Fat school fees no guarantee for top results
Australian lawyer and businessman David Gillespie grew up in Brisbane and was educated at one of the city's top private schools. But as he and his wife were mulling over where to send their six children, the "eye-watering sums" involved at elite institutions prompted them to consider alternatives.
It also led Gillespie to examine what it was that made a school, and an education system, effective. The result is Free Schools (Pan Macmillan), a book that challenges many widely held beliefs about quality education, especially in Australia.
"I wanted to find the answer to the question: if I spent millions of dollars on education, was that money well spent?" he asks. "Would it guarantee a better result for my children?"
His conclusion was an unequivocal "no".
"Going in, I had no agenda and no preconceived ideas about what makes an effective school. What I did know was a lot of educational research is hard to understand and seems to be based on hunches - very little of it on hard facts and trials," Gillespie says.
What surprised him most was that many factors parents assume to be important in schooling mattered very little.
Chief among these assumptions is that high fees equalled a superior education.
Wealthy families dominate in independent or private schools, he says, but "studies have consistently shown when you adjust for the socioeconomic status of children in independent-versus-government systems, both are equally effective. Paying more for education will get you nicer buildings and your child can hang around with kids of 'his class', but then we have to assume that's a good thing?"
Similarly, Gillespie argues smaller classes do not necessarily lead to better learning and higher grades.
He refers to the Australian system as an example, where class sizes 50 years ago were double what they are today. Smaller classes meant increased spending to employ more teachers; yet Australia is slipping in the global education rankings.
"Classes need effective teachers who can manage students and maintain order," he says. If behaviour is a problem and not well managed, there will still be a problem, whether it's a class of 12 or 20.
Homework is another contentious area. A 2006 study at Duke University, in North Carolina, showed there was no benefit to assigning homework to primary schoolchildren. Gillespie says recent research suggests there may be significant downsides because it takes up teachers' time with marking and setting homework.
However, he concedes some studies show that homework is helpful during high school.
Ultimately, Gillespie says an effective school depends on one thing - leadership: of the school and in the classroom.
Every four years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, releases the results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which evaluates the skills of more than 500,000 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.
Hong Kong came in the top three for each discipline in the 2012 Pisa report - an impressive ranking out of 65 countries including the US, Britain and Australia.
Gillespie says schools that do well tend to adopt a collegiate approach, where principals and senior teachers still teach some of the time, but spend most time supervising junior teachers in the classroom, making sure they are learning to be better teachers. Senior teachers are not turned into administrators: they are turned into teacher-mentors. "This is what gets results."
To retain good teachers, you need strong, accountable and involved leadership, he says.
Gillespie suggests parents visit potential schools and also interview the principal.
"What you want is someone who describes their team as professionals who work together to get the best results - that their role as a leader is to help teachers, to mentor them."
His book also outlines other areas that parents should consider when selecting schools, such as its language and music programmes, communication and behaviour management.
"Look for a school that provides study skills - it's all about learning to learn," he says. "It is often assumed children learn by osmosis, but they don't - they need to be taught the skills to do it effectively. Does the school offer language and music programmes? Consistently, study after study shows, that by just learning a language or a musical instrument - it doesn't matter how good you are at it - this improves results."
He says the general behaviour of students is another critical indicator because no one can learn or teach effectively if children are behaving badly.
"A great way to assess this is to look at the uniform. It's [author] Malcolm Gladwell's broken windows theory: if kids in a suburb break a window and it isn't repaired, then they break another and so on - a small misdemeanour turns into a bigger one.
"Uniform policy is the same. You want a school where no deviations are accepted. Even if the school doesn't have a specific uniform they will still have a dress code; find out before you visit what that is and make sure the children are complying."
Finally, Gillespie says a successful and productive school is one that communicates with parents.
"An effective school will offer programmes that run parents through what is being taught and how it is taught - 'these are the concepts and this is how to teach/reinforce it at home'."
Parents should be active participants in education, he says. Rather than simply applying to elite private schools, parents should be focusing on those that can offer effective leadership.
Like any other organisation, the ethos and work ethic of school filters down from the top.