Tell us something we don’t know

As an academic of many years’ experience, I could have told you a long time ago that students from public schools do much better at university than private school graduates. But now, there’s research that’s been released to prove the fact. There’s not much to answer why this is so – other than the usual intepretation that state school kids learn survival skills – but as an academic, trained as a secondary school teacher, I’d say the reason is much richer than that.

Firstly, the quality of teaching at private schools differs not a jot from that which is delivered at state schools. There are an awfully large number of bad teachers in both systems, and the whole premise of discipline at private schools influencing quality of teaching is a load of dingoes kidneys.

This all comes down to a misinterpretation of the word “discipline”. For private school advocates, “discipline” actually means teacher-oriented control. But that’s not discipline. It’s authoritarianism. Children do need discipline at school, but that is a skill they learn individually, and it refers to their ability to concentrate and to commit themselves to a course of study, or a project at hand. It’s behaviour modification, but it comes from within.

Good teaching doesn’t need authoritarianism. Good teaching simply means communicating difficult concepts in an accessible fashion, showing passion for your subject matter and genuine interest in the development of your students. Many teachers may think they are interested in their students’ development, but they are more often interested in how they appear to the students than in the students themselves. A good rule of thumb is to find the teacher that goes to the effort of learning their students’ names quickly and responds to their queries with sympathy: there you will find a good teacher. Any teacher that thinks that threatening students with detention is a good way of getting them to learn, or shows complete disregard for whether students attend or listen to classes is, without exception, a bad teacher.

Secondly, private school teachers are encouraged to artificially inflate grades at HSC level. This isn’t myth. It’s a plain fact. Private school students do well in HSC scoring because they are trained to respond in a predictable and consistent way in examinations, and their internal work is simply graded with a higher mark than it would normally deserve in the public system.

I’m not kidding. I’ve seen this as an academic. What’s worse is that when I was teaching first year university students, I found I had to undo all the bad teaching on essay writing done at secondary level and retrain them to write critical analysis essays from scratch. And as usual, it was the public school students who were more open to changes in style and to thinking differently about the way in which they approached writing and analysis than the private school students, who were more likely to be committed to the writing style they had ingrained into them through poor curriculum and worse teaching at secondary level.

Frankly, if your child learns martial arts, classical ballet, studies the arts, and/or if your child rises to an elite level in any sport, they are getting the discipline they will later need in life to dedicate themselves to whatever profession it is they pursue. The only advantages private school can offer is better facilities and a broader range of curriculum offerings. And when it comes down to it, unless they are also taught to adapt their thinking and styles in a less regimented fashion than private schools tend to do, they are likely to suffer in their tertiary years.

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