In a Q&A series with people involved in the Ourschool program, Caroline Milburn, Ourschool’s CEO and co-founder, talks to:

Ellen Koshland, education reformer and philanthropist

Ellen Koshland was the first education philanthropist to back the idea of Ourschool. In 2018 Ms Koshland was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women for her achievements in stimulating innovation in public school education and women’s literature.

Ellen, why did you decide to support Ourschool from its beginning?  Every single person has a talent, has gifts, and needs the opportunity to develop them. Not everyone knows in high school the way forward.

A long time ago in a program I was running alumni would come to the school and speak to students. Often a corporate leader or film director would say things like, “I had a bad hair day in my school days here too”. It made it incredibly real to those students that those people had been sitting in their seats and their classrooms and they had succeeded.

Career advice can provide certain knowledge but equally important is the inspiration that role models can provide.

Ourschool has found a powerful vehicle to do that. There are so many people wanting to give that kind of help to young people. Ourschool offered the vehicle and I see it as a massive changer of lives.

What appealed to you more generally about Ourschool’s vision of helping public high schools build their alumni communities?  There is something very particular about public education. Every individual counts but also the kind of community that those individuals exist in, counts.

The fact that public school education has a broad mix of people is one of its greatest aspects. But it makes the task of catering to very different aspirations harder.

If everyone is headed towards university then it’s easier for a school to produce graduates who go on to university.

But if some students are as keen to become self-employed hairdressers, to become artists, to work in construction, to become scientists and they’re all in one class, it takes a greater range of information to be provided. Past students can provide that broader information.

Do you think we tend to take public school education for granted – that we often don’t acknowledge the vital role it plays in society?  Absolutely.

People tend to place undue attention on scores and “building success” and yet I know that many of the skills that come from getting to know other people from different backgrounds, understanding your own limited perspective, being able to work with people who have different views, is one of the greatest skills you can learn.

For example, my daughter was a student at Elwood Secondary College and then worked as a lawyer in Timor when Timor was building its Constitution.

She felt that her high school experience mixing with many, many different people gave her a great advantage compared with many of her colleagues who had gone through a more selective education system.

She knew how to connect with lots of people – it was a life skill that she developed at school.

It’s also for the good of society that people understand other views. I went to a public high school. I found reading a Shakespeare play such as King Lear, was fascinating because there were so many different attitudes in our class about fathers, towards property, towards all sorts of things.

My public school education was my greatest education even though I went on to higher degrees because after that you have a narrower audience. I went on to Michigan University and Princeton, but it was a narrower community.

In my public school I came to understand much more about life.  

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