She would probably have been less shocked had I just confessed to selling my children into slavery. The look of horror (with a tinge of outrage) said a truckload more than the ‘Oh, are you sure?’ she finally managed to squeeze out. Nigella (name changed to protect the disgusted) is the proud mother of two kids who attended the same (government) preschool as our eldest and had then progressed to the same (government) primary school. At Year 4, she had of course shipped her children off to the most prestigious private boys’ and girls’ schools money could buy (in Brisbane). So when I announced that Lizzie and I had decided our kids would be going to a government high school, the shock was palpable. ‘But,’ she spluttered, ‘didn’t you go to Churchie? Surely, you could get them in there as a legacy entry?’
The idea that anyone might actually choose to have their kids educated in a public school seemed to be beyond any reasonable contemplation. I’m sure Nigella was convinced that I had secretly declared bankruptcy or perhaps joined some sort of anti-establishment cult, for there could be no sane reason for such an irrational choice, surely?
If people voting with their feet is any measure, Nigella speaks for the majority of us. In some Australian urban areas there are now more Year 11 and 12 children in private education than there are in state schools. And the trend is clearly accelerating. There is a real feeling that education is like an overseas plane trip. Only those bereft of choice fly economy (stay in the state system). Those who can scrape together a little more fly business (upgrade to the local Catholic). And those who prescribe aspirin for a living fly first class (upgrade to independent).
But is it really the case that paying for education actually gets you a better result? Or that paying even more gets an even better result? Sure, paying for first class gets you a wider seat and nicer meals on the way to London, but you still get to exactly the same place at exactly the same time as the folks in economy. What if education is the same? What if paying for first class just gets you a nicer computer and greener sports field, but doesn’t change the outcome?
We have six kids, so the kind of eye-watering numbers that the automatic choice of sending them to my alma mater and its sister school implied, meant our kids were going public. But did that really mean they were travelling economy? And if it did, did it really mean their education would suffer? I needed to know exactly what the research said about educational outcomes and money. And I really needed to know whether there were any smart choices I could make having decided on public education. Is it really the case (as Nigella and her friends believe as an article of faith) that the only way to get a decent education in this country is to pay for it?
This is a book about what I found out. Much like medical research, educational research is arcane, hard to read and even harder to understand. Even worse, most of it appears to be based on hunches and feelings and very little of it on hard facts and actual trials. But among all the ‘I’m just doing this to get my masters’ dross, there are some genuine diamonds. Those gems throw real light on what counts in education – and more importantly what doesn’t.
I’ve divided the book into two main parts. The first part takes a look at the history of education in Australia. And as riveting as that sounds, it turns out to be quite important. We are the only OECD country that runs three different brands of government school but pretends that two of them are private. The market- driven education system that this creates is a very recent invention, but it is profoundly altering the outcomes for all of our students, and not in a good way. We have the choices we have because of a chain of unique events in our educational history. I have been a student in the Australian education system all of my learning life, but until I did the research that informs Part 1 of this book, I had no real understanding of how the different components of that system worked or of how profoundly broken it is. That knowledge made me angry but also desperate that the machinations be clearly exposed. I want everyone who reads this to know exactly who is pulling the levers and why. I want them to go in knowing the real story, not what the spin doctors want them to believe. But no single parent can change that system (and they certainly can’t do it in the year before their child starts school), and that brings me to the second part of the book.
Part 2 is a practical guide for parents. At the moment, parents have just two information points, the average NAPLAN results of the school and the amount of fees you need to pay. All too often both of those pieces of information will tell you that to get the best result you need to pay the most money. The only trouble is that the NAPLAN score tells you exactly nothing about the performance of a school, and the fees are simply a measure of popularity. Neither piece of information tells us which school has the most effective teachers or achieves the best outcomes for all its students. In this part of the book I set out the data a parent needs to have to make a proper assessment and I show you how to get everything you need. I draw together the threads of history and the lessons learnt from foreign (more successful and less successful) education systems to provide a step-by-step guide to selecting a school for your kids (or just checking if the one you have was the right choice).
If you don’t care about the context or history then feel free to skip Part 1. You can always come back to it after you’ve done the hard yakka of selecting a school in Part 2. But whatever order you read the book, I’m certain it will provide you with much more guidance on the best choice of school than the data you currently have. My hope is that if enough well-informed parents vote with their feet then our school systems will be forced to fix themselves – after all, scientia potentia est (knowledge is power).
Excerpted from Free Schools by David Gillespie. Copyright © 2014 by David Gillespie.
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