Friday, 14 February 2014

Free Schools by David Gillespie

Or How To Get a Great Education for Your Kids Without Spending a Fortune.

David Gillespie first came to my attention when I began working in a bookshop 5 years. His book Sweet Poison was all the rage. Every time he spoke on the radio, we experienced a surge in sales.

The success of this book, has produced a new market for I Quit Sugar type books.
(Click on the link to take you to my other blog where you can read my review of this book.)

My doubts about the dogmatic approach to quitting all sugar, in any of its forms has not changed. But anything that helps us as a society to eat better and focus on good health is, ultimately, a positive thing.

I remain skeptical of statistics, percentages and research findings anywhere. Facts and figures can be twisted any which way to prove any argument for or against pretty much anything. Any book, theory or belief that tries to prove that it's stats, facts and figures are 'right' or the 'truth' automatically puts me on guard.

Free Schools freely uses percentages, stats, charts, and research findings. Gillespie acknowledges that almost every area he researched came up against reports, research and data that could support either argument.

Trouble is, a lot of what Gillespie says makes sense and pushes my buttons and biases towards the advantages of state education. Good, universal, well-run, professional state education.

When I was at uni, (ahem, 25 years ago) all these arguments about teaching training, class sizes, unions, private vs state, whole language, teaching to the test etc were being debated. You would have to say that very little has changed since then. The same debates, the same conclusions.

There is no evidence that sending your child to a private school will raise their academic achievements. Most private schools are able to publish outstanding HSC results simply because they groom the students who come to their schools. Those students, all things being equal, would get the same outstanding results wherever they went to school.

If you do want to spend money on private schools and you want that money to be about educational outcomes, there is some research that suggests this is better spent during the primary school years when the foundations are being laid.

If you have a child with a special skill or talent for language, music, sport, the creative arts, music or science, there may be selective high schools (state and private) that can cater to these talents.

But the main point that comes up time and time again is BE INVOLVED.

It was true when I was a student and it's still true now. Students who do well at school have involved parents. Parents who join the P&C, man the tuck shop, help out at the fete, bake cakes for the cake stall, attend assemblies and special events, cover books, ask about homework, get to know the teachers, help establish study and homework timetables, discuss school reports, set goals & get to know their kid's friends.

Balance is the key though - helicopter parents are too involved and run the risk of alienating their children from the school AND, ultimately, from themselves. Or they do so much for their children, that the kids never learn anything about responsibility, self-sufficiency or competence and they struggle to find their way in life as adults.

Gillespie boils the debate down to 2 main imperatives. A good school that can improve your child's educational outcomes has good teachers engaged in on-going professional research and mentoring programs and good school leaders.

I taught for 18 years in the early childhood sector & I can tell you there are a number of ordinary teachers out there. But there are also a lot of amazing, committed, hard-working professionals out there as well.

It's not easy to maintain that level of excellence all the time though.

Some years you get challenging children that suck all the goodness out of you. Sometimes your personal life impacts on how focused you are. Sometimes you get tired, run-down & ill. Sometimes the lack of community support & understanding wears you down. Sometimes you burn out.

Teachers are only human. They have good days and bads like the rest of us. It is a job that has a high level of accountability but very little real support or guidance on how to get there.

Smaller class sizes can make for a less frazzled teacher, but it still only takes one challenging child to throw out a whole year, regardless of the class size. (By challenging, I don't mean the average naughty child who is a bit defiant or silly. I mean the kids who come in calling you a "fu@#ing c*&t" and throw chairs across the room when angry. I experienced this with 5 year olds; I can only imagine how scary it would be with teenagers)!

And maybe that's where private schools have the advantage over state school. Privates schools can refuse these damaged kids entry so that their select students and families can go through their school lives safe from any contact with challenging, difficult people.

Australia is becoming a society where class is playing a larger role. The divide between the haves and have nots is now clearly defined by suburbs & schools. Even small country towns have a 'desirable school' & a 'less desirable school'. We give lip service to democracy and equality and a fair-go for all, but we really mean a fair-go for me and mine first!

Maybe that's the real debate at the heart of this book - our society - where we are and what kind of future do we want for all of us?

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