Do government school kids learn tolerance and community?

In my joint paper with Jennifer Buckingham comparing people who went to government schools with people who went to non-government schools, she draw the research short straw – collecting what the public school lobby has had to say on the subject. The op-ed by Catherine Deveny in today’s Age – an evidence-free rant – is the kind of stuff she has to trawl through.

Take this passage:

The lessons kids learn in government schools — resilience, motivation, community and tolerance — hold them in much better stead than hand-holding, spoon-feeding, mollycoddling and segregation.

I’m not sure that any of the surveys I plan to use can tell me much about resilience or motivation – though clearly private school students have enough of each to do much better educationally on average than those who went to government schools – but there are questions that help us understand any differences on community and tolerance.

The 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked about voluntary association involvement. 22% of those who went to government schools were actively involved in a voluntary assocation, compared to 25% of those who went to Catholic schools and 31% who went to other private schools. Another question asked about, in the last 2 years, working together with others who shared the same concerns to express views or represent interests. 43% of those who had been to government schools had done so, 48% of people who went to Catholic schools, and 52% of those who went to other non-government schools. On the question of trust, 53% of those who had been to government schools thought that other people could always or usually be trusted, compared to 59% of those who went to Catholic schools and 63% of those who went to other non-government schools.

On tolerance of disagreement – clearly not one of Ms Deveny’s strengths – respondents were asked ‘When you meet people you strongly disagree with, how important is it to do or say something to show you tolerate them?’ On the 1 to 7 scale I will take those who chose 6 or 7 as strongly agreeing, and on that basis 32% of those who went to government schools, 37% of those who went to Catholic schools and 31% of those who went to other non-government schools think it very important to show tolerance.

On the same basis, I rated agreement with the proposition that government authorities respect and protect the rights of minorities. All the groups agreed strongly with that idea: 70%, 75%, and 70%. However, all the groups also agreed (in the 2003 AuSSA) that ethnic groups should ‘adapt and blend’ rather maintain ‘distinct customs’: 83%, 80% and 72%. Opinions were very similar on the issue of gay civil unions (back to the 2005 survey): 49%, 52%, and 50%.

Contrary to Deveny’s conjecture, on none of the questions relating to community or tolerance did people who went to government schools appear distinctly better than people who went to private schools; they were either very similar or somewhat worse. But even where government schools were worse, they weren’t much worse – 11 percentage points was the largest margin. On these issues, schooling doesn’t appear to make much of a difference. I suspect that if statistical controls for other socio-economic characteristics of the poll respondents were introduced, the school effect appearing in these results would vanish.

The claim by the public school lobby that government schools promote tolerance is one that always makes me laugh. It’s not that I believe most government schools don’t try to encourage tolerance; it’s just that it is such a rare quality in the public school lobby itself. They started out, in part, as an attempt to get at the Catholic Church, and they are still trying nearly 150 years later. Real tolerance means letting minority groups raise their children as they see fit, and not trying to force them into a uniform state system.

18 thoughts on “Do government school kids learn tolerance and community?

  1. Nice post. This line

    It’s not that I believe most government schools don’t try to encourage tolerance; it’s just that it is such a rare quality in the public school lobby itself.

    needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

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  2. It’s rude to shout Sinclair, the Christian Brothers should have taught you that.

    Maybe they’re ‘tolerant’ in the private schools, but don’t they encourage a sort of snobbish tribalism? Is that desirable?

    Andrew, (no doubt you know this) do Catholics vote differently from the rest?

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  3. It is never rude to loudly proclaim the truth, nor to support one’s team, or at any of the Brothers who were elderly and deaf.

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  4. “The lessons kids learn in government schools — resilience, motivation, community and tolerance — hold them in much better stead than hand-holding, spoon-feeding, mollycoddling and segregation.”

    Do they need to develop these qualities more than private school students do because of the inferior quality of their education ? Do they need to over-develop their sense of motivation to counteract the PC dumbing down that goes on in government schools ? Do they need to learn to tolerate better the antics of the teachers unions ?

    The allegation of “spoonfeeding” is the best – think of a class where pupils are taught what they need to get the best results in, say HSC english, versus one that gives them 50% and leaves them to figure the rest our themselves (no doubt drawing on the “motivation’ and “resilience”).

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  5. Russell – Catholics used to lean Labor, but in the 2004 Australian Election Survey more claimed to identify with the Liberals.

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  6. It seems that the private school administrators didn’t learn much about community with their increased funding (from last years education review).


    No surprises here

    Attacking Catherine Deveny as if she speaks for everybody who is in favour of maintaining public education is a bit weak, isn’t it?

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  7. “Attacking Catherine Deveny as if she speaks for everybody who is in favour of maintaining public education is a bit weak, isn’t it?”

    Deveny is an extreme case perhaps, but the basic worldview is common enough that Jennifer and I thought we should write a paper on it.

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  8. Andrew Norton wrote:
    Deveny is an extreme case perhaps, but the basic worldview is common enough that Jennifer and I thought we should write a paper on it.
    That’s an interesting conclusion perhaps based more on your perception. The Evatt foundation don’t have a thrombo every time Piers Akerman belches up last nights roast into the pages of the Tele, I’m not sure why Ms Deveny deserves such special treatment.

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  9. David – Apart from a couple of asides, I just used Deveny as a news hook for research I was doing anyway. And I think you will find this is a common argument for public schooling, and not just my perception. As public schools clearly don’t do as well on the 3 Rs, they need to fall back on arguments like this to bolster the case against private schools.

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  10. Andrew Norton wrote:
    As public schools clearly don’t do as well on the 3 Rs…
    They don’t do as well on tests as far as I can see. They do just as well, or better, once at University (as a concrete example of performance rather than a theoretical one).
    Level playing field”

    Also, something of the future if we continue down the path of underfunding public schools – the rise of the conservative christian school and attendant woeful performance (in the US)

    US study of private vs public schools

    You’d be better off supporting both choices, not the “choice” of only private schooling – we already did the 19th century and nobody liked it.

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  11. The studies of government school kids at uni aren’t as conclusive as that. They show that in first year *for a given ENTER score* kids from non-selective government schools do slightly better than the others. However, because the kids from selective government and private schools have much higher ENTERs to begin with they do better in absolute terms.

    Also, all the studies I have seen are of first years. It’s quite usual for students to do worse in first year than subsequent years; they get the hang of what is required and drop subjects that they are not so good at. My final results were certainly better than my first year results (and indeed, almost all my results until I gave up student politics…).

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  12. Andrew Norton wrote:
    My final results were certainly better than my first year results (and indeed, almost all my results until I gave up student politics…).
    I didn’t realise your academic performance was so indicative of the entire cohort Andrew – obviously my mistake.

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  13. I wouldn’t take Ms. Deveney comments seriously. She’s there to be an agent provocateur, a shit stirrer or in internet parlance a WUM (wind up merchant).

    Despite he rantings I hope she continues at the Age. She is the left wing equivalent of all those rabid right wing commentators such as Andrew Bolt.

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