Sunday, January 31, 2016

The heartbreak of changing schools - part 1, the decision

We have moved both Bear and Mitts to a new school, following a terminal process that commenced when we first met the leadership and wondered whether this was someone we wanted to leave our children with.

I have been so careful discussing this on facebook, I do not want to hurt the feelings of the parents where we have been, so this has finally pushed me to come back to this site to unpack thoughts and experiences from what has been an incredibly painful process for beloved and I. I will write this post about the lead up, and a further post about the way this impacted our children and is now impacting our friendships.

I will not skewer individuals, that is a fair swap for writing under pseudonym, and besides, I hope to hear their names as little as possible. I share my feelings and opinions, and I know not everyone at the school agrees,

As decisions go, this has to be one of the hardest we have made as a couple. It has been a while since I last posted here, and Bear and Mitts had both settled into school and made friends. We have also made friends and felt part of our community. It is less than 10 minutes walk from our house, whereas we are moving to a larger school - still public - around 20 minutes by car, 40 by combined public transport and foot falcon.

I already knew rumours the school had problems, especially in the relationship between the leadership and many of the parents, when we signed on. After we had a tour, where my and Beloved's guts said no, I rang around both public and private schools in the area, gauging availability, before we decided to 'go local' and give it a shot.

My attitudes to going local, public schools, the education department - even wider beliefs around community, collective action and human nature itself, have all been deeply damaged.

I will not list the litany of complaints here, but I would say they span wellbeing, curriculum and other matters. It wasn't just 'a gripe'. I will say, as a foil to the now-dominant 'narrative of the problem parent', which I am now deeply cynical about, that dozens of parents have made formal complaints about similar matters to the Department of Education and Training in recent times as well as in the past. Those parents included teachers, OH&S officers, people working at other government departments and people who give hours of their time to NGOs. They were not some cliched gaggle of helicopter yuppies. They just wanted their kids taught well, and kept safe.

It wasn't just us: as I became involved with the small group of parents gently but persistently trying to achieve change (and feeling heavily smashed down at every step) I was approached by parents of older children who had been through the same thing over the years. The Department was well aware there were deep, long-term problems, but chose - chooses to look the other way or characterise the parents, despite the repetitive nature of the complaints, as trouble makers or prosecutors of a vendetta.

As they do to parents at numerous troubled schools around Melbourne. I have learned there is far more to the issue than problem parents, and most of the problems never see the light of day.

There were plenty of good teachers, but there is no leadership manual in the world that says good workers can make an environment great, on their own, in a steep hierarchy.

I spoke to a senior bureaucrat who effectively admitted there was a problem, but said that, essentially, nothing would change. I also got talking to parents from other schools and learned that our school's issues are sadly not uncommon. Some of the tales I've heard about rogue principals are simply awful, beggar belief, and make a mockery of the Department's publicly-stated policies.

This would not be sustainable without the consent of many, but sadly, despite being in an issue-aware Greens-voting area, too many people, for various reasons, walk past the standard they would not accept for their own children. I did not. Nothing bad happened to me or to my kids, at least not before I started asking questions and pushing back, but it did to others, and you can only rely on fortune to keep you and your children out of trouble for so long. This is fundamental to being a community.

Many parents took firm stances, some even stronger than ours, but others undermined - leaking or at minimum whining in the school yard about how the parents raising issues were lowering morale. Given many kids already had poor morale (just one example - prep kids holding on to pee all day because they were scared of going in the toilets), I thought this was a terrible case of sticking heads in sand and blaming the messengers.

Others again - possibly a majority of parents - just felt intimidated. They would approach the active parents in the playground and thank them (us), and tell us we had support, but when the moment came their understandable concern for how their children might be treated came first. Parents were scared, they still are.

Over the past couple of years a number of families left the school. Having sworn as recently as a year ago that we would not consider this, we paused, considered the reality, and ended up doing the same.

Our children only get one run. Disappointed with the gaps in their education, and with most of our trust gone, we decided enough was enough. 

Having decided to take such a big step, things like reputation, quality and curriculum became more important. Our trust in the public system was damaged and from my discussions with both bureaucrats and other parents it became clear there are huge variations among the schools in the northern areas of Melbourne. A number are barely dragging along, a number of others are excellent models of everything a public school can be. And the latter are nearly all 'zoned'.

We visited a school with wonderful music, language and overall teaching, the envy of the region. After ten minutes talking to the Assistant Principal, we were both nearly crying. It was so clear that we had been deluding ourselves for so long, and that our worst instincts were on the money from the beginning. You can tell when you are speaking to a passionate educator who loves their school and everyone in it.

The impact was so strong that, upon learning they were zoned to the nth degree, we looked at moving house. We have only recently renovated (how that would have been fine fodder for this blog if I'd been active!) but were realising just how much more important some things are. Then, on a tip from a friend, another parent already in the process of moving, we made some more enquiries and found a great school that could take our children.

If you had told me 5 years ago that I would shave and don a tie to meet a public school principal I'd have laughed. But when your children are on the line, and you've seen how inconsistent and unreliable the system can be, you don't take chances.

We have made the move and I am still unpacking and unwinding and releasing all the stress. I shake or feel sick when I think about it, writing this was not easy.

The impact on our friends and our children is still ongoing, and that will be the subject of my next blog post.