The kids started school in early November and have had a good 7 week intro to school in Australia. Due to the school year ending here in December, the kids returned to their grades from last year. They are now off on their second summer vacation of the year, until the new school year starts February 1st. The kids attend our local government primary school, which goes from Prep (year before grade 1) to grade 6. In the neighborhood we live in there are lots of private schools (apparently it is the highest concentration of private schools in the world) and I have read that 40% of Melbourne students attend private schools. The government funds private schools at the same per student cost as government schools, thus creating a two tier system. As a strong public school proponent, I find the private school culture of Melbourne really unusual. Our school here often loses students around the grade 4-5 point where they will switch into the private system.
The kids were a little nervous about starting, but the end of the week, brought smiles and excitement. Gavin struggled with some separation issues for awhile (the first time ever) and there were lots of tears at drop off, which broke my heart. The kids were welcomed into their new classes by the other kids and teachers and got lots of attention for their different accents. Miles is not eligible for school until next year so we enjoyed lots of time together over the last few weeks.
In so many ways, school here is very similar to school in Canada, but there are also distinctive differences. Some of the differences I have noticed are obvious and some are less so. Some of them could just be our school and not indicative of all Aussie schools.
Before the kids started school, we had to get them set up with their school uniforms. They wear polo shirts with navy bottoms, or the girls can also wear a plaid dress. Ella in particular wasn’t happy about wearing a uniform because she feels she should be able to express herself through her clothes. However she finds ways to accessorize her uniform in other ways. Some of the warmer clothing is a great introduction to Aussie terminology – the kids can wear school jumpers, windcheaters, and trousers. They also have to wear a school sun hat since all schools here are “Sunsmart” and apparently the motto is “no hat, no play, no fun today” and they are very strict on this. Ella was not too impressed when she forgot her hat and had to wear a school loaner to go out for recess. The kids are also heavily encouraged to wear their hair up at all times to prevent the spread of lice.
2. School Fees
In Canada, the government is working hard to eliminate any fees charged in the schools. In Australia you have to pay mandatory fees, which vary by school by amount to $410/student which covers stationary, classroom supplies, IT materials and photocopying. You then are encouraged to pay an extra $150 in voluntary fees for the library, school grounds, and building maintenance. So for our kids to attend government school costs us about $1,800/year; it isn’t a lot, but it is an additional cost. We are really lucky though because Victoria is one of the only states that does not charge international student fees to people on our type of work visa. Each term you also pay up front for any field trips or extra classroom activities. It is great to do it all at once and not have random forms and money that need to be paid throughout the term.
The school has a canteen (cafeteria) every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, staffed mostly by parent volunteers. Kids can order meals like sausage rolls, frittatas, toasties, sandwiches and pasta and also snack items like cookies, icy poles (popsicles), and even frozen pineapple rings (my kids’ favourite). There are no pizza or sub days here, but the kids can get these home cooked meals 3 days a week. I have signed up to work at the canteen next year as part of my quest to stay busy once the kids are all in school.
4. School Grounds
The government schools here are good looking schools and could be mistaken for private schools. Due to the mild weather, the schools are set up like a campus with various buildings around the perimeter and the play spaces in the middle (kind of like those California schools you see in the movies). Most school seem to have a turf field with a track around it and then there are usually a few separate play structures, and sand play areas.
The kids only have Phys Ed one hour per week, but the classroom teachers seem to bring them outside for play often especially when the weather is nice. They even have something called the “Play Shed” which is a shed filled with various boards, tires, old blankets, wooden blocks, and tents. I often see classes using the play shed contents outside, building their own swing set on the soccer posts or creating a fort on the grass – a wonderful play based, STEM learning initiative. The school even has a small vegetable garden and a few chickens. We enjoyed taking care of them for a little bit over the Holidays. The school is an older historic building and at some point in time the idea of having open classroom spaces was introduced. As a result many of the classrooms are joint and completely open to the neighboring classroom. I find it incredibly difficult to see how kids can concentrate when two classes are being run side by side, but I suppose there can be benefits to this set up for team teaching and ability based groupings. We also have a lovely gym with floor to ceiling windows that roll up as needed.
5. School Philosophies
While they do have an Australian common curriculum and there is standardized testing, government schools develop their own district philosophies and pedagogical approaches, often influenced heavily by the Principal who often stays 10+ years at one school. So while schools here are mostly neighborhood schools, you can have schools that are strikingly different from one another. For example, the first house that we were interested in had a Steiner based philosophy with multi age groupings instead of grades. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to let go of that house was because I thought it would be such a great opportunity for our kids to attend an alternative school that in Canada they would only be able to attend if we went private. Kew Primary is a more typical primary school although the Principal that was brought in a couple of years ago has brought really positive changes to the school.
6. Role of IT
Kew Primary is a bit ahead of the curve on the incorporation of IT into daily classroom activities. All students in grade 3 and above are supposed to bring an ipad to school each day. This seems to work in our neighborhood because it is a fairly affluent neighborhood. Ella had a fantastic young teacher and they used these ipads throughout the day. In Canada, we have just started encouraging BYOD (“bring your own device”) and even I was quite skeptical of this new initiative. In Ella’s class, I have seen the enriching ways they use ipads in the classroom and I am now a believer!
7. Parent Involvement and Sense of Community
We were blown away by the parent involvement in the school. Since there are no school buses at our school, most students walk or are driven to school and parents walk into the campus and even into the classroom with their kids. Each class has a parent rep who helps organize things for the teacher and disseminates information. You get a class list with every one in the class’s contact information and I quickly met most of the parents in all my kids’ classes. Ella’s parent rep even organized a “Welcome Ella” party at the local park one day after school for all the families in the class. It was so nice to have the whole class at the park to play after school and for Paul and I to meet so many parents. Even teacher gifts are organized by the parent rep – no worrying what to buy – contribute to the group gift and sign the card – perfect! Parents volunteer regularly in the classroom doing anything from working with small groups to making a bulletin board to preparing a craft activity. I am hoping volunteering a few days each week will help keep the weeks busy. A common thing to do on Fridays after school is to walk to the local park for the kids to have a play. The Moms bring snacks (not chips, but think cheese and crackers and such) and champagne! I was balled over the first time I went and the champagne came out, but it is a pretty great way to end the week. I am not sure if it is all Australians or just our little part of Melbourne, but champagne is not saved for special occasions, but a regular drink of choice.
8. Interesting Special Activities
All students in grade 4 and above attend a 3 day outdoor camp. Ella will go to camp in February and is already really excited about it. When she first started school the grade 3s and 4s were participating in a 6 week Bike Education Program where they brought their bikes to school one day each week and there was bike safety training. This culminated in a 6km Celebration Ride to a local park where they had a Sausage Sizzle lunch and play. All preps do a 6 week swimming program where they do swimming lessons at a local pool. Ella already has a field trip in February where they have a Swim Competition in their house teams. Each student is assigned one of four house teams for their time at the school and all siblings are in the same team. Various activities throughout the year allow the house teams to compete. I think it is really great for our kids to experience some of these unique learning opportunities. There are some things I do prefer about our school in Canada. For example the kids only have one hour a week of PE and one hour here of Language (French), which both seem a little short. They also don’t have any Music or Dance programming, but parents can pay extra for them to attend a Music or Drama program at lunch. They do have before school sports programs run by outside organizations, like soccer or tennis, which are a great way to squeeze in extra-curricular activities before or after school.
My Impressions Overall
While I would have loved them to attend that alternative government school and have a really unique learning experience, I am really happy with the school and the opportunities they are having. There is no question they are experiencing many things that they wouldn’t have in Canada. The education approach here is very similar to Canada with common buzz words like “inquiry based learning”, “differentiated instruction” and “play based learning”. They even have a program called “Kewriosity”, an inquiry based program where the students choose a topic to research and explore.
I did find Gavin’s grade 1 class to be more rigorous and structured than Canada. This could possibly be just his teacher’s style, but I wasn’t thrilled with how long and often they spend on the carpet or at their desks, the expectation that they be very, very quiet at all times and the focus on memorizing long (200 word) spelling tests. It definitely pained me to think about the Steiner based school he could have gone to, which matches by preferred style more. I am hoping his class next year will be a bit more relaxed. One of the great things they do at our school is a fantastic transition program. The new preps attended school one hour a week for four weeks to allow them to get used to the big school. In term 4 all students are told their teacher and class for next year and there are two mornings where they attend class with their new teacher. This was great for the kids to get to know their new teacher and new classmates.
Here are some thoughts from the kids:
Ella – “I am having lots of fun. I have met many friends and am excited for next year. School is pretty different than Canada, but also the same. Some things that are different are my new school has a canteen, our playground is a million times cooler here and we have to wear hats no matter what the weather.”
Gavin – “It is quite a bit different from my school in Canada. The playgrounds are different and you learn by different ways. Also most of the teachers go by their first names, not their last names. I like it because they make the work fun, like for Math we do math games, not math worksheets.”