Awards highlight the value of public education

The inaugural Public Education Foundation Awards showcased some of the value society receives from its investment in public education.

Scholarship winners celebrated their achievement on stage at the inaugural Public Education Foundation Awards. Angelo Kehagias

Richard Cann


Musician and longtime Schools Spectacular host John Foreman challenged attendees at the Public Education Foundation’s inaugural awards night to view spending on education as “investing in the intelligence of our country”.

Mr Foreman was the keynote speaker at the event, which saw the presentation of scholarships and awards to public school students and teachers, and several student performances. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, Federal Education Minister Peter Garrett, Public Education Foundation Chief Executive Verity Firth, and Federation President Maurie Mulheron were also present at the awards at Sydney Town Hall on April 30.

Mr Foreman credited public education for setting him on the path of a successful career in music that has seen him work as the musical director of high profile TV programs Good Morning Australia,  Australian Idol and Young Talent Time, and write the song performed by Tina Arena at the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, The Flame.

“In year 1 or 2, there was a teacher who realised I was a very shy kid, but I loved music,” he said of his time at Belair Public School in Newcastle. “Miss Williamson got me to play the organ with the school assemblies and the school choir. I felt a great sense of purpose and even as a little person, I felt very important.”

Later at Kotara High School, Mr Foreman was excited when he heard about a new show that would be staged and televised, the Schools Spectacular. However, he saw little opportunity for “a jazz pianist from Newcastle” to take part, until he received encouragement from another teacher. “He said to me, ‘What have you got to lose? If you don’t get in, all you’ve lost is 10 minutes out of your lunchtime.’ To a 15 year old  this was a revelation because I was so consumed with the fear of failure that I didn’t want to do this in case I was rejected.”

After auditioning successfully, he performed a solo at the Schools Spectacular and a musical star was born. “That moment changed my life in so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them,” said Mr Foreman, who went on to attend the Conservatorium High School.

“The obliteration of my fear of failure by those wise words has stayed with me so that many years later when I read in a magazine that every musician worth their salt was submitting a song for the Sydney Olympics, I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ I remembered my teacher’s advice and I went ahead and wrote a song and that was another moment that changed my life.”

Mr Foreman has hosted the Schools Spectacular since 2001 and said that the “incredible difference” it made in his life is replicated every year in the lives of every student that participates in the event. “It’s been described as the world’s biggest classroom and I’m very proud to be associated with the event.”

Mr Foreman told attendees that he was grateful for the fact that his parents chose to send their three children to public schools.

“It’s a choice I’m very proud of and very grateful for,” he said, before adding that he was disturbed to hear someone talking on talk back radio about “the burden of public education” on the finances of the government. “It’s important that we resist and reject the use of that word ‘burden’ when it’s describing public education.”

He pointed to the night’s awards recipients and performers as evidence that “money spent on public education is an investment rather than a burden”.

“I look at the Schools Spectacular as a really great microcosm for our public education system,” he explained. “At the elite level, you can see the most brilliant orchestral musicians, the most fantastic singers and dancers being given the opportunity to be even better. Those students are representative of the science student that is encouraged to go on and hopefully discover a pain-free and chemotherapy-free cure for cancer. The money spent on that child’s education is obviously money well spent.

“At the other end of the spectrum you might have students that come from difficult backgrounds whose lives are in danger of going off the rails. An insightful teacher might direct that student towards the dance ensemble or the rock band or the school cricket team or the drama class. I don’t think there’s any way to really quantify the value that we as a society get from those sorts of interventions.”

To watch performances, speeches and presentations from the awards ceremony visit Federation’s YouTube channel at