser, but .

Why is it commonly accepted that if your child has special needs or abilities you must get them into a specialist public school? Why need we , or pay high fees for the privilege of driving in heavy traffic each morning to a private school when connection to community and physical activity are so good for us?

Why are some local MPs not fighting for their schools? ? Why are ?

Why hasn’t the state divulged a strategic plan: where it’s planning to build, expand, close or amalgamate schools in coming decades based on population projections?

Countless parents and teachers have now written to me detailing their research, work and sacrifice. As someone who , I came into this blind. I am stunned at their knowledge: of the specialist gifted and talented (GATE) programs, the other specialist programs, the league tables, the good schools and the avoid ones, the reputations and rumours.

The research task was a daunting prospect to someone already holding down three roles as full-time journalist, mother, and author in my spare time (HAH! )

ATAR seemed a reasonable starting point. Not every child is destined for for what was traditionally considered academic success but every parent wants to know that if their child does happen to be brilliant they’re not somewhere that will limit their academic potential.

I hear from a former school principal who still works in the field of a common practice, which is laid bare if you compare the index of socio-educational advantage with ATAR participation rates and median ATAR scores: the practice of getting less advantaged children to choose non-ATAR or easier ATAR subjects. Thus theoretically boosting the school’s performance, but certainly limiting a child’s individual academic potential.

People tell me Augie will be fine no matter where he goes, and I’m sure he will, but what about children from a lower socio-economic background also gambling on Como SC? Will it lift the naturally brilliant, but less advantaged in terms of home life, ones up as a private school would? Unlikely.

And what about non-ATAR matters? A mother of three told me every time she met a teacher at a party she asked them about their experiences and if they complained about teacher turnover, poor culture, lack of pastoral care, shaming of certain types of kids or snooty parents, then she took note. She also asked about where their dream school jobs would be, and talked to other parents. After a few years of this she knew the schools she would definitely not send her child to – and there were plenty of them.

Another common worry parents and education industry insiders voiced was that the GATE programs drain intelligent children out of local catchments and contribute to residualisation, where the public school left behind declines and becomes a kind of safety net for everyone with no choice to go elsewhere.

One Perth industry insider told me GATE programs were necessary to stimulate the really exceptional children, but did also have the unintended consequence of inflating the ATAR results that then attract people to that catchment (of the 11 public schools in WA’s top 50 for median ATAR last year, nine were GATE schools). He said this inflated enrolment was attracting more investment to accommodate families moving to get into these schools, while other schools were falling further behind.

Another common piece of feedback was that while there are 56 schools that take out-of-catchment students for more than 100 specialist programs including, for example, different sports, arts, sciences or aviation – and those are great options for those students – local catchment children tend to get sidelined. Parents go to comical lengths to get into these, such as one who told me they were considering getting their child to learn the oboe simply to get them into a school with gaps in its band.

Parents’ fervent searches for a less expensive good school in this system leads to a volatile enrolment environment, prone to unsustainable surges, for private schools as well as public – wealthier parents are reacting to sky-high prices in the top-tier privates by seeking places in mid-tiers such as Iona, Trinity and Santa Maria, which are now bursting at the seams. Iona would laugh in my face if I asked for a place next year, the same insider told me, while St Hilda’s or MLC would certainly have room. They are competing for places at those schools with parents who would rather have a decent public school and are really having to dig deep and make sacrifices to pay private school fees.

Paying our taxes plus a nominal public school fee should get an average kid a decent education that will extend their abilities as far as possible, I thought. I was unprepared for the can of worms, the landslide of emails, the fact that you need a university education just to navigate this system.

And once in that public school working parents can look forward to spending weekends and weeknights fundraising to , with cake stalls and and chocolate boxes. Fundraising for a special sports trip to the US or something I understand, but schools having to fundraise I do not.

I am a columnist, not a specialist education reporter or government official, and so this series ends with me not solving all the problems presented to me, but now knowing my options:

  1. Hope the government announces an ambitious, inspiring plan to transform our lacklustre clutch of shrinking and declining local schools into a landmark public education destination to be proud of, within the next 10 years.
  2. If they don’t, send Augie anyway as a sort of defiant gesture towards the society we want, and a vote of confidence in everything else we intend to set him up with, including all the other benefits of going to a more diverse school in a setting close to home.
  3. Grit our teeth… and move to Rossmoyne.

Some comments from our Education Minister Sue Ellery

I put some of these issues to the Minister for Education, and a spokeswoman provided information including the following:

On planning for new schools

The Department of Education continuously monitors trends and developments in residential developments across the state to determine when a new school is needed or an existing school needs to be expanded, taking into account student enrolment trends and residential growth rates and demographics of residents – for example, those with school-aged children.

Enrolments will fluctuate over the years at schools and temporary classrooms are sometimes used to accommodate for those enrolment fluctuations. Every temporary classroom is airconditioned, providing a comfortable and well-resourced learning space for students.

It would not be practical or feasible to build permanent new learning areas or a new school every time a school experiences a short to medium-term increase in student numbers.

On infrastructure maintenance

All public schools have received maintenance, upgrades or refurbishments as part of the $200 million high priority maintenance and minor works program. The majority of the funding was used to address maintenance and minor works in public schools and ensures our students across the state are learning in the best possible environments.

Schools can undertake basic maintenance via the direct to market program that was expanded in April 2022 to include additional categories.

An additional $33. 8 million in funding will go towards maintenance upgrades to improve public schools, announced as part of the 2022-23 state budget.

The Department of Education also compiles requests for maintenance and minor works for consideration when future programs are being considered.

On operational funding
The spokeswoman pointed out that school operational funding includes a loading for various types of social disadvantage and school characteristics allocations to ensure that schools were not disadvantaged due to size or location.

On achievement

Last year we had more students achieve their WACE than ever before and we remain focused on ensuring that young people are cared for and educated every day, the spokeswoman said.

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