School choice has become one of the most agonizing issues of parenthood; while schools boast of unsurpassed facilities, genius teachers, and stellar academic achievement, parents wonder whether the marketing hype is actually true. Drawing on the authors' experiences and knowledge—one as a school principal and both as parents and advocates—this account compares public, Catholic, private, selective, and comprehensive schools and examines how well each responds to the recurring crises in the lives of Australian children. Offering clear-eyed advice to policymakers as well as parents, this book argues that schools must be a good fit for the students, the parents, and for the nation.
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About the Author
Chris Bonnor is a contributing author with the Centre for Policy Development on More Than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now. He is also a former high school principal and a former president of the New South Wales Secondary Principals Council. Jane Caro is a social commentator, a columnist, a workshop facilitator, a broadcaster, and an award-winning advertising writer. She is the founder of a communications consultancy and she lectures in advertising at the University of Western Sydney. She is also the coauthor of The F Word and, with Chris Bonnor, the coauthor of The Stupid Country.
Read an Excerpt
What Makes a Good School?
By Chris Bonnor, Jane Caro
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2012 Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro
All rights reserved.
Who are schools for?
Choosing schools now seems a common and expected activity among the diverse social groups that now make up the middle class in urban Australia.
Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor and Geoffrey Sherrington (2009) School Choice
The anxiety really starts to rise when your eldest goes into Year 4. That is when the conversations about the secondary school where you intend to send your child start in earnest.
Once upon a time, parenting seemed like a relatively simple affair, particularly when it came to sending your kids to school. When both of us were young, for example, our parents sent us to the local primary, and then the local secondary school. Private schools were for kids from Catholic families or for the very rich. The rest of us went where we were sent, like it or lump it.
Nobody really talked about good and bad schools, schools were schools – and we were just expected to get on with it and make the best of wherever we found ourselves. If you consider the kind of success (career, income, lifestyle) most of us went on to achieve, particularly when compared to the aspirations of our parents, it seems most of the generation schooled in the 1960s and 70s did pretty well at our local schools.
Yet how it has all changed! The anxiety around choice of school – particularly for the eldest child, and particularly for parents with an income that makes choice a reality – has reached fever pitch. Families, friendships and neighbours are torn apart by arguments over school choice.
After writing our book The Stupid Country, we began to receive emails and requests about such dilemmas. Here is an excerpt from one we received a few years ago:
I was wondering if you may be able to help me. Our children are approaching school age and my wife is having many debates/discussions with friends who are all going private. We are of course committed to and believe in the public system. The problem is being new in an area with small children our circle of friends is small – and this constant 'implication' that we are wronging our children and consequent breakdown in friendships is distressing.
This is typical of the pressure some parents feel when they decide on a public school – even when their child is only five.
The pressure only increases later. Here is another, much more recent, email:
Mind you when I finally got home that evening I had my daughter virtually accusing me of being a bad mother because I had failed to book her into the exclusive private school of her choice (or her friends' perhaps) at the moment of her birth. She's usually quite a rational thing but going to a public school in the eastern suburbs in Year 6 seems to throw up all kinds of weirdnesses.
Yet, despite all this agonising, it seems to us that most parents are looking for the same thing; what we all call 'a good school'. The only problem is we appear to have very different definitions of what a 'good' school actually is and the increasing plethora of choice only makes this confusion more daunting and intense. We now have schools in all shapes and sizes, run by all sorts of different organisations. We have for-profit schools, independent schools run by different religious groups – Catholic (systemic and prestigious), Anglican, Uniting, Jewish, Muslim, Exclusive Brethren, Christian, and who knows what else. We have independent, privately owned schools that have no religious affiliation but may follow another educational philosophy: Montessori and Steiner schools, for example.
Even within the public system we are creating layers and layers of choices. There are the selective schools, schools with gifted and talented classes, girls' schools, boys' schools, co-ed schools, specialist sports schools, performing arts schools, no-uniform schools, and so-called independent public schools that are meant to be more autonomous. These schools may be the forerunners of another layer of similar self-governing public schools in the already-complex schooling market place.
So difficult and fraught is choice of school becoming, the Federal government has even stepped in to try and stop parents tearing their hair out. The My School website is supposed to help parents make a more informed decision about the relative merits of all these different schools, and it is uncovering some much needed hard information about our current schooling system. We will be making considerable use of (as well as questioning) some of the emerging data in the following chapters, but for many parents the website probably only adds to the sense that the choice of your child's school is incredibly important and yet terribly complicated and hard.
Worse, in reality, parents are being led to believe that they all have equal rights to choice of school. But in choiceland some people are, to use George Orwell's phrase, more equal than others. Many discover just how false an impression equal choice is when their child reaches secondary school age. If you have a boy who is 'good with his hands' (educational code for not very bright), you will have to have an income that can support fees before you will have any choice. Parents of children with special needs are similarly poorly served.
Because, after all these years and after all the hype, the flipside of the era of parental choice is choice for some schools (those judged to be more desirable) over who they will or will not educate, leaving parents ever more anxious about getting their child into one or other of these fortunate establishments. The ugly side of this is, as we'll find out, that the choice process itself has left some schools marginalised – not because they were bad, but because their kids were strugglers.
In the face of so many confusing alternatives, many parents have fallen back on the simple premise that underpins a consumer society – the more you pay, the better the school. But are they right? Does this simple equation hold true when it comes to your children's education, or are many families paying good money for not very much?
There is, however, an even bigger question facing society about our education system. If our schools create the future, then what sort of future are we busily building, and can we be sure that we are building it, not just for parents, but for all our kids and for our nation?
Taking this wider view really opens up the debate about good schools. Good for whom? It seems to us that schools really should be serving the interests of three main groups. First and foremost are the students themselves, who spend a large slice of their lives in schools and who have every reason to expect that they'll emerge well-equipped, not just to find a secure and enjoyable livelihood, but to become informed participants in their culture and society. While we adults might all squabble over pedagogy, funding, accountability, curriculum and so on, the kids currently sitting in their classrooms will never get those years back. Whatever the educational flavour of the times, those students will have to make the best of it and hope it gives them what they need.
Then there are parents. Schools should also serve their interests, not least because schools are the institutions that teach and care for kids at the same time that parents are raising them. Ideally, parents and teachers should work in partnership. After all, teachers are part of the child-rearing process and parents will want to know that they support and reflect their parental priorities. Sensible schools will take parents' hopes and fears into account because it is parents who usually decide which schools their kids will or won't attend. (Ironically, this may also have the unintended effect of damaging the ability of teachers and parents to be partners, but more about that later.)
Finally, schools exist to serve the interests of the nation: to help create and sustain democracy, stability and progress in every aspect of national life.
It sounds so easy: students, parents and the nation. The problem is that the needs and desires of these three stakeholders are almost impossible to align in any coherent way. Even if each group was homogenous and agreed on its priorities, their interests would still be in conflict. Adolescents in particular, develop their own ideas about the world and are often at odds with their parents. As part of growing up they develop their own individual identity. And it is a rare parent of a teenager who has not occasionally wondered where their nice, biddable primary school child has gone, and why this sullen stranger has appeared in their place. No wonder parental anxiety around secondary schools is particularly intense; an anxiety which often leads them to place their own interests front and centre.
Our aim with this book goes beyond just finding out what is a good school. We want to examine the ways in which the differences between these three very different stakeholders have affected how we create, fund, govern and evaluate our schools. We'll consider the different interests of students, parents and the nation – and what a 'good school' might mean to each.
To do this we'll need to dig a little deeper into these three groups, which won't be as easy as it sounds because each is quite complex and their interests change over time. Schools and parents are challenged by often very different generations of children; most recently characterised as generations X, Y and Z. While the aims of schools might remain fairly consistent, the interests and preferences of parents change over time as can their economic circumstances. And the nation is driven by cycles of war and peace, depression and prosperity, all of which place different demands on schools.
With education, as with everything else in life, the only thing we can be certain of is that everything will change.
Students and parents
Let's start with the main individual players: students and parents. Although linked by kinship, they are often poles apart in priorities and interests. Older people can be very judgmental about the young. The latter have bad manners, contempt for authority; they contradict their parents and torment their teachers. No, not our words: it was allegedly Socrates who first made these complaints, two and half thousand years ago. There is nothing new about this 'generation gap'.
The reality is that young people will always be significantly different to their parents and teachers. They are, after all, young. They have fewer responsibilities and financial commitments other than entertainment and their mobile phones. Their peers are very important to them, far more so than authority figures. They are influenced by mass media and music but most certainly want to complete their education, even if their plans about what to do after that are sometimes vague.
Science now shows what parents and teachers have long suspected: young people's brains are not fully developed, especially the frontal lobe, and this limits their ability to choose between good and bad actions, recognise consequences and behave in socially acceptable ways. This is just one reason why the combination of adolescents and alcohol or other addictive substances can be so lethal. Parents and teachers have to walk a fine line between trust and establishing firm guidelines. Tipping the balance too far in either direction can create problems.
Kids look for direction and role models as long as both are credible. They value experience over book learning. They don't need parents and teachers to be their friends, just to understand them. Tapping into their interests is really important – and this has big implications for schools. Research over many decades has shown that their learning is most successful in a more relaxed environment in which communication is two-way. It would be nice if opinion leaders in our media were more up to date with some of this research.
The era into which children are born and raised also tells us something about them. If we can be allowed to generalise, today's school students are increasingly generation Z, otherwise known as the connected or internet generation. They are sometimes called generation M for multitasking. Theirs is the digital era and they allegedly have short attention spans (learning in grabs) and are said to expect instant delivery of what they want. While earlier generations relied on printed material and structured communication, gen Z uses a variety of communication modes: texting, graphics, film, blogs, chat rooms.
This doesn't mean they are less able: AMOF (as a matter of fact) conventional language is 2M2H (too much to handle) in text form so they have invented a new texting language – which is also handy if PRW (parents are watching). The 'talk and chalk' teaching approach, if it ever was effective, doesn't get through to this tech savvy, multimedia literate generation. 'Sit down, shut up and listen' just doesn't cut it.
It is easy to see the potential for conflict in just about every home or school. The parents and teachers of gen Z are not only older but they span different generations. Some are generation X, commonly born in the late 1960s and 1970s – or generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s. Their parents may have lived through at least two recessions and have changed jobs a few times. They seem to work long hours, and they are sometimes described as stressed, tired and insecure – perhaps not the best attributes to be a parent of gen Z kids.
Generation Y is claimed to be more flexible and independent. As kids they wanted to know reasons for rules and procedures, sometimes unnerving their teachers at school and their parents at home. They see things in relative terms rather than in terms of the fixed right and wrong often preferred by previous generations. They don't like being told what they should do or think. Mind you, nor did the baby boomers – perhaps it may ever have been thus between the old and the young.
The grandparents of our kids are also important. They are mostly the baby boomers, the ones born after the war. The boomers grew up in a time of generally increasing prosperity and the fortunate had one job or career for life. They were and are described variously as being special (perhaps in their own eyes), self-centred and, usually, more liberal. Schools, hospitals and industry expanded rapidly to cater for their needs, just as retirement homes are gearing up for their needs today – or at least gearing up for when the boomers are prepared to admit they are old. Being grandparents, they remain keenly interested in schools – and are often a soft touch for school fees.
No matter how else we label them, perhaps the defining characteristic of parents today is their anxiety. The world feels even more uncertain than it did when they were growing up. Where once young people were being educated to compete for jobs and status in their town, city or state, now, with globalisation, parents are only too aware that their children must compete with the rest of the world. And, as we will discuss in Chapter 5, there is emerging evidence that the current ideal of ever increasing choice is actually creating and driving that anxiety, making it worse rather than better.
Teachers and parents
At the best of times it's a struggle for parents to keep up. Parents remain amateurs in an era where teachers (despite some propaganda to the contrary) are becoming more and more professional. Teaching degrees in Australia require four or more years study, and teachers have to undertake further professional development if they are to be registered. This can mean that teachers in schools increasingly understand (from their academic preparation and ongoing professional development) what drives kids and their behaviour, while parents are often too close to see their child in context. This can, and often does, create conflict.
Yet there is at least some theoretical consensus about what really matters. A recent global ideas marketplace run by the OECD tapped into ideas and votes from thousands of people around the world. When it came to education priorities, the people participating in this marketplace wanted schools that would teach young people how to think, not how to regurgitate information. They wanted more of a focus on creating a long-term love of learning and on the ability to think critically rather than teaching to standardised tests. Children, they said, should have the opportunity to discover their natural abilities and develop them. They also saw education as a public good and a public responsibility and wanted to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. The more things change, it seems, the more they also stay the same.
Excerpted from What Makes a Good School? by Chris Bonnor, Jane Caro. Copyright © 2012 Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Who are schools for?,
2 The talk about schools,
3 What are schools really like?,
4 My School and your school,
5 The agony and ecstasy of choice,
6 What is good teaching and learning?,
7 What do good schools do about the things that keep parents awake at night?,
8 Trying to please everyone, from K to 12,
9 Types of schools: How much does it matter?,
10 What makes a good system of schools?,
11 Creating more good schools,
12 How do you choose a good school?,