I just listened to the most recent episode of EdPod, ABC Radio National’s monthly roundup of education issues. In the current episode, interviewer Natasha Mitchell and corporate lawyer David Gillespie discuss the question: “does money buy a better quality education?” Gillespie, father of six, decides to select public education for his six children, having worked out that it would cost him over a million dollars to send all six children to private schools.
I found Gillespie’s argument and research fascinating. The program touches on a range of vexed issues in current education policy, and it was refreshing to hear an argument that is, at least, focused more on research than ideology. The emphasis on “macro” or metadata is very much in line with the work of John Hattie and others, who attempt to look at literally thousands of studies (culminating in sample sizes of millions) to establish statistical significance or otherwise. As always, I think there is a danger in relying on quantitative data too much; we run the risk of missing important, context-relevant insights. I’d also argue that when parents select schools for their kids, the context of the individual school is very important. This isn’t always reflected in the metadata.
To illustrate his argument, Gillespie uses the analogy of a flight to London. When flying, passengers have the choice of economy (government schools), business (Catholic schools) or first-class (wealthy, independent schools). Regardless of the passengers’ choices, all are on the same flight; all arrive safely at their destination at the same time. To illustrate the point further, Gillespie points out that most money spent in education is on teachers – but this is fairly even across the three systems in Australia, so when parents pay for a private education, they are essentially paying for the “extras” – the swimming pools, flashy computers, or, to use the analogy, the “leather seats” of the first class flight.
I think this analogy of the economy, business and first classes “all making it to London” is interesting. At the same time, I found this analogy highly flawed. While everyone might get to London, one person could arrive to find himself starving on the streets, while another checks into the Hilton. Have they both really “got there?” While academic outcomes can be useful to demonstrate a student’s success in school, I think there may be better measurements of success that factor in the post-school competencies and opportunities for every young adult.
Of course, the elephant in the room is socio-economics. Gillespie suggests that the private school rates of success are not down to SES or necessarily the quality of the teachers; rather, they exist because high calibre students are “herded” into these environments. Sure, many now argue that the teacher is more important than the school’s SES, but NSW government schools still do their own “herding,” whether in relation to catchment areas or the same kind of talent herding (and brain drain for surrounding schools) in the state selective school environments. As a parent, I may have little choice about the state school to which I send my child (more so if I’m struggling financially or live in a postcode marked by systemic disadvantage). Surely, there are different levels of choice operating here – if a corporate lawyer’s choice to send his children to the local state school is in a different postcode to mine?
Another point to bear in mind is that most teachers in NSW government schools have been “posted” to the school, not hired directly. As such, principals in these schools have often had very little choice about the teachers appointed. By contrast, many Catholic and independent schools closely vet their teachers and attempt to hire teachers that are academically and socially suited to the school. In saying this, I really do support state schools and recognise the importance of transfer points and posting as a means to staff difficult schools. However, a degree of school autonomy that ensures better and more suitable teachers throughout the school is equally worth considering, and the way forward is probably more “both/and” than “either/or.”