Selective schools are not the benchmark

Polly Dunning July 23, 2018

On Thursday I read yet another article about why Australia’s schools are supposedly “failing”.

In it, Cynthia Fenton argued that all schools should be more like academically selective schools. She bemoaned the lowering of “standards” at comprehensive schools and argued that parents and teachers are to blame, even suggesting that teachers at non-selective public schools are not experienced, committed or academically capable enough. She also argued that we must focus more (that’s right, more!) on marks and grades because that’s what gets students into university. What tosh.

Students sit the selective high school test.

Photo: Andrew Taylor

Here’s a controversial opinion (though, it shouldn’t be): Australian schools are not failing. Australian teachers and parents are not failing. And marks don’t really matter that much. It is the growing cult of perfectionism that needs to be exercised from our culture, not our “near enough is good enough attitude”.

How do I know Aussie schools, teachers and parents aren’t failing? Because the young people they shape impress me every day. They impress me when they look after their younger siblings and get everyone to school because their parents have to work two jobs. They impress me when they know themselves well enough to decide they want to get a trade instead of continuing at school.

They impress me when they throw an absolute fit in a classroom, behave terribly, and then return to sincerely apologise. And they impress me when they work together with their peers on things they care about. They impress me when they are human beings who feel and care and laugh and connect, not when they sit exams to be defined by data points on a piece of paper.

A mark or a grade will never define what teachers do or who their students are.

Believe me, marks don’t matter as much as many people think they do. In ten years, you won’t remember your ATAR and no-one will care. If you missed out on university entrance to the course you wanted, you’ll either find another pathway (there are plenty) or you didn’t really want to do it in the first place. Most kids find their way. Particularly if they’ve had parents and teachers who focused on teaching them to be resilient and inquisitive and enthusiastic, rather than only on academic excellence.

In a tweet that’s gone viral this week, author Alexandra Penfold reveals the difference between her year four writing test scores and her own evaluation of her writing. Her lacklustre score fails to reveal her love of the art. She has just had her sixth book published.

Fenton argues that teachers should all be working harder and longer, going “above and beyond”. But teachers are already working their guts out for their kids every day. The biggest misconception about teaching is that great teachers are the exception and not the rule. I would argue that many teachers are working more than they should. Going “above and beyond” should not be the new normal and we should not be expecting it from anyone. It literally means to do far more than what is usual or expected, which by definition means you don’t do it all the time. Nor should we. The cult of overwork and perfectionism is stifling.

Starting a war between schools with teachers arguing about who works harder, is more dedicated, or has the better qualifications is a ridiculous distraction and not one we should be modelling to our kids.

We should be advocating for all students. To suggest that all teachers should teach the way selective school teachers do shows a lack of basic understanding of education and of children. It disregards the fact that children from Moree come to school with different strengths and challenges to those from Mosman.

All teachers, including those in selective schools, should respond to the reality of their classroom and their community. All teachers should care about their students and work to help them achieve their goals, whatever they may be.

The extreme focus on marks and supposed “high standards” increases anxiety and kills all the other great things that happen in schools. It is death to creativity and joy and community and diversity. And in a country where anxiety affects one in four people over a lifetime, we certainly don’t need to be upping the ante.

And our “near enough is good enough attitude”? I’d like to see it stay. Near enough really is good enough for most things most of the time. It is an important skill to decide judiciously where to focus your energy, be exacting, and to use it sparingly. It is the road to a happy life. Children should not be taught, and parents and teachers should not be expected, to give one hundred per cent energy and effort to everything all of the time. That way madness lies.

Polly Dunning is a teacher in Melbourne.