“The solution to the problems in our education system would be to make private schools illegal and assign every child to a [state] school by random lottery”
Warren Buffett – US Billionaire investor and philanthropist
The fact that this advocacy of educational collectivism comes not from Hugo Chavez or the Chinese Communist Party, but rather the “Sage of Omaha” himself – doyenne of the economic rationalists, Warren Buffett – amply demonstrates the complexity of this debate. Buffett is no closet communist – his argument comes straight from the core of macroeconomic theory, and in particular his longstanding advocacy for equality of opportunity and social mobility – key elements for a healthy and efficient capitalist market. Private schools, Buffett argues, act as a barrier to both.
Fundamentally, he would have you believe, the fact that a minority of wealthy families can choose to opt out of the state sector and send their children to expensive and elite private schools has a negative impact on the overall education of the vast majority of students whose families cannot afford to do the same.
Many people support this stance in theory…often right up until it comes to their own children’s education – the common refrain ringing out around Western Suburbs dinner tables being “Yes, but we really didn’t have any choice but to go private.”
“She’s not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first, instead of what people thought.”
James Thomson – defending his Mother’s decision to send him to private school.
Elevating this statement above standard familial tribulations, Thomson’s mother is no mere middle class matriarch, but long time British Labour MP for the socially deprived inner London constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott.
The division between supporters and opponents of comprehensive state education is particularly stark in Britain, where this debate is a long established battle line in the larger divide of class and culture at the heart of the national psyche.
Prior to her decision to send James to the £10,000 per year City of London School, Abbott – a charismatic figure sitting well to the political left of her party – was an outspoken advocate for the State Schooling system and comprehensive education. Not surprisingly then, her apparent Damascene conversion, abruptly switching sides on this ideologically laden ground in 1993, drew a particularly vitriolic response. Attacked by her colleagues, excoriated by both the left wing press – for her class betrayal – and the right wing press for her political hypocrisy, and – probably most painfully of all – calmly (if smugly) supported in her decision to ‘exercise personal choice’ by her political opponents in the Conservative party, Abbott’s decision saw her brought low by hubris – and probably ended her ambitions to lead the Labour Party.
She must have known this reaction was inevitable – particularly given her earlier open criticism of other senior party figures – including Tony Blair and Harriet Harman – for sending their children to selective state schools – and yet she claims it was the only decision she could have made. “I was taught that you sacrifice everything for your child” said Abbott in defending her position. “That school was the making of him”.
So who’s right – Buffett or Abbott? Are private schools a route to realizing the full potential of our children, or a parasitic drain on the educational framework of a nation? Or am I just pulling an old debater’s sleight of hand by setting out a false dichotomy to drive the narrative along?
In answering those questions, the first step is to evaluate just what educational advantage accrues from private schooling. However you slice exam results, it’s hard to argue with the numbers that show private schools (and their cousins in Australia, the independent Catholic school system) outperform state schools in direct terms. Private schools have topped the overall Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) standings in my home state for 6 of the past 7 years – with the only exception being the elite Perth Modern school in 2012 – which although government-run is entirely selective of its student intake on the basis of a competitive entry exam.
Like many elementary correlations, however, this comparative success conceals deeper statistical truth beneath its seductive surface. State and independent schools can’t really be directly compared, as the two tap different student markets. Academically motivated students from stable middle class backgrounds are not equally distributed between the two…and at the other end of the scale, nor are disruptive kids with family histories of inter-generational unemployment.
Can family background make such a difference? Studies in the UK have long replicated a curious result that strikes to the core of this division. The most significant predictor of success in the education system there is apparently parents wanting to send their children to private school . The interesting point for me being that the key word in that phrase is the second one – wanting. Adjusted for socio-economic status, there is actually no significant additional impact in following through on this desire – it is the mere fact of wanting to send your child to private school that accounts for the positive impacts.
What? So Noel Edmonds is right and Cosmic Ordering actually works? Well, no – but wouldn’t that be a fabulously ironic outcome? No – back to the correlation trap – wanting to send your children to a Private (which in the minds of many, we must remember, is synonymous with ‘better’) school is an indicator of prioritizing education and being prepared to make sacrifices (in the form of substantial fees, or the location in which you choose to live) for your children’s education. And there is the rub – engaged parents who care about education and actively support their children’s learning tend to produce better educational outcomes. These are households where kids are brought up to think of education as important. Where parents know when their children’s exams are and go to the trouble of finding out how they went. Where Mum and Dad want to discuss essay plans and metaphors for duplicity in Othello when their offspring would much rather be googling ‘LOL cats’ and messaging their friends on Snapchat. Where parents say things like “let’s have a screen free day and all take turns finding poems to read aloud.”
As you can tell, weekends in the rockysubjects household are a real blast – I can’t imagine why my teenage daughter keeps hiding in her bedroom with her iPad.
The point being, these are kids who were always destined to do well academically and benefit from schooling. And they would do so in ANY school they attended. The crux of Buffett’s argument is that by creaming many of these aspirational youngsters off (self selecting) into a private schooling system we impoverish the state system of the dynamism, energy, and behavioural modeling such students (and families) could bring to many school communities.
Got a sink school with failing exam performance and no resources for extracurricular activities? Send 50 kids from pushy middle class families parented by well connected professionals and under-employed highly educated stay-at-home mums and dads, and see how long that state of affairs lasts.
On the other side of the coin too, this strips much of the luster from the nominally superior performance of independent schools. Creaming off a higher-tracking, better prepared cadre of students and lavishing them with resources and opportunity, it would be an indictment worthy of shame if private schools did NOT top the league tables year-on-year.
Viewed in this light, the value proposition of this ‘elite’ educational system is far from obvious.
Indeed, according to analysis by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) of the results from standardized international tests, once adjustments have been made for variations in socio-economic status, there is actually NO significant difference in mean scores between government, independent and Catholic schools.
“Holy real estate pricing index Batman!” I hear the middle class collectively respond. “You mean all those thousands of dollars I’m spending on Brett and Chardonay’s school fees aren’t actually doing anything?”
Well, not exactly – and here is where things get interesting (and a bit morally ambiguous from a sociological point of view) – because while no distinction shows up in these universal international tests of scholastic ability, there is a significant difference in the results of the country-specific Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATAR) examination system. Research published in 2009 by analyst Gary Marks found that socio-economic background adjusted results in this key national examination system were eight percentile ranks higher for students from independent schools and four higher for those at Catholic schools when compared to students educated in the government system.
That’s a heck of an advantage – and to go back to Warren Buffett’s ideas, represents a gross inefficiency in our education system. In essence, combine Marks’ findings with the ACER analysis and what we see is that private schooling isn’t producing brighter kids or enabling greater intellectual development, but it is preparing them better for the specific ‘game’ of the national examination system. Think of the comparative results here as the equivalent of a polo match. Even if both teams are equally athletic, if only one has had pony riding lessons, the outcome is not likely to be in doubt. And as long as we judge student achievement – and access to resources such as higher education (and jobs) – on the basis of this sort of examination system, that distinction is what your school fees are buying.
Of course, this is all just abstract pontification on educational theory, right? After all, there’s no way we could ever test this model out by taking on the entrenched system of elite privilege by redistributing students and educational resources across society is there?
Ah – not so fast my laissez faire friend.
When Michael Palin, as a member of the ground-breaking surrealist comedy group Monty Python, sang in 1980 of “Finland, Finland, Finland – a country where I quite want to be” his intention was comic irony – singling out a country possessing few redeeming features – “a poor second to Belgium when going abroad” as Palin’s lyrics put it – to laud in his song of wistful desire. The true (unintended) irony though turned out to be that, in educational terms, he was actually onto something.
Pedagogical literature abounds with laudatory tales and critiques of the Finnish ‘education miracle’ – with a regular trail of international observers and eager apostles to rival El Camino de Santiago beating a path to the door of the Finnish education ministry on fact finding missions. And like many pilgrimages, a deal of myth has grown up around this miracle to convince any unbelievers – so it does pay to approach this subject with a critical eye. Even when you strip away the hyperbole though, there is an undeniable success story there to be appreciated.
Prior to 1970, Finland was not ‘languishing at the bottom of the OECD education rankings’ as some commentators would suggest – if for no other reason than no such league table then existed, with the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) first undertaken in 2000. Nor though was the country likely to appear on anybody’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems – simply operating a typical European hybrid model of mixed state, selective, and private schools and educators, all doing their best to guide their student charges through their formative years.
In fertile conditions provided by the homogenous Finnish culture and strong social democratic traditions however, the progressive social movements of the 1960s gained a particularly dominant position within the country, and after searching analysis, a radical plan was put into action to wipe away the messy panoply of mixed providers, creating a new basic education system built around common comprehensive schooling – with ‘quality for all’ the watchword.
Gone were the private schools – no more exclusive education of the wealthy elite. Gone too the sorting of pupils by ‘ability’ and with it the self segregation of the middle class and differential resourcing of schools. A true democratization of education then, with all in the same boat. Crucially, we should also add that this ‘boat’ was made thoroughly seaworthy – with education funding a national priority, and teachers well remunerated and elevated to a position of significant social cachet.
Such changes were passionately opposed in some quarters, with entrenched interests – particularly in the erstwhile elitist private school sector – campaigning long and vociferously in parliamentary and public forums against the educational re-engineering. Unlike in many corners of Europe, however, the social progressives in Finland were able to hold their ground as the radical movements of the 60s declined – defending the need for their experiment to run its course.
And the result? Educational anarchy? A wasted generation of students unable to fulfill their potential? Spiraling descent into a dark age of reduced international competitiveness? Umm….no. In fact, internal debate on the Finnish educational model essentially died a natural death with publication of the first PISA rankings in 2000, in which the nation was found to sit atop the international order – a position that has remained more or less consistent ever since.
Further remarkable strength hides behind these headline figures too. According to one OECD report “No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status.”
Heady stuff then. Particularly if you believe in the socially transformative potential of education.
And yet, just when you thought I’d nailed my intellectual thesis to the doors of the Cathedral, I have to muddy the waters again by telling you that I’m 100% behind Abbott in her decision to send her son to private school. Okay, maybe 85% since she, perhaps understandably, flinched in the full glare of media criticism and failed to display the courage of her convictions by explaining and defending her position in public – but that still has her walking away with a clear A grade (at least under Australian marking criteria).
This apparent cognitive dissonance though is not so hypocritical as the Sun and Mirror newspapers might suggest through the banner headlines they used to pillory Abbott’s schooling choices. I genuinely believe – as, I suspect, does she – that universal comprehensive education is the best thing for society. But it has to be an all or nothing proposition. The “Full Finnish”, if you will. If an avenue exists to offer some students a better – a more valuable, however you wish to judge that – experience (and in the less socially progressive Anglophone West I can’t see Eton or Sydney Grammar running up the white flag and joining the collective any time soon) well-meaning parents will inevitably be drawn to that opportunity – even though it is not the best thing for society as a whole.
And who can blame them? Certainly, as my wife and I sit here weighing up education choices for our youngest daughter, I would be reluctant to cast the first stone.