Opinion  |  

Why I loved working in a public school

Australia has one of the developed world’s most unequal and socially fragmented education systems, something that should concern all Christians. All children are precious, including those who go to the local public school. We are our brother’s keeper and so too of his children. The neighbourhood school needs the influence of Christian parents.

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I count it a privilege and a sacred calling to have served in public schools for 37 years, 25 of these as principal, 19 in my final school. I must have loved it!

One lovely memory is of being approached in the playground by 11-year-old Nick.

“Mr James, why are you always so happy?”

I do not recall my answer but it should have been, “It’s because we have people like you in our school, Nick.”

Nick went on to earn a PhD in history and become a significant Tasmanian author.

We cared for the children whom no one else wanted.

Although classified as a school in a disadvantaged area, we were still able to produce high performers such as Nick in a wide range of professions, even to professorship level. It is a reminder that students from the public sector can perform as well as and often better than their private sector counterparts.

We cared

We also had many students at the other end of the academic spectrum, children who were mentally challenged, physically handicapped and those exhibiting extreme behaviours. We were like other public schools, servicing the needs of a disproportionate percentage of these children and almost always with inadequate levels of support. Someone had to care.

We accepted all

We accepted all children who sought entry. There were no rigorous “conditions of entry.” We found it incomprehensible that some schools required a faith commitment of parents and involvement in an acceptable church. We had some lovely Mormon children who sought entry at a nearby Christian school and were refused. We were thrilled to have them stay with us. On the other hand, one of our most difficult students had been passed back to us from a “faith” school – a common practice. We cared for the children whom no one else wanted.

We were an integral part of the local community, not separate or retreating from it.

We were sensitive to the financial circumstances of our families

We imposed no financial barriers. Our peppercorn levies could not be legally enforced and families receiving Centrelink support were exempt. We could only regard with amazement the astronomical fees charged by schools associated with the major denominations, shutting out not only the poor but the great bulk of the middle class as well. Where was their social conscience?

Nor did we impose costly additional requirements such as compulsory laptops, exit penalties or special uniform items.

We complied with anti-discrimination legislation

A perusal of the websites of faith-based and denominational schools invariably reveals heavily restrictive conditions for enrolment. We celebrated the historic Australian ideal of free, compulsory and secular education.

Free: to allow access irrespective of family wealth.

Compulsory: so that all children are protected from parental dereliction.

Secular: not unChristian but without reflecting denominational favouritism.

Public schools need Christian parents who can seek to protect Christian values. Their diminishing presence is a tragedy for public education.

We were part of the local community

With an absolutely open enrolment policy, we were an integral part of the local community, not separate or retreating from it. We were the local school – the school where most of the children of the community attended.

We respected Judeo-Christian values and culture

Schools inevitably reflect the characteristics of the communities they serve. Despite this, we were able to inject elements of Christian culture into the operations of the school. Bible readings in assembly, support for the Christian Religious Education (CRE) teachers, Christmas and Easter church services and a prayer letter provided to local supporters. Public schools need Christian parents who can seek to protect Christian values. Their diminishing presence is a tragedy for public education. When presenting the annual school budget to the parent association I invariably needed to defend the allocation of funds to the CRE programme. It would have been lovely to have a few supporters.

I suspect [Jesus] would give serious consideration to [a school] that is open to all.

What would Jesus do?

I sometimes like to reflect on where Jesus would send his younger siblings if he were here today. Would it really be to a school inaccessible to the poor or one that refuses entry to children of the wrong faith background? I suspect he would give serious consideration to one that is open to all, especially one that cares for the children rejected even by those who claim identification with him. It would certainly be nice to have him at parent association meetings.

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