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.