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April 30th 2013 print

Michael Galak

What David Gonski can’t quite understand

The plan to pour billions of dollars into our failing schools is just one more example of a blinkered educational establishment elevating wishful thinking to an art form. A good education begins not in the classroom but at home


Soon, a lot of money will be thrown at the school system and, in accordance with our leaders’ fantasies, it will become an incubator of Einsteins, Newtons, Oppenheimers and Marconis. Nobels all around, two for each schoolchild! It is that simple – build plenty of toilets, pay teachers good salaries and invite David Gonski to determine where additional billions of dollars need to be spent.

Then we will hold hands in a circle, sing together and overcome the enemies of promise.


In the meantime, the outflow of pupils from the state schools is unabated and nobody asks why. When people were defecting from communist countries, with their free education and medicine, there was no need for explanation because the communist  systems stank to high heaven and everyone knew it. When Australians remove their kids from the free-education system and pay through the nose for private schooling, our government tells us it is because the state  system is under-resourced and only vast amounts of additional money will fix the problem. Some left luminaries might want us to think that parents who vote with feet and wallets are filthy rich and, obviously, have too  much money for their own good. The logical corollary: those parents need to pay even more taxes. Our self-venerated fighters for humanity’s bright future really do think this way and, unsurprisingly, they are dead wrong. Again.

There is nothing unusual about this attitude. We see it so regularly that being systemically wrong seems to be the brave defenders of social justice perpetual state of mind. The ridiculous propensity of our home-grown revolutionaries to shoot from the hip is amazing. Using a ready-made supply of motherhood statements — kids are our future, if you care for children you’d give a gonski, and other pearls like that –  we are urged to submit to what is only the latest in a long line of initiatives promoted as cures for the state systems’ ills. Once again, Gonski’s effort has as much relevance to education as does an umbrella to a fish.

Let me be crystal clear: I do not accept that left-wing do-gooders have a monopoly on caring for our nation’s children. We all want a nation of smart, bright, competently educated children. Nor do I accept that throwing more money at state schools will remedy education standards and lift the world to a state of enlightenment. And I certainly do not believe that can happen as the exodus to private schools continues, removing from the state systems what are often the most promising young minds. I do not accept that cliches and the uttered, hollow nostrums from Labor mouthpieces and teachers union officials will do anything at all to improve standards.

What I do believe is that the key to the genuine improvement of school education, given appropriate resourcing,  is to be found in an entirely different domain. To achieve genuine improvement, look to the family. One of most colourful personalities in Australian politics, former Labor leader Mark Latham, made a great contribution to the education debate, when he called upon  parents to read to their children. He was right. That is where the good education starts.

It is no secret that, given half a chance, parents pay what are often very steep fees to send their children to private schools. The trend is obvious, massive and undeniable. Why would they do so, instead of paying off their mortgages? Is it because, as one of many Labour myths goes, rich parents’ kids go to private schools and little proletarians go to state schools?

This is nonsense, as may be determined by considering one’s social circle, taking note of friends’ financial circumstances and observing how many make the sacrifice to keep their children out of the state system.  The majority of children attending private schools are not from plush, well-heeled families. Many are the children of immigrants with limited resources, and the burden of private school fees represents a significant family expenditure.

So let me repeat the question: why do these parents, instead of sending their children to a free-to-all state school, commit themselves to such considerable expense? It must be more than snobbery or the satisfaction of seeing their children’s uniforms as status symbols to impress their neighbours. Could it be a desire to embed their children in a social network whose old-boy and old-girl connections will open future doors? Perhaps it is motivated by the desire to gain a place at an elite university, rather than one of the take-all-comers degree mills, with their low entrance requirements?

I am sure some of those factors apply, possibly all of them.  But they are  not the main reasons inspiring private-school parents to dig as deep as they do. To my mind, parents’ pre-eminent considerations are these:

Number one: Private schools are just plain better. They are not only better in the quality of the education they provide, they are better at providing children with structure, boundaries and social-learning skills. Simply put, private schools have demonstrated greater success in inculcating the habit of lifelong learning, in celebrating academic achievement, and in recognising excellence.

Kids vulnerable to an abuse, ridicule and exclusion have much a better chance of developing their intellectual potential at private schools than state ones. It is sad but true that being smart can be a dangerous thing in some state schools. How many kids have been forced to hide their intelligence for fear of bullying or ridicule at the hands of the less gifted? How many kids have suppressed their abilities in order not to be regarded as a nerd? How many don’t raise their hands in order to fit in with the herd?

How will throwing money at state schools change the ambient playground attitudes toward those who stand out from the mob? Will it buy the sort of teachers who extoll achievement and impose the discipline and respect that allow smarter kids to match their potential?

Number two: Private schools are better than the state schools in their ability to engender a respect for learning, for creativity, for "unusualness" if you like, and for original thought. Most state schools seem to have lost, or never to have achieved, this level of a creative excitement. There are too many bureaucratic constraints under which state school principals and teachers must work.

A state school is obliged to integrate children with disabilities, provide adequate resources to protect vulnerable students — indeed, entire classrooms — from the depradations of bullies and habitual disruptors. State teachers must also be on constant lookout not to offend parents, while also observing the latest directives flowing from the academic theorists who dominate the upper reaches of state education systems, not to mention the edicts of school psychologists, teachers union activists and many others. Teach reading with phonics? No, this week the pedagogic winds have blown "whole language learning" into the classroom, with all treachers obliged to embrace it! If you can’t read this, thank that once-fashionable theory for making you a near-illiterate.

Frankly, it is a wonder kids get taught anything at all. Like a wartime convoy, state schools can move forward only so quickly as the slowest ship. How will throwing money at education fix that?

Number three. By the virtue of private schools being more expensive than the alternative, the families supporting them are obliged to adjust their expenditures and lifestyles. This accommodation speaks volumes of parents’ desire to give their children the best future they can. It also implies many hidden factors — love, devotion, loyalty, care and concern  — all of which are absorbed by their children. Private-school children realise (or should realise, at any rate)  that their parents are making sacrifices for their sake and, ideally, they will feel obligated to study hard and repay with their best efforts that care and commitment.

In each and every private school you will find a community of like-minded families going the extra yard for their children. This is role-modelling second to none, stressing hard work as the legitimate means of attaining a worthy goal. More than that, it is role-modelling that stresses respect for one’s family, delayed gratification and the pursuit of excellence. Above all, it prompts the realisation that the desire to stand on one’s own feet is a commendable motivation. How will throwing money hither and yon promote those virtues?

To state the obvious, life’s success starts in the family.  No amount of money poured into the school system will change that simple fact. If parents do not appreciate the value of education in their child’s life, government money given to third-parties and from which they derive no direct or immediate benefit will not persuade them otherwise.

If parents are not  successful role models, if they do not have a capacity to delay their own gratification in order to give their children a good start in life , if they are not interested in what their kids are doing at school, then all the money in the world will not produce a good student. The best education starts in the family, with parental involvement, approval and validation of a child’s efforts.

And, yes, also with reading books to one’s children.  No amount of money will change that. That is why I do not "give a gonski" and neither should you.