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What causes success at school?

Feb 17, 2015 by

By Kevin Donnelly – Schools are well and truly back after the summer break and prospective undergraduates are awaiting orientation week and the beginning of their journey through academia.

And when it comes to Year 12 results measured by students’ Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and tertiary entry there’s no doubt non-government schools, with the exception of selective government schools, achieve the best results.

Every year, in Melbourne for example, when results are released students from Catholic and independent schools like Caulfield Grammar, Ruyton Girls’ School, Mt Scopus and Loreto Mandeville Hall are ranked at the top of the list.

It’s not unusual for such schools to have 50 to 60 per cent of Year 12 students achieving ATAR scores of 90% and above while the Victorian state average for ATAR scores is 64.4 % for girls and 62.2 % for boys.

Add selective state schools like Melbourne and Mac Robertson Girls’ High and Nossal High School, where entry is based on academic ability, and it’s clear that government schools can also guarantee their students get into prestige course like medicine and law.

But, why do non-government schools and selective state schools do so well in Victoria and across the other states and territories?  With state schools the fact that selective schools only enrol students who can pass the entry test helps explain success.

Selective schools like Melbourne High, Sydney’s James Ruse Agricultural High and Adelaide High have hundreds sitting entry tests every year and parents often spend hard earned cash on tutors and practise tests to give their children the edge.

Add the fact that the majority of students at selective schools in Melbourne and Sydney are from Asian and Indian families, where parents value education and push their children to succeed, and it’s understandable why they do so well.

The reality is that having parents who spend time and energy educating their children by reading books, turning off the computer and plasma TV screens and having high expectations gives students a head start when it comes to doing well at school.


As to why non-government schools get the best academic results the answers aren’t as clear.  Critics like the Australian Education Union argue that private schools only do well because their students come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds.

The only problem here is that non-government school critics are confusing cause and effect.  Just because two things are linked doesn’t meant that one causes or is the reason for the other.

It’s true that non-government schools like Scotch College in Melbourne and the King’s School in Sydney serve wealthier families but, it is also true that many high-performing Catholic and independent schools are low fee-paying and serve less well-off communities.

It’s also true that research carried out both here and overseas proves that there are many other reasons explaining why some students and some schools do better than others.

Successful schools set high expectations, have disciplined and focused classroom environments, committed and well resourced teachers, a rigorous curriculum and effective leadership.

It’s not unusual for successful academic schools to have regular testing and exams starting at Years 7 and 8 while students in many other schools encounter their first exams at Year 12.

Academically strong schools also set lots of homework and work on the assumption, with effort, hard work and teacher support, that all students are capable of improvement.

Students in such schools, on the whole, also have a natural ability when it comes to learning and are generally self-motivated and keen to out-perform other students.

Of course, it’s also true that not all schools focus on Year 12 academic success and there are many other pathways for students completing Year 12.  Victoria is lucky to be the one state in Australia that has a dedicated trade/practical certificate, the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL).

At Years 11 and 12, instead of the Higher School Certificate, students can do the more practical, hands-on VCAL where business and industry get involved and students get work experience in the real world.

Vocational Education and Training (VET) subjects provide another alternative to academic Year 12 subjects and university study.

Critics like the Australian Education Union and Trevor Cobbold, from Save Our Schools, argue against funding non-government schools on the basis that such schools, supposedly, are elitist and exacerbate social disadvantage.

Selective government schools, as they epitomise a commitment to competition and meritocracy, are also often criticised.  Ignored is that selective schools offer a relatively inexpensive pathway to academic success based on ability and merit; especially for non-English speaking background students.

It’s also true that many non-government schools, especially Catholic and low fee paying non-denominational schools, provide a ladder of opportunity for the children of aspirational parents who might never have gone to university.

via What causes success at school? – On Line Opinion – 13/2/2015.

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