Public and private schools of thought

·   ANNE BARROWCLOUGH

·   THE AUSTRALIAN

·   JANUARY 25, 2014 12:00AM

JULIA Bucknell had been in a private school for nearly a year when her parents, Gillian and Sam, decided to move her back to the local public school in Yass, NSW, where her two sisters were thriving.

Julia, 14, is now doing well there. But the couple's decision to educate their daughters in the public sector has lost the Bucknells a whole social circle; they have even been accused of ruining their children's lives. "We didn't sell them into the sex industry for heaven's sake," Gillian says. "We just sent them to a public school."

The Bucknells struggled with their decision. Although Sam had been privately educated, Gillian has never liked private schools, which she feels give pupils a sense of entitlement rather than personal or social responsibility. While Lucy, 15, and Prue, 12, loved their public school, where Lucy is a straight-A student hoping to become a doctor, Julia felt out of place when she started there and believed she would receive a better education at a private school. But while the academic standards were high at the expensive boarding school the Bucknells chose, they became unhappy with the pastoral care. Julia returned to Yass High School, where they are satisfied with the "respect and care" she receives. "Just as importantly, all my girls have learnt to get on with a wide social mix of people rather than the narrow range Julia met at private school," Gillian says. "Money can't buy that."

Samantha and Sarah Bridges (not their real names) have also benefited socially since they left their private school for the local public school in Cherrybrook, northwest Sydney, according to their mother, Anna. "In private school everyone is the same but the girls have now realised there's a whole world out there," she tells me. The girls, 15 and 13, privately educated since they were five, were doing well academically, but their parents removed them a year ago because they had become concerned at Samantha's Year 10 workload. "Samantha had four hours' homework a night," says her mother. "We'd have to tell her 'Enough!' at 10pm and she would be working all weekend. It was exhausting and stressful. I do think that private schools offer more academically - but at what cost?"

Now Samantha has half the workload and after three terms has maintained her grades, while Sarah is also doing well and making more friends than she had at private school. "We've learnt that you don't need to wear your children out to get a good academic result, and their social growth is just as important," says Anna, adding: "I think we get better value for our dollar now. The girls' private school had beautiful gardens and lovely seating, but that money was unnecessarily spent. Now, with the money we've saved on fees, we can afford one-to-one tutoring, which takes the girls to a higher level, and they are more rounded as people."

In Sydney's eastern suburbs, Mike Weale has a different story. He and his wife Deborah took their daughter Charlotte, now 15, out of the public school system after Year 6 and did the same with son Max, now 12, after Year 4, believing their learning had started to stagnate. Weale, a software company executive who was educated in British comprehensive schools (equivalent to public here) and moved to Sydney 20 years ago, struggled with the private versus public school concept. "I couldn't get my head around it for a long time," he says. "But in the end I didn't feel I had the choice but to send them private. I didn't want the children's education to suffer."

In the three years since the Weale children moved to private schools their grades have vastly improved. Charlotte, a good student, is in an elite sports program and Max has thrived in the more structured and disciplined environment of his private school. "My daughter is a bright girl but her last year at primary school was hardly worth showing up for," Weale says. "And my son was far off where he needed to be coming into high school. But now they're doing so much better. I'm a complete convert to the private system."

All three families want the best education for their children and each is adamant the system they have chosen is right. So who made the best choice - the Bridges and Bucknells, who believe their children are more rounded as people and have not suffered academically, or the Weales, who believe private education offers better discipline and academic results?

The debate over private and public schooling provokes fierce passions. To some, public schools have become education's bogeyman, places of academic failure, the reason Australia is sliding in international education rankings. To others, private schools are a waste of money and drain public resources that should be going to government schools.

Government schools educate the vast majority: out of a total school population of about 3.6 million, 2.3 million attend government schools compared with 737,000 in Catholic schools and 511,000 in independents. However, the independents had the largest proportional increase in student numbers in 2011-12 - 1.8 per cent (1.7 per cent for Catholic schools) compared with 1.2 per cent for government schools, according to the ABS. (A NSW Department of Education spokesman told me there is anecdotal evidence of a trend from private back to public schools at Year 10 for the last three years of education, but there is no academic research yet to verify this.)

No research offers definitive proof that either public schools or private schools produce better results at Year 12. Analysis by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) of results from international tests concludes that, once adjustments have been made for variations in the schools' socio-economic status (SES), there is no significant difference in average scores between government, independent and Catholic. "The socioeconomic background of the school is what matters, rather than the type of school," an ACER report concluded.

However, research published in 2009 in the Australian Journal of Education by analyst Gary Marks found that, after taking into account students' socio-economic backgrounds, Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks - the all-important scores required for entrance to tertiary courses - were eight ranks higher for students from independent schools and four ranks higher for those at Catholic schools compared to students from government schools. "We don't really know the reason for the difference," Marks says. "It could be that there is a stronger academic environment in private schools - they push kids a little more."

But judging between schools isn't as simple as comparing academic results. Because some private schools, like some public schools, have selective student intakes, they attract pupils who already have good achievement records and are more likely to come from higher socio-economic groups with greater levels of support at home. ACER chief executive Geoff Masters wrote recently: "The quality of education provided by a school is best judged not by its final results but by the difference it makes, taking into account students' starting points. A school making a large difference [value adding] to students' levels of achievement and life chances may deliver 'better education', despite its lower Year 12 results."

Ben Jensen, director of the Grattan Institute's school education program, believes the future lies in developing more measures of how a school adds value. At the moment researchers rely on complicated statistical analyses of data from Naplan tests conducted every two years from Year 3 to Year 9. "A lot of work needs to be done," Jensen says. "We are using Naplan data because these are the dominant national tests results." Based on value-adding, Jensen argues many public schools could be said to offer the better education. Those in disadvantaged areas which nevertheless inspire their students to do well include Holroyd High School in Sydney's western suburbs and Hume Central Secondary College in Melbourne, both of which have a higher percentage of pupils going on to university than the national average of 30 per cent, despite being in the lowest SES quartile.

Holroyd's principal Dorothy Hoddinott says complacency could be the reason some schools serving more privileged communities do not see as much progression in their pupils as schools such as hers. "There are schools whose progression data doesn't indicate much," she says. "[The pupils] are able to achieve good marks without lifting a finger; they have tertiary educated parents, they have books at home, they are sent for coaching, their parents are not worrying about where they're going to find the money to buy a pair of school shoes. If they don't [achieve highly] you would have to question what those schools are doing."

At Holroyd, 60 per cent of students come from refugee backgrounds and 85 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds, yet 70 per cent go on to tertiary education (university and TAFE) and, of those, 40 per cent progress to university. "Where they are when they start with us is not where they are going to end up," Hoddinott says. "We aim for 100 per cent of our students to go on to tertiary education."

This attitude may help explain research from Monash University which found public school students who left Year 12 with lower marks than students from independent schools overtook them once they were at university. Ian Dobson, one of the researchers on the 2005 Monash study of 12,500 first-year students, explains: "Private school students have an advantage at exam time in Year 12 because they have access to more resources ... This advantage evaporates when they reach university."

Jane Caro, the former advertising executive and author of two books on education, argues students from public schools who go on to tertiary education are more motivated than private pupils because they have had to work harder to get there. She is only half-joking when she says, "It must be a lot easier going from one under-funded institution to another."

Caro, who chose Mosman High School over the local private schools in Sydney for her two daughters, Polly and Charlotte, is a fervent advocate of public education. (Mosman High, like many other public schools on Sydney's lower North Shore, is high on the government's socio-educational index, with the majority of its pupils in the highest quartile.) Caro says she has been shunned by former friends for her support of the government system, but has no regrets. "People told me I was sacrificing my children to my principles," she says. "I was told that I was ripping off the system because I was sending them to public school when I could afford to pay private school fees."

She says the school gave her two daughters a "fantastic education" and the $300,000 saved on school fees between kindergarten and Year 12 was better spent on overseas trips and a farm she bought in the Hunter Valley, where the girls learnt about the natural world. It was, she says, a more educational use of their money than spending it on "sandstone gates and what someone once told me was 'a nicer class of kiddie'?".

In their 2012 book What Makes a Good School? Caro and Chris Bonnor compare private and public school education with labelled and own-brand foods on the supermarket shelf. "Most of the differences between schools are cosmetic and superficial," they argue. Caro believes if more middle-class parents went the "own-brand" way, resources would follow their commitment to the public system.

Many people support that in theory - until it comes to their own children's education. As Mike Weale says, "That's cutting-edge stuff and I don't disagree with it. But if I pull my children out of private school, their education will suffer." Weale also believes Caro's use of the money saved on fees is difficult to make work in practice. "It would be good for the girls on a holistic level but the grading, examining and other pre-requisites for tertiary education don't work like that. For me, school is about structure, discipline and good teaching. We really didn't have any choice but to go private."

Various studies endorse his emphasis on non-academic factors in parents' decision-making: safety comes first. They also look for the discipline, uniforms and tradition along with, slightly lower down, academic achievement and a good range of subjects. "People want to know their children are safe and they want visible signs of that," says Jensen. "Uniforms signal a certain culture and discipline. There's a belief out there that certain sectors are better at providing things that parents want."

There is concern across the board over a growing equity gap in Australia's schools. Recently released 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results show that by Year 9, pupils in the lowest SES quartile are two and a half years behind those in the highest quartile. They also reveal that Australia's rankings have fallen in all subjects since 2009, from 15th to 19th in mathematics, 10th to 16th in science and 9th to 14th in reading. The results follow an ACER report in August which exposed a drop in the reading and maths levels of 15-year-olds and a growing divide between the most and least advantaged secondary schools in Australia between 2000 and 2012.

Some see this as proof that parents should flee the public system. But others regard it as a sign that the debate should go beyond the rivalry between private or public schools or the argument over who should get more funding. After all, this slippage has happened even as federal and state expenditure on education has increased by 40 per cent in the same decade, from $32.5 billion in 2002-03 to $46 billion in 2012-13. Many educationalists now advocate a focus on the quality of teaching rather than simply increased funding. Finland, for example, abandoned private education and climbed from the lowest ranking in the OECD in the 1970s to become one of the top-performing educational systems in the world.

According to its former director-general of education, Pasi Sahlberg, success lay in putting equity before achievement - that is, making needs-based funding a priority - and ensuring excellent teaching across all schools so that the need to choose one system over another would become redundant. Finland today invests in teacher training to a degree seen in few other developed nations. Further, only 10 per cent of the 7000 applicants each year for the country's Masters Program in teacher training (its basic teaching qualification) are accepted, ensuring an exceptionally high standard of graduates entering the profession. They improve throughout their careers via peer reviews, mentoring and continual research. Some of the best teaching systems in the world - South Korea, Singapore and Shanghai - also invest heavily in teacher training and practices.

Sydney's Holroyd has introduced mentoring and peer reviews for teachers, with excellent results. As principal, Hoddinott makes it clear to both students and teachers that being average is not good enough. "Good teaching is at the heart of what we do," she says. "We have put a lot of money into getting people to think about their teaching: how they teach and what they teach. Because we have high expectations of our children and of our teachers, we reap the rewards of that in learning." Other improvements include giving teachers time to diagnose student engagement and structure their classroom practices to improve them. "You have to change the [teaching] culture," says Hoddinott. "You can throw any amount of money at people but if you keep doing things the same way the money will only enable you to do that a little more lavishly. It won't change things."

Melbourne's Hume Central Secondary executive principal Glenn Proctor says the decision to make cultural change has also brought remarkable results there. "We're coming away from the model where teachers go into the classroom and shut the door and no one really knows what they are doing in there."

Like Holroyd, Hume serves a disadvantaged community in which 46 per cent of students come from the lowest SES quartile and in 2012, 65 per cent of the students who sat the Naplan tests came from a language background other than English. When Proctor arrived at the school five years ago, the school's academic performance was dismal. But between 2009 and 2011, Naplan results for Year 9 lifted on average 60 points and a review found that a performance gap for students entering Year 7 at Hume compared with students in similar schools was almost eliminated by Year 9.

Hume has a mentoring system for its teachers. Coaches come into classrooms as peer observers to offer advice and help, and teachers work together to design teaching methods. Importantly, the school has cut the classroom hours for teachers so they can concentrate on coaching and peer reviews. "It comes at a cost but we've seen real benefit to the teachers and to the students," says Proctor.

It is not only public schools that are doing this: Churchie Anglican school in Brisbane, among other private schools, has boosted results by introducing mentoring and peer reviews. As the row over Gonski education reforms continues, educators agree that at least some funding should be invested in teacher excellence.

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The issue is not as simple as saying that Australia should blindly follow Finland, a monocultural country with fewer social challenges than Australia. But if some of its reforms were put into place it is possible that the public-private school debate could, in the end, become extraneous. Perhaps, as Jensen wrote recently, "It is time for a new story in Australian education."