Let’s send the teachers to selective schools

A recent letter from my kid’s school

“Today I spoke to your child about the importance of following school rules when attending an excursion. It would be appreciated if you could work in partnership with the school and talk about the importance of following these rules…

Today your child

  • walked away from the Year Four group and was not visible by her teacher
  • ignored explicit instructions from her teacher and picked up a jumper on the footpath
  • attempted to touch hot bitcherman (sic) when crossing the road at the lights.”

Bitcher-woman indeed. Gotta watch those jumpers.


More talk about selective schools in the paper this week. Special information was released to the Sydney Morning Herald “under Freedom of Information” (actually easily available on the Department of Education website).  Most of the academically selective schools in NSW have an extremely high percentage of students (on average 80%; going up to 95%) whose parents are first generation migrants – mainly from Asian countries, and mostly from China. Much surprise, discussion and concern in the opening pages of the paper (SMH 13/9/10).

So where are the bright-ish non-Asian kids going now that they can’t cut the mustard in the selective system? Well, to private schools it seems, thus “raising the performance bar beyond the reach of students in mainstream schools” says one expert in the area.

Do selective schools give their bright students much of an advantage over any other school? Probably not much more than they would if they were at a regular public school.

Some educationalists argue there is a ceiling for top students, comparing their performance to a 100-metre runner – the closer they approach the 10-second mark, the more difficult it is to improve by even a small amount. (SMH 14/08/10)

Very bright kids are probably going to do very well wherever they go to school.  Though for kids who are genuinely gifted and talented it is possible that being with other bright possibly quirky kids is more comfortable than mixing it with the regular ones.

Selective schools are places where nerds are free to be nerds. (SMH 01/04/10)

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing in the long term, but in the short term it makes their parents feel less unhappy about their persecuted fledglings battling away through a system that is not set up to deal with their inquiring little minds.

But in terms of overall benefit to society, there doesn’t seem to be any factual basis for thinking selective schooling is a particularly great idea for us overall.

And do those parents who shell out $5,000 to $25,000 per year in private school fees feel that they get a good return on their investment? It’s a bit hard to tell because if you’re paying fees, particularly if you’re paying very high fees, you need to believe that you’re getting something very special for your kid.

The facts would suggest that it’s not really the case. While students from private schools tend to gain slightly better university entrance results, these results may have been artificially inflated by an increased access to support and resources in high school (Gittinomics p 65).    At the end of Year 1 at University, the kids from government schools are outperforming those from private schools.  Studies that show the major impact on children’s learning isn’t the material advantages provided at whichever schools we chose to send our children to – rather “it’s the skills of the mother – measured by the extent of her formal schooling – that are a critical factor in determining children’s achievements.” (Gittinomics p 67)

Are we setting up an elite class of Asian people through our selective system? Probably not – they’re most likely going to do well anyway, with their parents (perhaps their highly educated mothers?) urging them into high levels of achievement.

Are the non-Asian, slightly less intelligent or hard working children, whose parents don’t earn enough or push them enough, going to end up in ghetto-ised, comprehensive schools, filly-fallying around doing hospitality and recreational studies? Maybe. Does it matter? Probably not. The leisure industries are likely to be a focus of economic development in the next fifty years and we need someone to run the holiday resorts of the future.

But both of those issues don’t interest me as much as looking at what actually make schools better for as many kids as possible – Asian, white, rich, poor, smart or not so smart. Call me old fashioned, but having 2 children go through the school system has taught me that the two things that have the biggest impact on your kids at school are the calibre of the teachers, and the interests and focuses of the other kids and the kids culture in the school.

I’m not sure that we can do much about our kids’ relationships with other kids and their cultures. Apart, of course, from being the best parents we can be, not abdicating responsibility for our kids to schools, and for the females amongst us, getting as much education as we can.

But I think we can, as a society, do something about teachers.

Why can’t we give our children’s teachers more incentives to be absolutely fantastic in their jobs? In my experience of the say, 25-30 teachers that my kids have had in the public school system, I’d say there’s been 3 or 4 who were inspiring, got their pupils enthused about what they were teaching, and set up genuine relationships of learning. There’s been about the same number who were really, really terrible – lazy, personally undisciplined and in a couple of cases, dysfunctional and disturbed. And the rest of the teachers were sort of ok.

I’m interested in how we can increase the number of inspiring teachers, and lift the abilities of that vast majority in the middle. Noel Pearson advocates “direct instruction” or explicit instruction as one way that we could help increase the skills of the majority of teachers.

…it is based on the principle that there are scientifically established methods of effective instruction which, if used with fidelity, will produce learning success. Whether a student learns is not only a question of teacher commitment or effort, but also of whether the teacher has employed effective methods of teaching. (Quarterly Essay #35 p 54)

I’d like to set up selective systems for teachers rather than students. I want potential teachers to be competing for teaching places, and only the highest achievers being allowed this important job of teaching our kids.

I don’t care if  we need to provide more money, more autonomy, less deadening bureaucratic processes, more competition, more status and respect or whatever. Maybe it’s time to artificially increase university entrance marks for teaching so that it’s really hard to get in – so that only the most creative, intelligent, hard working and high achieving young people become teachers. Let’s dip into the pool of young people – Asian and non-Asian, selective, government and private schooled – who currently aspire to become lawyers and financial analysts. Let’s make teaching a sexy, challenging, rewarding career.

The teacher who sent me home the note at the beginning of this post is unfortunately not in the top percentage of teachers, not a high achiever, not empathetic or insightful (and she can’t spell). I don’t really want her teaching my kid.   A good selective system would encourage that teacher to learn more, try harder and think more about her job and doing it well. It might also help her with her spelling. Or it might encourage her to choose a less important job – like futures trading perhaps, or corporate relations.

This week’s action

1.  I’m writing to the new Ministers for Tertiary Education and Schools, and the Australian Education Union to express my views about how we might encourage better teaching in our schools.

2.  I’m writing a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in response to the article in the paper on selective schools on 13/08/10

The lucky recipients are:

Senator Chris Evans Minister for Tertiary Education, Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations

Peter Garrett MP Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth

AEU Federal Office

AEU Federal President – Angelo Gavrielatos

AEU Federal Secretary – Susan Hopgood


Patty, Anna & Stephenson, Andrew. Top school’s secret weapon: 95% of students of migrant heritage. Sydney Morning Herald 13/9/10 pp 1-2.

Patty, Anna. The real top schools: state’s secret list revealed SMH 14/08/10.

Tovey, Josephine. Selective schools: gifted kids’ choice SMH 01/04/10.

Pearson, Noel. Radical Hope: Education and equality in Australia Quarterly Essay #35 2009.

I’m reading

Ross Gittins Gittinomics: Living the good life without money stress, overwork and joyless consumption. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2007.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this www.janeelix.com
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8 Responses to Let’s send the teachers to selective schools

  1. Anni says:

    Unfortunately middle class parents have absolutely convinced themselves that they cannot possibly send their children to their local comprehensive public high schools – e.g. “Mosman High, it’s very rough you know” or “If my son hadn’t gone to ‘selective school’ we would have had to move.”

  2. Judy says:

    Having chosen not to have kids, but having watched with close interest my sisters-in-law who are (or were) dedicated and well-respected primary school teachers, it seems to me the biggest incentive we can give our teachers is the “luxury” of being able to commit their time to teaching (rather than being administrators, bureaucrats, and performing all the other duties that are inmposed on them). If we are going top invest more in our schools (and they probably do need it), let’s spend it on giving teachers the staff support they need so they can do what they embarked on their careers to do – a great motivator for many of them.

  3. Margaret says:

    Well, I would start by asking what is education for? Having answered that, or provided as many different answers as we are individuals, we can then ask whether schools of any kind are where it should be provided? And what are ‘teachers’ in the 21st century? I think it’s time to go back to basics and rethink education, getting away from the structures, stereotypes and locked in conflicts of the existing system. This is going to be crucial for the Greens too — I’ve been considering holding a forum on education but would need to find who is doing the new thinking on it. Any ideas welcome!

  4. Heather says:

    The suggestion is “Maybe it’s time to artificially increase university entrance marks for teaching so that it’s really hard to get in – so that only the most creative, intelligent, hard working and high achieving young people become teachers.”
    The best teachers that both my boys, who are very different, have had and I have had are most likely not those who would have had the highest marks at Uni. It often comes down to temperament and dedication. Many of the things which make for a good teacher fall into the non-academic categories of being good communicators, a passion for their vocation and actually, really loving children and the job of educating them. I’m of the view that teaching is one of the dwindling jobs that is truly a vocation. Indeed, some of the worst teachers are those who excel in their specialty and are the most likely to have done better at Uni. Increasing University entrance marks as the major tool for finding people with the best credentials to be teachers is problematic. My brother, for example, just scraped through his Melb Uni Commerce degree and yet has spent more than 40 years as a beloved teacher in his district with parents and children alike, filling the role now of Student Wellbeing Coordinator and sports master. Indeed his love of sport has helped him connect with the students and get better academic results for some of them but more importantly, better life options (and not just in the hospitality industry!). In many situation just to keep students in school and not in court or detention is a good outcome and I don’t think higher university entrance results will cover that area.

    In this context it concerns me that relying on an increased university entrance mark to find the best teachers to cover all types of schools and regions would encourage a 2 tier system for selecting or training teachers with all its complications across very diverse teaching needs – how fraught is that? The last thing we need is people entering teaching who may have been closeted away focused only on academic results with very little wider life experience (not suggesting that this characterises all academic achievers but teaching in particular requires social skills)

    My alternative would be better ongoing support and upskilling opportunities for our teachers. Also, the prospect/reality of the National Broadband Network contributing to educational opportunities for both academic and vocational education is where energy might better be used to ensure potential is honed and utilised most effectively for children across our nation. The NBN should also provide the opportunity for more mentoring of teachers and collaboration to occur within this new frontier. If the NBN is utilised to the max then teaching will become a more exciting and flexible career which should itself attract new blood. Perhaps we could all help by promoting this idea wherever and whenever we can thank you Mr Tony Abbott.

    Finally, maybe I’m too relaxed but the spelling mistake in the school sign is a boo boo and an embarrassment (we’ve surely all been there at some time) but the possibility exists that the mistake was made by a really good teacher who gets results from their pupils in a different mode (other than English we hope). If I sound like a teachers’ union advocate, then it’s because after returning from the teeming chaos of little darlings during school visits I often think teachers must be either masochists or saints. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle or a little bit of both, and then some. And then they also have to deal with parents….as they should. Perhaps there might be more in their training to enable them to more effectively liaise with parents and guardians so that contacts and negotiations with parents are more productive. So upgrading training (ongoing), grabbing the opportunities of new technology and ensuring support. While its very briefly (the moment might have left us) a fashionable CONCEPT to bring in new blood outside party lines in Canberra, maybe more often bringing in specialists from outside teaching might enhance the creative, intelligent and high achieving influence we want for our kids.

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute Jane – something more than useful is bound to come out of the energy you are putting out on these pages and beyond . Congratulations on getting it going (and such beautiful pages to be within whilst contemplating the ideas they hold)

  5. Zea Vargas says:

    Hi Jane!
    Great read, wish I had time to reply properly. As I don’t, here are just a few observations/(mainly)questions:

    Have you considered that the person who put up the sign was probably the General Assistant? Don’t think you would find a teacher doing that job! I know of some principals who do not have a moveable sign because of the fear of ridicule if one day someone makes a mistake and they are in the spotlight. Even on this page we can find “its” instead of “it’s”– sorry, I am from a non-English speaking background, cannot stand the misuse of apostrophes…

    Doesn’t the press have any real news to report?

    If you had to rate 25-30 doctors, politicians or shop assistants wouldn’t you probably come to the conclusion that three to four were brilliant, the same number very bad and the rest somewhere in between?

    Direct instruction, accelerated literacy, quality teaching framework and whatever else it is called in Queensland, personalised learning plans or as someone we both know used to say differentiating the curriculum -it should really be curricula, but who am I to point it out- for all learners are all catch phrases that ignore a few facts:

    It does not matter how good teachers or schools are, they will not be good for all children.

    Teachers’ work hours/salary structure does not work as it is. In public schools at the moment you have teachers who get in at 8.30am and are out by 3.15pm, whilst others “spend their lives at school” or take a lot of work home. The teacher/students ratio needs to be changed and teachers need to officially be given more time for professional learning and for preparation. This would mean that parents/guardians would have to get over the “where is my child’s teacher syndrome” and primary school students would have more than one classroom teacher.

    The time students spend at school would have to increase, or all creative subjects and sport would have to take place before and after school. Homework centres and learning assistance would probably have to be “after-school hours” activities as well. Simply, school cannot be everything for every student.

    After you take care of the above, then you can start to discuss some the issues you have raised. You would need more money, but then would any government ever choose education over military spending? Would retiring teachers be able to get a gold concession card and feel truly valued for their contribution to society? At the moment they get a certificate!

    Pay teachers more? Yes, if remuneration is the measure of the value we place on a person. But then would we end up with something similar to the young career politicians who now advise our governments and opposition parties about what side their leaders should get out of bed before they face the media? Believe me, we have some of them in the teaching profession and they don’t stay teaching long.

    The NSW Department of Education has come up with the Institute of Teachers and accreditation standards that teachers have to maintain. Is this the solution? Or are our young teachers going to spend more time demonstrating what they have learned than actually learning?

    So many questions and not many answers…
    “…scientifically established methods of effective instruction”? What are we instructing? What do kids come to school to learn? Information or skills? The paradigm is changing.

  6. Zea Vargas says:

    A quote published today in a public primary school newsletter:

    “The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
    William Ward


  7. Zea Vargas says:

    Still thinking about schools…
    Another measure I am very found of, but that would also require more funding: have two principals, one that takes care of the pedagogy and the curriculum, student and staff wellbeing; and one (call it business manager, maybe) that takes care of OH&S, marketing, community liaison, organisation, building maintenance, spin, etc.
    Principals train as teachers, but then they spend 90% of their time worrying about matters that have nohing to do with teaching and learning!

  8. Jane, thanks so much for this excellent post. My latest whinge – a perennial one, really – is the way that the press report on education. They lower the quality of the debate by pandering to middle class anxieties about private vs public schooling, NAPLAN results or, as in today’s case “reporting”on Senate Inquiries which raise questions about the “political correctness”of using BCE and CE.

    I wish I could read more of this type of analysis / comment or that at least to see it presented in the mainstream.

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