Private schooling: value outside the classroom.

Private schooling: value outside the classroom.

Private schools are expensive, prohibitively expensive for the average Australian family. Something I’ve sometimes been asked in my post schooling years by friends or colleagues is “was it all worth it?” or “would you send your kids there?”. Quantifying value is difficult, especially for something as holistic as an education. Nevertheless, I hope when I have children, I am fortunate enough to be able to afford private schooling. A big part of the value in elite private schools lies in the extracurriculars.

My school held what was essentially a five-week camp, hosted at a satellite campus in rural South Australia, for each year nine class. The essentials being mobile phones and all electronics strictly banned, with computer use exclusively limited to writing a personal blog. The only way to communicate with parents and siblings was through handwritten letters which was strongly encouraged – a novel idea ten years ago and even more so today! The program was an extended stay away from the norms of our homelives and was conceived to challenge students and give a (albeit very small) taste of adult life.

We were placed in groups of six or seven and lived in self-contained three-bedroom units. Taught to budget and grocery shop, meal plan and cook, clean and do our own laundry. I am the youngest of three and was very used to helping cook dinner or doing chores around the house, but for some kids this was completely foreign. Like everything in the program, the shared living was heavily structured. There were staff around to gently guide you in the right direction if your culinary skills weren’t quite up to speed, as well as strong frameworks to mediate disagreements and teach conflict resolutions skills when a bunch of teenagers inevitably clashed.

Beyond the domestic skills, it was the experience of having to be self-sufficient that lent me a greater affection and appreciation for my parents. A big focus of the program was being reflective, appreciative and self-aware through journaling. All qualities many characterise private school kids and teenagers as lacking. While a five-week camp can’t singlehandedly ground a young person’s outlook, I think it’s valuable that my school was at least perceptive enough to realise these are attributes a lot of their students needed help with.

Looking back as an adult, it was a thoughtful and fantastically conceived program. Introductory statistics was taught in the context of rainfall data. Creative writing was inspired by the Australian landscape. History was taught through the guise of playful narratives about early settlers. While science was taught through marine biology and conversation projects. All the markers of conventional school were there, just in an engaging remote setting. It was like masking veggies in a fussy eater’s pasta, the essentials were there, but it was approachable.

The program had a strong sense of community engagement. We volunteered in the local community doing council revegetation work. We also participated in the council’s leisure options program that provided social and recreation activities for people with disabilities. Something that challenged my maturity and helped cultivated empathy and communication skills.

The program had a big physical competent – each carefully planned day started with fitness. A mixture of distance running, strength training or games. It was challenging. I was an active kid and played regular sport but was overweight and remember struggling over that first 5km run. It took me out of my comfort zone and challenged me. With childhood obesity on the rise and kids spending more time inside than ever, this seems invaluable. The fitness was geared towards personal progress. Sure, teenagers got competitive, but as someone of the less fit end of the spectrum I remember it being ‘relatively’ encouraging in nature.

We surfed, went on three-day expeditions and camped, explored local beaches and fished. In many ways without phones, televisions and game consoles it was the idyllic representation of kids being kids. The intimacy of five-weeks away from the outside world help me forged friendships that lasted my adolescence. A few of which remain my closest friends today. The program for the most part did a good job managing different personalities and bullying. Not everyone’s experience was as glowing as mine. Some kids got homesick and really struggled, but from what I saw these blues mostly turned around by the end of the program.

Was it life-changing? Not quite, but some ten years later I still hold fond memories and a special feeling of nostalgia for that part of the country. I’m not naive, single sex private schools are not without their faults. But this program is a great example to the question “what do you really get for all those school fees anyway?”

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