THERE’S good reason why more and more parents are sending their children to private schools.
To say something is “old school” has become a pejorative term. It implies out-of-date thinking. Yet, increasingly, parents want an “old-school” education for their children. Old school is equated with being the best school.
Almost 35 per cent of Australian school students (more than 40 per cent at high schools) are now educated in private or non-government schools, up from less than 32 per cent a decade ago and one-fifth in the 1960s. Why?
Australia has 2700 private schools. While not all of them would want to call themselves supporters of old-school mannerisms and views, many do — and they are increasingly appealing to parents. Those few public schools that reflect surviving old-school values are highly sought after.
For too long, many schools have become laboratories for experimenting on children with the latest educational fads.
But old-school values attract parents. They stand for discipline, respect for authority, academic achievement for its own sake, scholarship, goodness and common decency.
Way back in John Howard’s prime ministership, he was roundly condemned for having the temerity to articulate old-school values. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, reflect the Howard era values. And why not? They work.
Society increasingly looks to the old-school values of respect for law and those who administer it as being desirable for social cohesion.
To this end, the Australian Primary Principals Association has called on parents to look at what values they hold, as opposed to schools. Association president Norm Hart has questioned whether parents taking children out of class on a whim sends a desirable message: “If school’s a long way down the list of things you value as a parent, don’t be surprised if your child also places school pretty low down the list.”
What will improve Australia’s international standing in tests of basic skills, such as reading and numeracy, let alone NAPLAN scores, is a return to old-school beliefs that academic success is to be pursued for its own ends. Never mind its inherent worth to the individual. Research repeatedly shows a regime of rigorous testing and examinations, very old-school authoritarian practices to some, are essential for standards.
And there’s another reason independent schools do so well in university entrance: the quality of teachers they attract. Schools that are poorly run, replete with students who value little else than the inanities of Facebook and Twitter, are hardly going to get or keep outstanding staff. The cycle of mediocrity in increasing numbers of schools that are values-free environments is clear to see.
If there is a very old-school trait that seems light years away from many government schools, it is the philosophy that there is such a thing as failure and that some students are infinitely better than others academically.
Students can be streamed and do better when they are. This flies in the face of the “all must have prizes” view that makes children feel good but reduces achievement to the lowest common denominator.
Where Howard fell foul, and Abbott is now criticised, is in the stated belief in the encouragement of patriotism and the celebration of the pioneer spirit. Many independent schools reflect this view, as well as embracing such values as fairness and endeavour.
Together with confidence in national spirit, loyalty to the Australian flag and the protection of individual freedoms, these are what glues the fabric of Australia.
Old-school values begin in playgrounds and assembly halls. It is from the cradle of the classroom that ideas of nationhood, and the values which define it, are formed.
The best of those values are old school.
Christopher Bantick is a senior literature teacher at an independent school in Melbourne.