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Beware stereotyping private schools

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Thursday, 19 May 2005

As a private school student currently undergoing the rigours of my final year at school, Chloe Bugelly’s piece in The Age (“Private school students miss lessons of real life” on April 22, 2005) was an interesting read. It was disturbing, however, to sense the accusatory tone that underpinned her article. Words such as “spoon-feeding” and “sheltered” were used to give the impression that private schools are, by nature, elitist institutions that do little to prepare their students for the “real world”.

Realistically, private schools are just like any other school. They employ teaching staff who are totally dedicated to the welfare of their students, just like any other school and management staff who aim to provide the best possible facilities for their students.

Yet the bulk of anti-private crusaders claim private schools are not like public schools. They see the differences in narrow terms, namely private schools are too orientated towards the university entry score. Of this there is little doubt. Private schools are determined to push their students to excel because of the commercial benefits that eventually accrue.


As private school students, we are under pressure to perform but we are also reminded on many occasions that a university entry score is not the ultimate achievement in life.

Bugelly suggests upon reaching university, private school graduates suddenly lose the value in the education that allowed them to achieve the highest university entry score. This, while appealing to some, is surely not sensible. The other possibility is that this might have little to do with individual school characteristics, which is explored in a study by Rosemary Win and Paul W. Miller from the University of Western Australia.

The authors see the underperformance of otherwise smart non-government school students when they reach university, not as a bad reflection on the individual characteristics of any particular school, but on their scores being “artificially inflated relative to [their] raw abilities”, implying the problem may lie in the way state education boards statistically moderate scores.

One reason, though not the only reason, for the drift from public to private schooling is because parents increasingly view non-government schools as imparting traditional values and life-skills. Private school students are not deficient in life-skills. In all respects we are as equally adaptable and socially aware as any other category of student.

At many private schools members of staff try to instill in students a deep appreciation of how lucky they are. Moreover, the dedicated contributions to charity and community work that the non-government sector makes every year cannot be overlooked.

There is a degree of truth in the claim many private schools cater for a greater number of high-income families and also provide education to a narrower band of socio-cultural backgrounds. But let’s face it, many schools don’t provide for this group. Is it the fault of private school’s for charging fees that enable them to provide a rounded education, or is the government’s fault for not putting in place the policies that enable equality of educational opportunity for everyone? I tend to think the latter.


The idea of running schools based on a business model is somehow bad is another red herring, especially when a large number of non-government schools are not-for- profit. Revenue from tuition, government grants and the like are usually injected back into the school.

Even a recent Monash University study does not lend blanket support to the assertion that the lack of correlation between university entry scores and first-year performance is a result of deficiencies in non-government schools. What the study does show is university education can be said to level the playing field. Talented students from non-selective government schools whose Year 12 results weren’t as good, benefit in this process. The authors write: “… attendance at an independent school confers an advantage relative to students’ talent (as measured by subsequent university performance) … Bright students from non-selective government schools are disadvantaged in Year 12.”

The truth is, neither category of schools has been completely successful in preparing students for the intellectual and social challenges of university and thus, neither should be touted as being absolutely better. The unfortunate reality in today’s convoluted market system is many of us are able to pay our way to a perceived better quality education: however, this is a separate issue.

Having experienced both sides of the education system, I would argue, the reasons behind underperformance are more complex than simply repeating stereotypes.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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