Some questions about the NSW, Australia public school system.
February 16, 2011 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Some questions about the NSW, Australia public school system.

My five-year-old son has just started school in, let's say, western Sydney. He's our only child and we don't have many close friends with kids in primary school, so this is the first time we've really encountered the public education system up close.

The first thing which surprised me is that they asked us for cash (less than $100, but still), to help pay for things like textbooks, as well as field trips and so on. Is this normal? Do parents ever object? What would happen to us if we refused?

The second thing is, it was announced at Assembly this morning that Scripture classes would be starting, and which rooms to go to, etc. There was Catholic Scripture, Protestant Scripture and Islamic Scripture (no Buddhist), so, it wasn't solely Christianity, but still it surprised me. Why is that going on in the public school system? Aren't there objections to this too?

Thirdly, we've been asking where kids go to after primary school and a lot of the public schools in the area seem to be single-sex. Canterbury Girls' School, Bankstown Boys' school etc. What's that all about? I don't think I want my son to spend his teenage years in an all-boys school.

Minor thing, but the school's website is hideous and very out of date. I've offered my services and heard nothing back. Does anyone know if there's some horrible Department Of Education system they're obliged to use, or is it every school for itself?

Any other things to expect, look out for, etc? Thanks in advance.
posted by AmbroseChapel to Education (18 answers total)
Is this normal? Do parents ever object? What would happen to us if we refused?
Entirely normal, quite often, and not a whole lot. The consequences would range simply from the school buying one or two fewer textbooks to the admin staff thinking you were a bit tight—that's about all. Excursions are a bit different—parents are expected to pay the train fare, entrance tickets, pack a cut lunch, and so on.
Why is that going on in the public school system? Aren't there objections to this too?
That's a question with a hundred and fifty year old history of State secular, private and Catholic education in NSW, and if you'd really like the history/political science reading list, I can give it to you. Suffice it to say—apart from noting that Australia doesn't have an American- or French-style separation of Church and State as most people understand it—that the current situation is the result of a long settlement between the State's ruling class elites, the organised sectarian Catholic and Protestant lobbies of the ninteenth century and pre-1970s era, and the public servants of the Education Department. One place to start is the history chapter of the NSW Parliamentary Library's recent research paper on this (PDF).

The NSW Government has just passed legislation to allow them, and I would encourage you to get you son's school to offer Ethics classes.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:08 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

1: Get used to being asked for cash. In our (country NSW) school, we have already received the annual request for voluntary fees ($40 for one student or $75 for two or more), a note for an excursion ($5 bus fare), and a request for each student to supply a box of tissues and a gluestick (apparently the school budget is extremely tight this year). The voluntary fee is not followed up if it isn't paid. The excursion fee... if you don't pay it, your kid doesn't go on the excursion.

I'm surprised to learn that all that is covered, all-inclusive style, in the amount your son's school has requested? In my experience, that is unusual.

2: Oh, the scripture thing. Schools I've dealt with/heard about from friends always send a note home early in the year, giving parents an opportunity to opt their child out of scripture altogether. There are certainly objections to mandatory scripture, which I suspect led to the aforementioned note. A way to appease us heathens, I guess. (Did you hear about the furore when ethics classes were introduced as an alternative? Google 'NSW public school ethics' for some background. On preview, what Fiasco said.)

3: Having had a couple of ex-boyfriends who went to single-sex schools, I would strongly advise against it for a whole host of reasons. Neither of them had anything good to say about the experience, insisting that it took them a lot longer to be comfortable around females, understand how to interact with them appropriately and how to treat them as equals rather than strange mysterious distant creatures. Neither of them had sisters, though, so a larger female presence at home may have made a difference. I think single-sex schools are seen by some as a way to get students to concentrate on study rather than their hormones, but that's my own personal view.

4: Our school created and maintain their own website. Basically an odd-jobs office guy does it. It too is awful, despite being recently upgraded. To whom did you offer your services? Did you speak to the principal? Put it in writing? They are the two best ways, I've found, to get a response from our school.

5: One thing I always warn parents of is that kindy kids are going to be very tired. By the end of first term, the poor little buggers can barely think straight. Make sure your son gets enough sleep and try not to schedule weekends so that he's flatout from Saturday morning til Sunday night. They need downtime.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:28 PM on February 16, 2011

I would also strongly recommend volunteering in any capacity. Kids love seeing their parents at the canteen, in the classroom helping with reading practice or helping to supervise on an excursion. It's also a great way to get to know other kids in your child's class and get to know the school staff.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:37 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ethics classes are being trialled. Kids can opt out of Religious Education by bringing in a letter from their parents (anecdotally).

A lot of NSW secondary schools are single-sex. Some are co-ed but with single sex classes, so the kids don't get distracted in class. Some have a sister/brother school nearby - note Canterbury Boys and Canterbury Girls High are quite near each other. Off the top of my head I can only think of a few secondary schools that are co-ed - Fort St High School (selective), Newtown, Sydney Secondary College (Leichhardt, Balmain, Glebe - where my wife teaches English and was recently serenaded by students on Valentine's Day!) - these appear further east than the ones you mentioned, I'm not too sure what other co-ed schools are further west towards Bankstown.

And yeah, most public school websites are clunky, ugly and out of date - my wife's name doesn't even appear on the staff list at Sydney Secondary College, despite being there several years.
posted by robotot at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2011

As everyone has said, all your points are standard business.

Most parents make the "voluntary" contribution - some even give more; some give less

Opting out of religion classy is easy - just send a note. Note that the Christian lobbiest are trying to "ban" the ethics classes, apparently they think that their kids "shouldn't miss out". Well if they aren't learning that stuff in their religion classes, what are they doing? Until very recently the NSW Liberals had planned to scrap them if/when they win the next election :-(

Not sure what the stats are across the state, but there seems to be a fair amount of co-ed high schools. In my area there are the ones robotot mentioned, plus Concord.
posted by trialex at 6:31 PM on February 16, 2011

As far as the fees go, I understand that there is an explicit government directive that any annual school fees in public schools are voluntary, not mandatory. The schools do their best to pressure parents into paying them. But if you really can't afford it, don't pay it.

Single-sex high schools are pretty standard, yep. You are wise to look for a co-ed school -- the research suggests that girls tend to do better in single-sex high schools, while boys tend to do worse. Your best bet might be to look out of area to the various co-ed comprehensive, selective or subject-specific schools dotted across the city (if your son passes the entrance requirements).

Wouldn't stress about scripture. Even if the ethics classes get canned by the incoming Lib government, being a non-scripture kid is pretty common and pretty cool. Mainly, you use it to reread the Jolly Postman, or play cards.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:43 PM on February 16, 2011

I've got a few mates who went to Sefton High School just near Bankstown, which is co-educational and partially selective. It's got an outstanding reputation.

It's also not uncommon for kids in Sydney high schools to travel relatively long distances on public transport to go to high school, so don't let distance put you off. I attended Fort St High in Petersham (in Robotot's list) and I had classmates who caught the train from as far away as Campbelltown and Springwood.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone so far, I really appreciate your input. I remain intellectually horrified by Scripture having any part in my kid's state school, but not really prepared to do anything about it. Except ask that he be excused, and agitate for Ethics and Buddhism to be added to the list.

My secret hope for my son when it comes to secondary school is that he'll go to Performing Arts in Newtown, but don't tell his mother, yet. She's sure he'll be playing international soccer by then.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:12 PM on February 16, 2011

Performing Arts in Newtown
Man, I'm 31 years old and those Newtown kids still make me feel uncool and awkward when I'm catching the inner west line into the city. With their guitars, and self-confidence, and outlandish hair, and whatnot. It's supposed to be a good school though.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:24 PM on February 16, 2011

When I was in primary school, scripture classes were standard (I think we only had Catholic & Protestant - no Muslims in the Shire, mate!). My vague recollection was that some kids whose parents strongly objected just spent the scripture class time reading in the library. Win!

It's worth noting that a number of single-sex state high schools are among the very top performers in the HSC, eg Sydney Boys High, Sydney Girls, North Sydney Boys & Girls, St George Girls, probably a few others.

My sister went to St George, and I was at an all boys school (although private, through a scholarship) and I don't think it damaged us a whole lot - probably easier to concentrate on studies while at school, and my friends & I socialised with the girls on the hour-long journey on the trains every morning & evening. Plenty of students would also socialise by loitering on intermediate stations like Hurstville or Chatswood or Strathfield or wherever, so it's not all bad.

Having said that, Newtown Performing Arts would be a good choice. Plenty of hotties there. Um, for somebody of their age group, I mean of course.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:33 PM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: Fiasco has expressed exactly how I hope to live out my fantasies through my kid the purely practical reasons why it would be a good choice of school.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:40 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

asked us for cash

Normal. Our son's preschool just did the same thing.

"Fees are $140 a semester..."
"For materials, that sort of thing..."
"Are they mandatory?"
"Well, you know, I mean, erm..."
"Oh, you mean VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS, that I am in no way, shape or form obligated to pay."


Normal, been around for ages, and strong resistance from church groups / Liberal party to introduce secular philopophy classes for kids who choose not to attend (at the moment, they get to sit in an empty classroom and stare at the wall for half an hour). It's just wrong.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:02 PM on February 16, 2011

Performing Arts in Newtown

I hope your kid is theatrically, or musically gifted, or at least live nearby. Enrolment is by audition, unless you live in the immediate area.
posted by robotot at 1:56 AM on February 17, 2011

The audition kids must have a disparaging term for the talentless locals.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:47 AM on February 17, 2011

Maybe it's a country vs city thing, but out here in the boondocks, kids who elect out of scripture are either sent to (ie, let loose to read what they want in) the library, or like my daughter - who has started high school this year -they will be in a classroom and supervised to study or do homework. And despite some ridiculous report I read online tonight, they're not bullied. They are regarded as the cool kids with cool parents who don't shove them into believing that the Flying Spaghetti Monster does or doesn't exist. We're the cool parents who let them develop their own beliefs, and the scripture-bound students envy them.

In primary school both my kids asked to change from generic Christian boring-beyond-belief (watch this Vegie Tales video for the 10th time, ugh) scripture to Bahai classes when their friends started taking the classes and raved about them. They both loved it. I appreciated that they came home each Wednesday with artwork and stories about Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism, as well as Christianity. All religions are treated with respect, as are people with no religion.

It seems to me like an ethics class with only a tiny bit of god-bothering. They learn about virtures like honesty and reliability. My daughter has chosen to go to an after-school class because Bahai don't offer a scripture class at her high school. Every fortnight her after-school class goes to a local nursing home and plays board/card games with the oldies. Hell, if it's making her a better person without brainwashing her, I'm all for it. If an ethics class isn't an option, I'd recommend a Bahai class as second-best.

Disclaimer: volunteered at the local school for 2 years, was a paid canteen assistant manager for 4 years, was the secretary of the school council for 6 years. I'm not an expert on Sydney schools, nor same-sex schools, but I think I understand an average co-ed primary school pretty well. Feel free to mefi-mail at any time.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:29 AM on February 17, 2011

I remain intellectually horrified by Scripture having any part in my kid's state school, but not really prepared to do anything about it.

We didn't have "scripture" at my tiny Adelaide Hills primary school, but I remember the religious ed classes we did at high school were generally regarded as ridiculous. If anything they made the students less likely to end up religious and more likely to associate christianity with bad amateur theatre.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:39 AM on February 18, 2011

Response by poster: Just wanted to say thank you to everyone again for their posts, and say that we recently attended a meeting at the school at which we were told our kids would soon be bringing a library book home every week in a special bag. When would this start? As soon as everyone's coughed up their "voluntary contributions". Very subtle.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:51 PM on February 21, 2011

« Older Life: punching me in the face over and over and...   |   2011: The Summer of Brazil Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.