The recent case of a divorcing couple has garnered some attention because of an unusual ruling which a High Court judge had to make in the case. In his judgement, Justice Hogan ruled that a 12 year old boy should attend a private school.
(disclaimer: I teach in a fee-charging school)
The manner in which this has been reported has been interesting. In this article posted at 16.40 on August 21st, the Irish Times reports the ‘High Court orders enrolment of boy (12) in private school‘. While the headline can be read a number of ways, given the current attack on private schools both in the media and from the Department of Education, it is hard not to attach a degree of sensationalism to the headline.
This is all the more so because the article cherry picked Justice Hogan’s judgement by stating that the judge said
“Given especially his scholastic aptitude it seems appropriate that he should go to a school that would seem best suited for his talents”.
To be fair, the judge did say this but also said much more, which the article left out.
At 22.39 on the same day, the Irish Times posted a second article with the headline “High Court rules boy will be ‘best served’ by private school” with the by-line that “boy’s mother anxious he ‘be given the very best opportunity in life‘. The only material difference in tone between this article and the first was the last line which stated ‘he (Justice Hogan) stressed this was not endorsing the private school at the expense of the other one’.
Again, quite a lot was left out.
I have an interest in this from two perspectives. One is the view it presents of private schools versus State schools. The second is the view presented by the first Irish Times article which suggested that in general, given the boys abilities, he was best served by a private school. This seems to imply that more able children are better served by private schools.
Before looking at what the judgement actually said (because how many people will read it?), I wanted to take the articles at face value to highlight exactly what they seem to imply. So pretend the judgement is not available for a bit!
1. By suggesting that the boy is better served by the private school, there is an implied statement that the State sector was not able to meet his particular needs as one would expect. Certainly some schools are better than others. But surely we should balk at the notion that the academic education provided by one school is in some way inferior to that provided by another (remember, private and State schools’ teachers come from the same stables) . On the face of it, this must be incorrect and in fact it is. Most State schools are excellent – all the more so when one considers the low level of funding (over and above teacher salaries) and the difficult environment in which many of them operate.
At a minimum you could conclude that the judge was not talking generally about State schools but rather specifically about the choice of schools available to the parents in this case.
What is it that private schools have that State schools do not? Not to dwell too long on it, it is an interesting question and although money has a lot to do with it, it is not, I believe, the most important issue. Private schools receive approximately 50% less funding than State schools. They make up the difference with the fees they charge and while some of this may go towards smaller class sizes (less so since the recent discriminatory changes in pupil teacher ratio), the fee income is more often spent on providing additional classroom resources, extra-curricular resources and facilities that the State has failed to fund in schools.
But these resources do not answer the most basic question of how the academic education provided by one school can differ from another when the teachers in both types of school come from the same training colleges. The answer I believe lies in the wider sociological inputs to schooling.
Various people (take your pick of non-teachers downwards..) will state that the biggest single influence on how student performs is the quality of the teachers. THIS IS NONSENSE. The biggest influence on how well a student performs is parental and peer support for education. Certainly, where these are missing, teachers become relatively more important. One of the influences that the cohort attending private schools has relatively more of than those attending State schools is support for and valuing of education. To be sure, this is a generalisation and there are individual variations, but as a rule, it stands.
2. The second issue implied, in my humble opinion, by the Irish Times articles, is the notion that more able students – such as this 12 year old boy – are better served by private schools. I do not think that this is a hard and fast rule; however, given the way private schools attempt to make up funding shortfalls from the DES, and more particularly, given the school culture of private schools, it is hard not to conclude private schools do in fact offer better opportunities for gifted children. I don’t have a problem with this notion; but I do have a problem with the notion that gifted children – and all children for that matter – can not avail of the same educational opportunities as children who attend private schools*. Gifted children are entitled to, and should, in a Republic that cherishes all its children equally (!), receive an education appropriate to their needs and abilities. They shouldn’t have to depend on whether a family member just happened to have the money to send them to a private school.
(*If this was the case, you might ask why would we need private schools. Without going into it, the answer lies in the ethos of the school, and again, the State’s willingness to fund adequately, the education of its (minority) children).
If some State schools, by virtue of their particular structure and operation, is not able to generate an academic atmosphere in extent appropriate to this 12 year old boy, then the State needs to step in and provide such schools.
This is NOT to take away from the State school referred to in this court case. In all likelihood, and the judge alluded to it, it is a excellent school. It just happened to be considered by the judge less able to meet the boys needs.
The judgement was more subtle in detail than the Irish Times articles suggest. You can access the judgement here. It is a short, very coherent judgement absent much of the legalise of more detailed judgements.
The original conflict between school choice lies in the an offer to enrol in the private school and the mother’s wish that the boy do so. Although the Judge said of the State school….,
“It is common case that this is a perfectly good school with a high level of academic and other achievements. Many of his friends will be attending this school and the public transport links between his home and that school are excellent.”
….., it is clear the mother perceived the private school to be the better of the two options. The father, it seems for primarily financial reasons, preferred the boy attended the State school.
The judge stated,
“..it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that School B. would be the more appropriate school for a boy of Conor’s aptitude, even if he would also do well at School A. He is a bright boy who would be likely to thrive in the more academic environment of School B.”
(School B is the private school)
While the second Irish Times article mentioned the judge’s statement that nothing was intended to endorse School B at the experience of School A, it left out the rest of point 29,
29. It must here be emphasised that this is not to endorse School B at the expense of School A, still less to suggest that private education is in some way more desirable than education in the public system. There are, of course, many – not least educationalists and social reformers – who decry the ranking of schools and the emergence of a small coterie of “elite” schools. Perhaps in an ideal world all schools would (and should) be ranked equally. But in considering what is best for Conor, I have to take the world as I find it and not perhaps as one might wish it to be. Given especially his scholastic aptitude it seems appropriate that he should go to a school that would seem best suited for his talents.
So what the judge seems to be saying, but which the Irish Times doesn’t is that in this particular case, involving these two particular schools, and this particular boy, with his particular abilities, the private school is the better option.
The judgement could easily have been the other way around; had the evidence allowed, the judge could have concluded the State school was better and that regardless of the families ability to pay fees, the State school could have been the better option.
The question that remains to be answered is why a State school could not provide an environment at least as well suited to the boys needs as the private school. I think I know the answer and it has little to do with the School A and its teachers.