Sunday, February 23, 2014

Free Schools, by David Gillespie

Staff Review by Chris Saliba


Father of six David Gillespie researches how to select the best school for your children, with surprising results. Money, it appears, does not buy you a good education. The answers are a lot simpler than you'd think

Lawyer turned author David Gillespie (Sweet Poison and Big Fat Lies), having investigated the pernicious aspects of our modern diet, now turns his attention to Australia's education system. Gillespie has six children, making education policy a personal quest as well as an intellectual question. Free Schools aims to be a practical manual advising parents how to select a good school without paying a bomb for what he calls 'bells and whistles'.

Free Schools wades through thousands and thousands of studies and reports, which makes a lot of what the book examines seem quite complicated, but boiled down, the advice given is pretty straight forward. Common sense will tell you a lot of what you need to know.

In essence, to get your child a good education you need to concentrate on getting a good teacher. Also of high importance is checking out that the school's principal is a good leader, someone who sees their job as constantly monitoring the performance of their teachers. Learning a language is a good idea, as students who do this constantly outperform those who don't. Having a hobby or participating in a sport are also a good idea, as it can make school life a bit more pleasant.

Here are some of the myths he debunks. Bigger class sizes don't have a detrimental effect on educational outcomes. (He blames the unions for smaller class sizes, which have also led to a huge blow out in education costs.) Homework isn't necessarily going to improve performance. And the big one: expensive schools won't give your child a better education.

Gillespie explains the good results of expensive schools in this manner: parents from a lower socio-economic background don't instil in their children a high value in education, whereas rich parents do. This means that rich kids get important signals to do well, and so they do perform better. These rich parents are all choosing the expensive private schools and hence helping to create overall good results for the school. In effect, the expensive schools are hoovering up all the good performers, not creating them.

Research into education seems to be about as clear as mud. David Gillespie has read a large amount of the reports and studies and basically gives his opinion on a lot of conflicting data. As he himself admits, a lot of the research can be read one way or the other. For lay readers like myself, the best you can do with a book like this is to trust that the author is not manipulating the numbers to push some sort of personal ideology. (When Gillespie was interviewed by Natasha Mitchell on Radio National's Life Matters, she asked him to put his hand over his heart and swear he'd not cherry picked the data. He allowed it's possible he may have made mistakes, as anyone can, but said he had no ideological axe to grind.)

Perhaps the best indication that the book is balanced is the fact that both the left and the right will be offended by Free Schools. Gillespie is highly critical of the teacher's unions and also critical of government spending on private schools, pretty much an article of faith with conservative governments.

For me, I trusted Gillespie's arguments, and where I really didn't know a subject he was talking about, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. He writes in a simple, straight forward style and is gifted at presenting complex information in an easy to understand way. Free Schools will give your thinking about education a good shake up and should garner much public discussion.

Free Schools, by David Gillespie. Published by Macmillan Australia. ISBN: 9781742612195  RRP: $29.99