Public or Private School? Confessions of a Former Student

There comes a time when every parent faces one of the biggest decisions that they have to make for their kids. They’ve brought them up and so far, what results is a pretty decent version of a human being. They just have to get them through the next six years.

For many parents, the decision of whether to go public or private with their kid’s second level education is an easy one. Whether finances, personal beliefs or location dictates the choice; for some, its cut and dry. For others, like my parents, the decision is a little looser. Mine were in a position to weigh up some options. They did the research and discussed it at length and in the end, I was going to private school. Their school of choice was a religious, all girls school, 20 kilometres from home.

I was sent to an Opus Dei secondary school. A devout sect of Catholicism which, in its most extreme form, worshipers wear a cilice and practice what they refer to as ‘self-denial.’ I won’t go so far as to say it is how it’s depicted in The Da Vinci Code; it dœsn’t come close to those levels of sinister. It dœs have an eery, secretive and elitist air about it, though. And I felt it the moment I walked through the door.

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My class consisted of ten girls. The school itself only had about sixty pupils, one of each class from first year to sixth. We went through the motions together on the first day, and it wasn’t that bad, giving us all hope and encouragement to come back the next day.

Four years later, I left. Well, I was asked to leave. It turns out that kind of school and me just didn’t see eye to eye. We both tried. They tried to deal with the challenges a student like me posed in whatever way they thought was the right way, while I tried to accept their views of ‘right.’ Even though I knew, at the tender young age I was, that they just weren’t.

I learned a lot in four years. My experiences in this kind of educational environment both shaped me and scarred me. So I thought it would be worthwhile to address some of the commonly held beliefs about private religious schools.

Because the classes are smaller, doesn’t that mean students will be more focused and get more attention?

There are pros and cons of being in a small school with small class sizes. It is true that each student gets more personal attention from teachers, and for students that have a bit more trouble learning than others, this is a real advantage. For some of my former classmates, it was the reason they succeeded. Teachers noticed those having difficulty and gave them the time and attention that wouldn’t be possible in a larger school. The flip side of this is that when classes are run at a slower pace for some students, it can be somewhat limiting and frustrating for those that naturally faired better in an academic environment.

In a smaller class, though, everything is concentrated. The word ‘bullying brings a shudder to both parents and students alike, so it’s an important factor to consider. One in four children are bullied because of their faith, with an anti-bullying charity citing a lack of cohesion between faiths as the culprit. I was too young to understand that some of my classmates had faith and were happy to learn under a religious ethos. And they were too young to realise that some of their classmates didn’t want to be taught in this way and that it was OK. I found bullying to be rampant in my school and I can honestly attribute this to the smaller class size. Every aspect of school life becomes more potent when there are only ten of you in the class. Chances are you’ll either be the bully or be bullied.

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It’s hard to be an individual and stand up among the crowd when the crowd is ten walking bags of hormones, and individuality is a common problem for kids of secondary school age. They’re grappling with trying to find out who they are and fit in with the rest of the class all at once. It’s a confusing time at best, and Catholic schools do little to nurture this individuality. I learned that the more of an individual I was, the more of a problem I was.

I asked a former classmate and friend about this, and she made an interesting point:

Going to a more open-minded school that accepted individuality and diversity would have better prepared me for the world outside of my tiny secondary school. College was a culture shock coming from a very small, religious, private secondary school.

How can we prepare young people for the huge deal that college is by suppressing their individuality for six years prior? How will they ever get a chance to learn and love who they are if they are constantly being told to be like somebody else?

Although the class size brought its fair share of challenges, I made best friends for life in this school. Turns out going through it together made us bond in a way I don’t think is possible in a bigger public school. We became close, and most of us are still great friends to this day.

So the school is religious, what does that mean and why does it matter?

A common conception: the fact that the school is religiously run means a child will learn Catholic values and morals, and become a well-rounded person. There will be a good balance between education and religious input.

While I personally don’t agree with this, personal preferences will come into play here. A big part of it will come down to whether the parent is religious, if they subscribe to these values and morals, and believe their child should too. In my experience, although the Catholic values and morals were indeed taught, they were somewhat forced upon me.

As for becoming a well-rounded individual, I find this particularly hard to support when students are told that the word of God is the only one that matters. On some occasions, this teaching of morals and values became so intense that it felt like full on conversion tactics. In what were described as one-to-one tutorials, a senior member of the school would attempt to shape young minds in God’s way once a week. These sessions were also used to ask me about my life at home for what felt like tactical reasons and once a month; my parents were called in for their very own sessions.

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When it comes down to it, when religion is being taught, something else isn’t. Because of this, it can and did have a serious impact on my studies. Catholic Ireland themselves say the balance reached with religious education in Catholic schools should lie between the ‘faith formation dimension’ and the ‘critical educational dimension.’ The faith formation dimension, they say, is influenced strongly by the relationship between religion and religious education, while the critical educational dimension is influenced by the ‘philosophical and educational domains.’ I have trouble with this so-called balance for two reasons. The first being that if a school is run by devoutly Catholic teachers and nobody else, then they are going to favour the former dimension unfairly. The second being that if any other form of education is in competition with something called the ‘educational domain,’ then something isn’t right.

Equality education and sex education were nonexistent in my school. Outside of how babies are made in science class, not a word was said about sexual health, consent, sexuality and certainly not reproductive rights. How did they get away with this? The Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) programme was introduced in post-primary schools in Ireland in 1995. It entitles every student access to and understanding of truthful, unbiased, and undistorted information about sexual identity, relationships, and intimacy. It was introduced two years before I started secondary school, but they had a fallback. Although RSE is mandatory at second level, schools can deliver this education in accordance with their ethos. Unfortunately, the common Catholic school ethos is to barely deliver under the disguise of a run-of-the-mill biology class or not to deliver at all.

There are those that believe that religious education ‘provides a place in the younger child’s day to reflect on belonging and being cherished within a community of religious faith or other belief systems.’ But there dœsn’t need to be a deity to pray to for kids to reflect on belonging and feel part of a community. Many schools across America have replaced punishment with reflection, and detention with meditation and yoga and the results are promising. Progressive actions like this prove that holistic approaches to education and behaviour can yield a much more positive reaction than archaic punishing techniques that are synonymous with Catholic schooling.

I know private school is expensive, but surely the quality of education is worth paying for?

Private school is expensive, and it most often isn’t just a one-off payment for the year. If a student comes from a well-to-do family, that family will be expected to make contributions above and beyond simple fees. My parents experienced severe financial pressure from the school each year. Monthly newsletters would highlight and thank the big contributors, adding a sense of competition and peer pressure among parents, and blatantly singling out those that cannot afford the extras.

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As well as hefty fees and contributions, private schools like the one I attended expect a lot of parent participation. If you want to be involved at a high level, that’s fine. But if you are a professional parent who enjoys working and has a promising career, you’ll likely be looked down on, sometimes even pressured to put your career on the back seat. My parents ran a business together, so couldn’t attend some of the private monthly sessions with my tutor, and sometimes had to skip a school play. For every wrong turn I took, they were called in. If they had to decline, they were judged and given a firm lecture about their ‘level of care’ the next time they did make it in.

Although a high level of parent involvement is necessary for a child’s education, private schools take that necessity to a whole new level. And it starts early. Before I was admitted to the school, my parents were put through a rigorous entrance process. Parenting methods were quizzed, professional and personal lives judged, their level of religious affiliation was put under the microscope, and their financial capabilities were a topic of many discussions.

The quality of overall education is the bone of contention here, but since teachers in all schools have to have the same qualifications, I think there is no reason to think a student in a private school receives a higher level of education. I believe that if a child is happy in school, then they have the highest chance of doing well. And kids are smarter these days; they have a better idea of the world and what they want. So ask them.

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