Who is responsible for learning?

By Legal Eagle

One of the hard things about teaching is that there is only so much you can do. You can try to lead students to information, but in the end, it’s up to them how much of that information they choose to take in, and final responsibility for performance in exams, tests or essays rests with the student. This is why good teaching is also hard to judge. If a student does badly in a test, it is not necessarily because the teacher was bad. Some responsibility must rest with the student too.

The reason I am discussing this is because The Age reported today that an 18-year-old woman and her mother were suing Geelong Grammar because it failed to assist her in her quest to study Law at the University of Sydney:

Rose Ashton-Weir, 18, alleges Geelong Grammar gave her inadequate academic support, particularly in maths.

Seeking compensation in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, she said her final secondary school score was too low to study law at the University of Sydney.

Of her time at Geelong Grammar, she said: ”I didn’t ever feel I was getting the support I needed to really excel.”

Ms Ashton-Weir boarded at the school in 2008 and 2009 but finished her secondary studies at a TAFE college in Sydney. She is in the first year of a double degree in arts and sciences at the University of Sydney.

Her mother, Elizabeth Weir, is also suing the school for lost income and other expenses.

She said she gave up her chocolate fortune cookie business – which she had expected to make $450,000 over three years – because her daughter moved from Geelong to live with her in New South Wales.

She is also seeking compensation for $39,000 in rent paid when they moved to another house in Sydney.

Earlier this week, Ms Weir said the school had known her daughter was gifted and had scored highly in an intelligence test, but struggled in maths.

Yesterday, Ms Ashton-Weir told the tribunal a teacher at Geelong Grammar had criticised her for using words that were too long, which had left her confused and had made her doubt her ability to write essays. She became ”quite distressed” when her English marks began to fall.

Darren Ferrari, representing Geelong Grammar, said Ms Ashton-Weir could have studied law at several other universities. ”You could have done law at Deakin University by correspondence,” he said.

There’s a mix of different issues in these cases, as I’ve said before in a post on a similar case some years ago. I do feel some sympathy towards the parent. If she has shelled out a bucket-load of money for her daughter to get a good education, it’s understandable that she would want to demand certain standards of the school.  On the other hand, if the child does not do her work or does not turn up to classes, that is her own choice. She has to take some responsibility for her own academic success. And let us be clear, just because you pay for an educational service does not mean that you are entitled to good marks. As I commented in that earlier post, there are a few things which concern me about this kind of case:

  • It suggests that it is the school’s fault alone if the child has not done well. To recycle a well-known proverb, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. The child also has to put in effort of his own.
  • Teachers are caught between wanting to give an accurate view of a child’s potential, and the potential for crushing a child’s ego. As a friend was explaining, school reports in this State increasingly tend towards brevity and giving scant information about a child’s progress.
  • Some parents have unrealistic expectations about the extent to which their child can improve academically. It may be that the best outcome which could have been reached is for a D student to become a C student.
  • If a class does badly, it does not mean that the teacher is bad. It may mean that the class is a particularly difficult one, or there are a high proportion of students with learning difficulties, or students who are socially disadvantaged. This is the problem I have with “grading teachers”. If you judge the quality of teachers on the achievements of students, it will depend in part on the aptitude of the students, and so it is not a fair judgment.
  • Should teachers have given [one] student attention over and above the attention which they gave other students who were not struggling? If so, doesn’t this mean that the more accomplished members of the class are being neglected and in a sense, being “punished” for being smart?

The first thing I thought with regard to this particular young woman is that she needs to be told The Horse Story. The moral of The Horse Story is this: sometimes it looks like it’s a disaster when you don’t get what you want, but in the end it can be the best possible thing for you, and you end up doing something that is better for you than what you wanted. Just keep on persisting (and ‘wait and see’ before you decide it’s all a disaster). I am an exemplar of this. While I did get into an Arts/Law degree at the university of my choice, I did not get Articles with a law firm first time around and ended up working with the Victorian Court of Appeal as a researcher instead. If that had not happened, I would not have met my husband, I would not have met a variety of excellent friends and I would not have worked for a Judge for a number of years. As it happens, I did get Articles in the end (and in fact shared an office with Darren, the barrister mentioned above — he’s still a friend of mine — he blogs here).

I know a number of people who didn’t get into Law first time around, but they studied other courses in an effort to attain marks which would enable them to transfer. And they managed to do so successfully. Why is this woman spending her time bringing a legal action, and not spending her time studying hard in her Arts/Science degree so that she can transfer into Law if that is her ultimate goal in life? (It’s almost exam time right now at my university, and surely at hers too. She should be concentrating on swotting rather than appearing in VCAT). If you want something, you should damn well work for it (yes, my Protestant work ethic is showing, even though I’m not religious). Show some resilience, girl. You aren’t going to get very far if you just complain the instant you don’t get what you want rather than working for it.

Which brings me to my second point: it seems to me that this young woman has a massive sense of entitlement. From the way in which the newspaper article tells it, it almost seems to me that she was asserting that she should have gotten into Law just because she’s clever and she’s got a high IQ. If so, I’ve got news for you, honey. A lot of people are clever, but that doesn’t give them an entitlement to do Law. You’ve got to work for it, and even then, you might not succeed. In this young woman’s defence, it can be hard to adjust to this hard truth if you’re very clever, you’ve never had to work hard before and you’ve never failed to achieve what you set out to achieve before. Maybe she’s also the kind of person who has always been told that she’s brilliant and that she’s entitled to special treatment? While I wasn’t in that category, I confess that at my Australian high school, I never had to study to do well, and it was only when I got to my English high school that I learned how to work, and developed organised study habits. It was a bit of a shock to the system to learn how to work, but it was good for me. I’ve described the process I went through in this post, and I concluded that post with comments I still endorse:

The truth of the matter is, that to achieve results, one has to work hard and do “boring” stuff. It seems to be unpopular these days to emphasise this. Everything has to be “interesting” and palatable for easily-bored students. But once you get out into the real world, there’s lots of boring stuff. Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean that you can escape this: in fact, it may mean you resign yourself to a life of boring stuff (discovery, due diligence etc). And one is constantly judged in the real world – who gets pay rises, who doesn’t etc. The best way of preparing children for the real world is to let them know that life isn’t always interesting, and native intelligence or talent alone does not get you anywhere without practice and hard work.

There’s an irony, too, that this young woman is suing for loss of a chance to obtain a law degree. I wonder if this case will leave her more or less starry eyed about the legal system? I am glad that I studied Law, as it happens. I genuinely enjoy it, and being a lawyer is very empowering…but if she does eventually get into law, and into the legal profession, I wonder if she will be disappointed?


Danielle McCreddin writes on this case at Club Troppo. Like me, she thinks that it might have been a bad idea to litigate this one; but points out other cases where litigation might be appropriate.


  1. conrad
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “and commentary that exults the Scandinavian model as a sign of their moral superiority over us poor Anglos sets my teeth on edge.”

    I agree. And just to make things worse, the same people never say that the Shanghai or HK model of learning is superior to the Anglo model, even though the PISA results speak for themselves and there are in fact lots of good points about the HK system (I don’t know much about Shanghai, and I wouldn’t trust any results out of anywhere in China except HK).

    “I think most folk who have investigated the cross country comparisons know about the phonetic nature of Finnish”

    Tell that to ACER or the OECD reporters!

    “however this doesn’t explain the maths and science results”

    Since most of the deteriation is actually quite recent, I think there are (a) possibly cultural changes in what people think of maths/science; (b) changes in both the early learning and the later curriculum that were bad (notably for later maths, the introduction of graphical calculators), and for early learning — “the I love learning crowd” beat the “if you don’t do a pile of repetitious maths things you won’t good visual-spatial skills and you will be slow to understand inequalities etc.”. This latter one is of course big in East Asian countries, and funnily enough they have better visual-spatial skills; and (c) too many kids taking the easy subjects because they know they can still get good marks if they do this in latter years.

  2. Mel
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    “This is why any idea that abolishing private schools equalises educational opportunities generates a hollow laugh from yours truly.”

    Given your top hat and facial growth, your hollow laugh must look very sinister 😉 But on a more serious note, I understand it is much more complicated than simply banning private schools. But I would ban them anyway.

  3. Posted December 25, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    I like teaching but I hate learning…Well With limited exceptions, I think the bit about the connexions for later life is vastly overrated in popular opinion…

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  1. […] May this year, I wrote a post about the case of Rose Ashton-Weir, who, with her mother, Elizabeth Weir, was suing Geelong Grammar […]

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