On Public vs Private Education

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I’ve avoided this topic long enough. I can hold my silence no longer.

This completely artificial and unnecessary social divide exists and shows no sign of improving anytime soon.

I won’t go into the economic arguments – but I’m unconvinced by the hoary old ‘it would cost the state much more if it weren’t for private schools‘ argument. I will not accept that the huge resources pumped into profit-generating private schools by a minority of families, to enable that third football oval to be built, or the rowing shed to be re-modelled, could not be better spent across society. Having spent some time consulting to a number of private schools, I’ve seen first hand the money-making businesses that these institutions actually are. These schools project one persona for ‘clients’ – you know, values, caring, nurturing, guaranteed future etc, while there is another for the board – return on investment, real estate holdings, revenue growth, investment portfolios etc. etc.

Nor will I go into the educational outcomes, although I am once again unconvinced that there is any real benefit for any one individual student. Sure the stats for major private schools are impressive, but we need to consider cause and effect. Students at these schools are self-selected for academic success, or at least selected by their parents. And these schools do a marvellous job protecting their results – who doesn’t know of some kid who was ‘moved on’ by their private school because they couldn’t reach a required standard.

Unfortunately this is a social experiment which relies on anecdote more than testing – it would be nice to compare alternate universes, with and without private schools, but that’s not going to happen. My own key anecdote is: looking at my cohort from high school and university, most of whom had a state education background, I can not imagine how they could have done any better in life than has been the case to date. Central to this is that high school results are absolutely not a predictor for success in life; hell, they are not even a predictor for success at university.

So what other motives are there for sending one’s kids to private school, if success in university or life is not dependent on it? Discipline? That’s what parents are for. That great music program? That’s what music lessons are for. Army cadets? Join the scouts or the army. Better teachers? They come from the same pool of available teachers. Drug-free environment? Don’t make me laugh. Instilling core values? Ditto. Entree into exclusive clubs and cliques in later life? Well, maybe I’ll pay this one.

I have been fortunate that the discrimination described in this article has not really been a factor for me. While quite a few of my friends have subsequently sent their children to private schools, we are all generally respectful of each other’s choices. Any ‘in your face’ comments have been rare, although there is an example in which Mrs. Rationalbrain relates a chance encounter with an acquaintance (of the private school parent variety) in a supermarket. Small talk ensued, in which it was revealed that we had recently taken our youngest daughter to Europe.  The acquaintance was quick to respond with “That’s nice, I wish we could afford to travel but we thought it was more important to give our children a good education“, with the implication being that we didn’t. You’ll be pleased, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Mrs. Rb didn’t deck the acquaintance there and then.

There, I’ve said it. I think I feel better now.

PS: Here’s some free advice to parents thinking of sending their children to a private secondary school. If you’re doing it to ensure your child gets a good ENTER score and therefore get their choice of university courses, consider this instead. Send them to a state school, invest what you would have paid as fees (I’d recommend fixed interest just at the moment!), and use it six years later to buy them entry into the course of their choice. You can also spend it on music lessons, language lessons, membership of the rowing/football club, travel, and so on, at your discretion.

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2 thoughts on “On Public vs Private Education

    ɹǝɯɐןq (@blamer) said:
    January 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    This reminded me of how paying more for a placebo produces a bigger placebo effect.

    Even if the reputation of the private school isn’t justified, the cashflow that reputation attracts makes it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I suspect the real divide on public/private issues to be psychological, ie. hierarchal-individualists will prefer options to supercharge their kids education Vs egalitarian-communitarians who’ll prefer government schooling to be a level playing-field.

      rationalbrain said:
      January 16, 2012 at 5:44 pm

      Hmmm. Interesting insight. Hadn’t made that connection before. Care to elaborate?

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