Schools - private or state?

2011-01-05 00:00

FOR most parents there is little question about where their children will continue their schooling this year.

Their choice is usually based on locality, financial considerations, the old school factor or a combination of those things. A small group, however, find themselves trying to choose between private and government schools.

Before hackles start to rise, let me say that I take no side here. The debate between private and state schools often descends very rapidly into heated argument because both sides rationalise their choice and fuel each other's pre- judices. The father who maintains that the state school he went to was good enough for him so it should be good enough for his son may have over-looked the fact that times have changed. The same can be said for the old boy who insists on sending his child to his old private school.

Perhaps one way to tackle this dispute is by summarising a few main points.

Private schools are likely to have smaller classes. Many government schools battle with huge numbers and this means big classes. No matter how good the teachers are, big classes are harder to teach than small classes.

There is often a better balance between sport and cultural activities such as music and drama at private schools. This may be about facilities, but the state schools often fall short in these areas.

Many of the private schools create extremely strong friendship bonds that lead to the establishment of old-boy and old-girl networks which remain active years after people have left school. As much as some may be critical of these (or envious) they provide wonderful platforms for business and social contacts and even employment. They may also engender a certain amount of confidence.

The other side of the same coin is that the same sense of advantage becomes very unattractive when it turns into elitism. Products of our private schools need to be reminded occasionally that no one likes snobs and that to have been educated at a fine school is a privilege not an entitlement. A private-school education may be a very fine thing, but not if it cuts you off from more than half the world.

It can be argued that a state school is as good a preparation for the new South Africa as you will find.

I had the good fortune to teach for a number of years at a school where there were boys and girls, black and white, and some of Asian origin. The home languages included English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Hindi. Everything worked perfectly. Here was the Rainbow Nation in action. What a good place to teach youngsters to mix.

Religion is a thorny issue and it needs three whole articles to itself, but it is a factor for some. Private schools often provide a religious base which is revisited in later life. Apart from a few hastily repeated prayers, many state schools do little to provide much by way of spiritual background and while many are reluctant to admit it, religion may play a larger role in later life. Weddings, funerals and baptisms bear testimony to this.

Whatever decision you make about your child's education, just avoid spurious reasons for what you do. If swanning around in the latest 4x4 or an expensive holiday is more important than your youngster's education, then that's your choice. There is little doubt that the older, traditional government schools probably offer as much as their private counterparts, but the education system is under some pressure so they may not always be able to maintain their standards. Do what is best for your child and make your choice for the right reasons.

• Raymond Walker is a Pietermaritzburg teacher.

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