How not to react to criticism: a guide for private schools.

 

“Any school that values its reputation over the health and well-being of its students needs to take a long hard look at itself.”

Many years ago, when we were looking for a high school for my eldest daughter, we did the rounds of open days. We were not interested in private schools but, at that time, all the public high schools in our area had excess capacity so we had some choice. It is no longer true. The same schools are all now full to bursting, with playgrounds full of demountables and new public primary and secondary schools scheduled to open for the first time in a century, but more about that later.

Our first open day was at a very prestigious public selective school. Everything was perfect – too perfect. From the manicured lawns to the plush carpets nothing was out of place. The concert was a technical triumph – pity none of the girls looked like they were having any fun.

After the concert we were taken on a tour of the immaculate school guided by two students. They waxed lyrical about absolutely everything. It almost sounded like they were members of a cult. Eventually, a father could stand it no longer.

Jane Caro from Twitter sized

“You’ve told us everything that’s right with this school, so now tell us what is wrong with it.”

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The girls looked horrified.

“There’s nothing wrong with this school.” One ventured, sounding like a Stepford Student.

I could stand it no longer.

“There’s one thing obviously wrong with this school.”

The girls looked at me with even more horror.

“They don’t teach you critical thinking.” I continued.

This obviously hit home and I could see both girls frantically searching their brains for a response.

‘Well, “ said one of them, “They do give us rather a lot of homework.”

jane caro husband
Jane and her husband. Image via Twitter @JaneCaro.

A few nights later we went to the open night at a near-by comprehensive co-ed high school. The sort of school that made many parents blanch with horror at its very name. We were a little late arriving and walked in on the middle of a debate in the library. It was a debate between a team of male students and a team of female students and they were discussing whether their school (the one we were visiting) discriminated on the basis of gender. It was a funny, frank and quite robust debate. Both sides made some sharp criticisms of the school to the delight of staff and students scattered among the audience. There was no attempt to censor or silence the views expressed and, far from getting a negative perspective, I was left with the impression of a school that was confident and grown up enough to model how to respond to criticism, plus more interested in helping its students than protecting its reputation.

We chose a third public, comprehensive co-ed school in the end, but the school with the debate was seriously considered, while we decided we wouldn’t send a dog to the first school, despite its prestigious reputation.

Maybe its because I spent so long in marketing that I value substance over style, particularly in schools.

I was reminded of that first open day when I read about School Captain Sarah Haynes critical speech at the Ravenswood Speech Night. I was even more forcibly reminded when I watched how the powers that be at Ravenswood responded. I was shocked, frankly, that instead of celebrating their smart, articulate and honest student they set about destroying her reputation in the press. There were nasty hints about litigation involving a dispute with Haynes family over her younger sister, which were meant to imply it was all sour grapes. Then past school captains emerged from the woodwork to subtly bully and discredit Haynes in the media.

Any school that values its reputation over the health and well-being of its students needs to take a long hard look at itself.

Watch the speech here. Post continues below.

Video via Sarah Haynes

However, we cannot blame the school in isolation. Ever since John Howard and David Kemp massively increased funding to private schools – particularly those some refer to as ‘elite’ – we have created a publicly subsidised educational arms race. High fee charging schools must offer ever-more luxurious facilities and ever-more enviable bragging-rights (aka reputation) to attract the small number of families that can afford absurd sums of money for their children’s education. Sadly for such schools, this is getting harder to do. The public schools surrounding schools like Ravenswood are now full to the gunnels because parents can see little difference in academic results. They have also realised that by supporting their local public school they increase the value of their house. Hence the panic of ‘elite’ schools when any crack in their closely guarded public image appears. Indeed, Ravenswood’s knee-jerk reaction has rather proved Hayne’s point – particularly that the school is run more like a business than a education-provider. Worse still, of course, the desire to protect a private school’s reputation at all costs can lead to the cover-up of really serious incidents as we have seen in the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse.

Reputation or brand image becomes crucial because private schools can only succeed if they are seen as ‘better’ than the public offering. They can only get away with charging such high fees if they are seen to be ‘much better’. But don’t be fooled. They are not better and they never have been. What goes on in a Ravenswood classroom is very much like what goes on in nearby Killara High, or St Ives High or- further afield – Winmalee High. The same curriculum is being taught by teachers trained in the same universities. Many teachers spend time in both public and private schools. Many public school teachers send their kids to private schools, many private school teachers send their kids to public ones, and vice versa, because they know the differences are largely cosmetic.

Schools, like any other organisation, are the sum total of the people who are part of them. They are not static. MLC is another private school garnering unfavourable headlines at the moment, as is Malek Fahd, Knox Grammar and Geelong Grammar. I wouldn’t see this as much to do with me, except for the fact that we are all subsidising these schools. This means we all have an interest in how these schools behave and not just when they break the law.

high school students 1 FI
“Schools, like any other organisation, are the sum total of the people who are part of them.”

It is about time taxpayers as a whole began to seriously ask these high fee charging, publicly subsidised schools just exactly what we are getting in return for our money? It doesn’t seem to be a better education, better values or pastoral care. It certainly isn’t a fairer and more equal society or a better-educated general population. Contrary to popular myth, they don’t even save us money. It is because Julia Gillard decreed that ‘no school can lose a dollar’ that Gonski is much more expensive than it would be if the money followed actual evidence based need. Politicians then use Gonski’s ‘expense’ as an argument not to implement it, which is completely outrageous.

Frankly, schools like Ravenswood deserve much stronger critical scrutiny than that handed out to them by Sarah Haynes.

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