The Old School Tie

By Legal Eagle

Mandatory disclosure policy:
Lest I be accused of hypocrisy in a “Lefty-like” fashion, I should disclose here that I attended a public primary school and two private high schools, one in Australia and one in the UK. My mother taught in a public high school for many years.

I was reading about the rise in private school enrollments throughout Australia. I already feel anxious about choosing a high school for my darling daughter. All I know is: I shan’t send her to my Australian alma mater. Although I did make some good friends there (with whom I am still friends), I also still feel like vomiting when I drive past it. I suspect I would have had a totally different attitude if I had finished high school there; but my lasting vision of the school is at the time I left it (at 14 or 15 years old), which is a horrible time at an all girls’ school.

This then made me think of another question – what doesan intelligent socialist lefty type who earns enough money to send their child to a private school do in this sort of situation?

  1. Send precious child to local “Killersville High”.
  2. Send precious child to State School with an excellent reputation (eg, Balwyn High and Glen Waverley High).
  3. Send precious child to a selective State School (eg, University High, Melbourne High, MacRobertson Girls’ High, Camberwell Girls’ High etc, etc)
  4. Send precious child to a private school, and try to ignore the matter when it comes up in conversation.

I have noted that when one probes intelligent, well-to-do socialist lefty types who proudly profess, “I send my child to a public school”, they have almost invariably chosen options (2) or (3). I am not criticising this: but it’s not the same as sending your child to “Killersville High”.

Why send a child to a private school? In my opinion, it is not about the teaching. As far as I am concerned, the standard of teaching in a public school is as good as the standard of teaching in a private school.

There are four reasons I can think of as to why parents send their children to private schools:

  1. The facilities are better (particularly for sport, music, drama and other extra-curricular opportunities).
  2. The possibility of creating social networks.
  3. Religious values.
  4. There is less likelihood of an intelligent child slipping through the cracks because a teacher is preoccupied with students who are difficult or struggling.

Let’s look at each of these in turn. To my mind, the last one is particularly important.

Self-explanatory. I concede that the facilities in my Australian high school were superb. Particularly the sporting facilities. What a pity I have no sporting aptitude whatsoever. It was wasted on me. And Mum asked me not to play the French horn any more; she said it sounded like an elephant with a severe case of gas. I still have a fondness for that horn, though.

Social networks:
Yes, that “old school tie” thing (adverted to in my title). I gather that going to certain schools opens up entire social networks and job opportunities, particularly in Victoria. I was totally shocked when a friend described articles interviews as involving chummy chats about his school. This never happened to me personally (as far as I can remember). I guess if someone had said something about my old school in an articles interview, I would have said “Does it matter what school I went to? Who cares!” Or I would have looked vaguely green around the gills and said, “I prefer not to think about That Place”.

Parents of a particular faith may wish to send their child to a school which also espouses that faith. In addition, I’m sure it can be difficult to be in a religious minority at school.

For example, when I was at primary school, a stupid teacher tried to force my Muslim friend (who was fasting for Ramadan) to eat a ham sandwich. We tried to explain Ramadan to her, and the fact that ham was forbidden, but she kept trying to force my friend to eat. In the end, to get this silly woman to go away, I took the sandwich off the teacher and promised to feed it to my friend. I think we threw it in the bin – it wasn’t even a very nice ham sandwich (white bread and that slippery, bright pink ham).

But I would prefer my child to go to a school with a diverse range of students from different backgrounds and, if there is any religion, I’d prefer that it be low-key. I slept through every church service at my Australian school, and I didn’t realise Jesus was actually the Son of God in Christianity (not a prophet) until I was 25 years old. And I still don’t “get” the Trinity. I guess the school didn’t do a good job of indoctrinating me.

Maximising academic opportunity:
As a lecturer, my goal is to make sure that the majority of students understand the points I make. Of course, I hope that I achieve this! I can tend to get rather excited about bizarre things which excite me (like the resulting trust) but usually I try to keep it simple. The same principle applies to high school teaching.

So: what happens to a lone intelligent child in a class if the majority of students have learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties? Teachers concentrate on making sure that the majority of students understand the subject matter, and unconsciously or consciously, they pitch classes at a reasonable common denominator. If the majority of students have learning difficulties, the common denominator will be pretty low. It is very difficult to successfully teach a class with great disparity in academic ability. At one end, one student will be struggling to spell “dog” while the other will be reading “War and Peace” for the second time – how do you cater for those disparate abilities?

Further, if there are students with behavioural difficulties, the chances are that a large part of classroom time will be spent on controlling and managing these students’ behaviour. A very difficult child can be extremely disruptive to a class, and ruin an entire lesson. If there are one or two children in the class who have a better understanding of a subject, a teacher who has a difficult class will be unable to concentrate on those children and to try to extend their knowledge. That’s no fault of the teacher; it’s just the way the classroom is structured.

Unfortunately, if a school has an intake with a generally low socio-economic background, there is a greater likelihood that pupils have learning difficulties and behavioural problems. To be blunt, I believe that parents send children to a private school because they believe that this ensures that the child is in a class with students of a similar socio-economic background and outlook. The parents of the children are also likely to have similar education and ideals.

Private schools can also expel difficult and problematic students. I gather that shortly after I left my Australian school, many of the bullies and problematic students in my year were expelled or encouraged to go elsewhere. (That would be right…wait until I’ve left, guys!) But in a state school, there’s no where else to go. I did once hear of a student being expelled from a state school after he had constantly bullied, sexually harassed and racially
vilified other students. Of course, he just got passed to another state school, and presumably his problems continued at that school.

Group dynamics are a funny thing. There are very bad eggs everywhere, regardless of whether a school is private or public. My Year 9 class was pretty bad. We drove at least two teachers to have nervous breakdowns and quit teaching. There were a couple of girls who were particularly nasty and bullied other students and teachers mercilessly. One day, two girls happened to be away sick. These two were the ringleaders of the bullying. The class atmosphere was totally different for three days…until the bullies recovered from their colds. Two people in a class of 30 made all the difference!

It must be stressed that I am not saying that socio-economic background is necessarily determinative of academic success, intelligence or good behaviour. My argument is merely that it can be more difficult to succeed academically if you end up at a “rough” state school for the reasons that more resources will be spent on managing the “rough” kids. That being said, I have plenty of friends who attended state schools and did extremely well. Some of my friends went to pretty rough schools (not selective or academically reputable state schools) but they still managed to succeed. One friend says, “What does Thom Yorke from Radiohead know about pain and bitterness? Real agony is being a quiet sensitive guy in a rural high school!”

Both my mother and my father did not come from well-to-do backgrounds. They both went to public schools. Each was the first in their family to complete high school, to get a university degree and to get a post-graduate degree. However, my mother and father are Sydneysiders and Sydney had a streamed public education system. They were both in the “top” classes at their school, which helped them to succeed. My mother’s theory is that private schools are so prevalent in Victoria because there is no streaming in this state. When Mum did her DipEd, she was simply aghast that the first question all the Melbourners asked was “What school did you go to?”

I went from a non-selective private school in Australia to a selective private school in the UK. The difference was quite stark. When I started there, I was strongly against selective schooling or streaming. My school in the UK was quite insane on many, many levels, but I will say this for it: it really challenged me and forced me to work hard for the first time ever. Previously, I had just “floated” through high school, and hadn’t even had to study for tests. It was a revelation to be in an environment where intellectualism and academic achievement was encouraged. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable about academic elitism and selective schools, because of the possibility of pigeonholing people.

This is not so much an argument as a frank exploration of some of the issues as I see them.

I think teachers are severely underrated and underpaid in our present system. I know from lecturing that teaching is an exhausting job. People say, “Oh, but they get all those holidays, and they get off work early!” This fails to take class preparation and marking into account. Also, people have no idea how exhausting it is to stand on your feet all day and teach. I think governments should prioritise teaching and stop passing the buck (State to Federal, Federal to State). There’s nothing more important than the people who guide and teach our children. Having watched my mother in action for many years, I think many of our teachers are fantastic people.

Perhaps a greater amount of streaming in public schools would help alleviate some of the problems identified in relation to classes with greatly differing abilities. I would wish to keep such streaming flexible so that if students improved they could move up. There is a tendency (particularly in the Victorian education system) to try and make everyone “equal” when the truth is that some are more equal than others… That’s just life. I also think the idea of standardised school qualifications and school curriculum is a good idea – it makes it a lot easier if your parents are forced to move interstate.

Any comments/criticisms welcome!


  1. GoAwayPlease
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    any school is only a microcosm of Actual World Life itself.

    Killersville High is probably a better training ground (eg Eddie McGuire survived broady to own a big house in the right postcode); and not having the toughening-up of Killersville, maybe the old school tie gang have to stick together because they can only cope with each other.

    (My Disclaimer: 12 years of country government education, but totally familiar with very prissy South Yarra private schools due to seven years of daughter’s attendance -she sure is ‘social’ but cannot spell or write very well, and only reads junk).

  2. Law Student
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I think, when the time comes, sending your child to a private school will be a good decision.

    Private School students are much more organised and disciplined than those in public schools. There are simple stuff that I have noticed about private school attendees that you wont find in public school students.

    I catch a peak train to uni and happen to see school kids most of the time.

    Most private school students will leave their seats for an elderly person or a person more in need, whereas public school students tend to ignore.

    Private school students also have better presentation with tucked in shirts, ironed trousers, ties and combed hair. On the other hand, public school students are usually scruffy.

    Private school students are also more study orientated which benefits the whole class when it comes to scaling, and thus always perform better. Public schools are usually scaled down.

    The more elite of a private school you send your child to, the better connection quality she will acquire as she would be exposed to the children of parliamentarians, big businesspeoples, renowned lawyers etc…

    Being a private school graduate has its benefits too. The majority of my fellow law schoolers are private school graduates. You can easily tell a public school graduate usually by their lack of interest in lectures and tutes.

    As to religion, i don’t think many private schools are bent on this issue as much as they used to be. A school may be anglican or catholic, but from what i’ve seen i would suggest that its just a name thing. The furthest religion related education goes would be the once a week bible class.

    Thus, 4. Send precious child to a private school, and try to ignore the matter when it comes up in conversation.

  3. Iaian Hall
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    My daughter is nearly eight and I have generally been happy with her progress at the small (100 student) public school that she attends. I see no reason to change her school for the duration of her primary education. However when you live outside the major cites like I do it often comes down to a question of logistics as much as any thing else when deciding to sent your precious children to a secondary school.
    I some times think that what you say about connecting into social net works may have some value but have my doubts that for some one who does not come from the “right” social group acceptance by the elite cliques is not easy or ever much more that superficial. The film “mean girls” is a great example of the tribalism with in schools that I sadly think is a rather universal paradigm.
    My strategy for my children is to send them to the best public schools that I can find and extend them with music lessons, gym classes ect and in fact to discourage the notion that a university education is necessarily the best path to a successful life, if they want to go fine I’m for it 100% but unless they develop a real passion for law or medicine so much tertiary study is just delaying the advent of adult hood and the necessity to actually make your own way in the world.
    Forgive me going into rant mode but as much as I believe that education is important I have seen too many young people who are still acting like children as they are fare welling their twenties and that seems to me to be rather silly and a wast of the best years of one’s life.

  4. missv
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I think that it’s great if the parents are in a situation where they make enough money to can make that choice freely. It also worries me when people get into serious debt to send their kids to private school.

    If money was no object I would certainly consider private school. Otherwise, I would be going for option 2 or 3 and would move to an area with such a school if necessary (to be in the right catchment area). I think it also depends on the individual child, their temperament and needs, as to which school is the most appropriate, not whether it earns you a merit badge as a good lefty.

    I agree that there should probably be more streaming in Victorian schools and that it should be flexible. The system should also be flexible enough that if a student excels in one particular area (say maths) and struggles in another (say English), then they can get the extension they need in their area of strength and the help they need in their area of weakness.

    One advantage I feel I gained from attending a state primary school and a state high school (albeit a privileged girls high school but not a selective one) is that it exposed me to a greater range of people with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. There were girls there from wealthy families and others who couldn’t afford to pay the non-mandatory minimal yearly school fees. I’m sure this has made me more tolerant and understanding of the different situations of others than if I had attended a more homogenous school.

  5. Laura Reece
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Law student, you wrote: “Being a private school graduate has its benefits too. The majority of my fellow law schoolers are private school graduates. You can easily tell a public school graduate usually by their lack of interest in lectures and tutes.”
    I went to a public high school and certainly was in the minority once I reached law school. Some of my fellow students played the public/private game and I found both equally distasteful. I find your generalisation about public school graduates quite astonishing. My experience was quite the opposite.

  6. cherry ripe
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Law student, frankly you are uninformed. Universally, studies have shown that, although students from state schools are less likely to go to university (especially the elite ones), those who do are the ones who are right at the top of the class, and who are most critically engaged. The few state school students in my classes that I taught (at a prestigious law school) were stellar: engaged, critical, worldly and thoughtful.

    By way of personal illustration: My partner went to a crapola country high school. He’s one of the most learned, intellectual people I know. He reads high-level political philosophy for fun. He will be a leader in his field one day. He found his feet in a system that treasured him because he was one of so few who wanted to learn. Sure, it was tough, but those who wanted to make it, made it.

    Me, I went to an elite private girls school. I spent three years of uni wondering why I was there, and trying to muster the self-discipline to work hard. I still wonder if I found the right path – because my path was so carefully created for me – I didn’t create it myself. It’s taken me over ten years to start finding my own path.

    Now that I have a child of my own, I tend to think the importance of one’s choice of school is vastly overrated. It’s the willingness of parents to deal with the needs of the child that counts most. And in the end, if you give your child the skills to learn, and the strength to determine their own path, that is worth more than the thousands of dollars sending your kids to grammar.

  7. Legal Eagle
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Laura, your comment about public school students being a minority in law schools is precisely what concerns me. From my own experience of law school, it seems evident to me that if you go to a public school, you have less chance of getting into law school. The vast majority of students in my course had attended private schools. This doesn’t seem right to me.

    I was also horrified that often the first question I was asked was, “What school did you go to?” (just like what happened to Mum 15 years earlier when she did her DipEd).

    MissV, what I was getting with the comments about left wing beliefs conflicting with practice are those who say public schools are good enough for the hoi polloi, but send their own children to private schools (for example, some politicians). If it’s not good enough for their children, why is it good enough for my child? What motivates them to send their children to a private school?

    I think it’s really important not to generalise about people too. Just because a person attended a private school doesn’t mean that he or she is stuck up. Just because a person attended a public school doesn’t mean that he or she “lacks manners”. As I constantly say in this blog, I take people as I find them, not on the basis of religion, gender, sexuality or what school they attended.

    I also think Iain’s comments are worth remembering – a university education isn’t the be all and end of of being a rounded human being. One of the things my Dad said to me in my final year of high school was really valuable to me. He said, “I don’t care what you do after you finish school, as long as you have tried your best and you enjoy what you eventually choose to do.”

  8. lynn white
    Posted March 6, 2007 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    All measured and thoughtful responses to the issue, with one exception. Law Students’ remarks are the best argument I’ve heard AGAINST private schools. Ever.

    I think you are quite right about the reasons folks send their kids to private schools LE. It is really hard to bite the bullet and send your kid to Killersville High, but look at it this way. Every nice kid who goes to Killersville is a plus for the school. If they go somewhere else they make Killersville a worse place to be.

    I’m state school educated, teach uni and have taught high school. I know that I’m not exaggerating to say private school students tend to be spoon fed and flounder when they get to uni, and waste time navel gazing because they’ve been pushed into courses they don’t really want to do.

    I also know that a rough state school can be hell on a kid. But then no private school has ever been able to show me they’ve got a good anti-bullying strategy.

    My kid will lump it at the state school, just like I did. Because you are dead right that the critical determinant of his success will be parental input. And I’m not going to outsource that to a private school.

  9. Lorana
    Posted March 7, 2007 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I think you should send a kid to as many schools as possible to give them a wide range of experience! Ok, I am sort of kidding but having been to 10 schools, including local public (primary and high school), alternative hippie (private), selective (public)- both here and in Germany and an Amercian army base school (in Germany), I can say I have seen a broad range of learning and teaching models and been exposed to a very broad range of students. I regard this as a good thing.

    When I got to law school it was generally the private school students who sought to rely only on the old school tie connections and often, though not always, floundered.

    Long before I had kids, my mother in law declared that if I sent her grandchildren to a public school I would be ruining them for life (her own sons having gone to a GPS school). I took and still take great umbrage at this notion and am confident that I will raise children who will excel, and more importantly, be happy, no matter where they go to school.

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