What makes a good school?

Better schools

David Gillespie’s book Free Schools, how to get a good education for your kids without spending a fortune aims to inform parents about what really matters in their child’s education.

David Gillespie does not push an agenda – his intention was to look at the evidence and make an informed choice as a parent. He is a former corporate lawyer, co-founder of a software company and consultant to the IT industry. He lives in Brisbane with his wife and six children.

Free Schools cuts through the marketing spin and the school reputation wars to do the following:

  • explain the history and funding of our three school systems – public, Catholic and independent
  • review Australian and OECD country research on what really delivers better education outcomes
  • highlight what parents can do to set their child up for success
  • identifies the two core things that REALLY matter in a school – leadership and teachers
  • and lists another 11 things that great schools will have.

Its key finding is there is no correlation between how much you pay and the quality of education.

Free Schools is easy to read and will challenge many parents’ beliefs and perceptions of what they thought ‘matters’. The book is based on research – looking at the many studies on different educational elements and it acknowledges the quality or limitations of those studies. It narrows down the findings to the crux of what makes a difference in education.

It provides insight into both what parents can do to choose the best education for their child, as well as consider how that decision will contribute to the improvement of all children and Australian society.

Whilst David Gillespie bashes teacher unions just a little too much for my taste (although I do recognise that their interests can conflict with the best interests for the system and educational outcomes for all) I found the book to be very useful.

It was practical and informative to me, as I have three children with my oldest starting high school in 2015.

Free Schools has attracted media attention and created discussion in some circles. I thought it important that parents go beyond the headlines or reactions to one element of the book and consider the totality of what David Gillespie is trying to do.

To encourage more parents to consider this information I decided to write up a summary – a kind of Cliff Notes. Quotes come straight from the book – the rest is my summary. For those of you interested in reading the book in full, check out your nearest book store or download a copy here.

Australian does not have three education systems.

We are the only OECD country that funds three different brands of government school but pretends two of them are private.

In short, the private system is not private. It is significantly funded by taxpayers. Public funding of private schools is relatively new – starting in the 1960’s and accelerating in recent years.  This shift has ‘profoundly altered the outcomes for all our students and not in a good way’.

Interestingly, students who attend private schools do not necessarily get better education outcomes.

They may get nicer buildings or facilities, a ‘better class’ of friends and can reinforce the belief of their parents they are giving them the ‘best’. But not better education outcomes.

And don’t buy the myth that choosing private education saves the taxpayer money – it doesn’t.

What doesn’t matter – blowing up some strongly held myths about ‘good’ schools

The following is a list of things that DO NOT deliver better education outcomes for students.

There is no advantage in education outcomes when it comes to:

  • private vs. public schools
  • mixed vs. same sex schools
  • size of school
  • class size
  • composite or multi-age classes
  • streaming or tracking students according to ability
  • teachers with post-graduate qualifications
  • teaching experience, except for those with less than 3 years in the job (see page 3)
  • school ranked against Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) or Overall Positions (OP Qld)  scores.

In terms of private schools there is no advantage in education outcomes when it comes to:

  • how much you pay
  • whether it is a religious school or not.

Many people might want to argue any of the points above because of their own experience, the ‘spin’ of education conversation, anecdotal evidence, and the parent peer group pressure when it comes to discussing schools and one’s own precious child.

However study after study has shown that the things listed above do not ‘shift the needle’ to deliver better academic results. In Free Schools each point is laid out in detail with supporting evidence.

So what does matter?

First and foremost YOU

High expectations consistently deliver high results. Parents who expect a lot from their kids invariably create kids who expect a lot from themselves.

The biggest indicator of whether a child will succeed in school is actually a  game of chance – the parent lottery of who they get.

If you are bothering to read this then your child is already significantly advantaged – you care about their education.  So give yourself (and/or your partner) a pat on the back if you:

  • believe in education as a method to self-improvement and pathway to success
  • set the standard that doing your best in school matters
  • have completed Year 12 and tertiary studies
  • are economically comfortable and/or have a degree of financial ‘choice’
  • have high expectations of your child and yourself

If you answer yes to any or all of the above – congratulations – your kid is already a winner!

If parents have high academic expectations for the child and have the skills to help them attain those goals, then the child will perform much better than if they have parents that don’t.

In turn parents with high expectations develop children with high expectations.

Students who have high expectations of themselves are capable of managing their own time and are motivated to do it.

What shouldn’t you worry about?

Here are two things that plenty of parents worry about, and industries have established to service and profit from that anxiety.

  1. ‘Hot housing’ pre-schoolers – babies, toddlers and young children do not need to do flash cards, education videos, leap pads or other expensive education toys. Do it for fun but don’t stress if you don’t. These things won’t change education outcomes or give them a leg up for school.
  2. Private tutoring – countless studies show that these won’t produce any better outcomes than what they were going to get anyway. They may help them rote learn for exams, or prepare them for the OC or selective test (which may give the 3% difference that gets them in) but it won’t help them stay there or flourish.

The bottom line is hot housing and tutoring won’t deliver a significant effect.

The two critical things that matter in ANY school

  1. Teachers

If I wanted to teach you something, whether you learnt it or not would depend on just one thing: my ability to teach.

The job of a good teacher is to accelerate and guide our innate learning. Good teachers can eliminate disadvantage.

Humans are natural learners – it is how we develop. Education and teaching should nurture this pattern of self-learning and provide the environment, tools and challenges for student to extend themselves far beyond what they could do on their own.

Teachers that are passionate about teaching, about learning themselves AND about learning about teaching is what is most important. Teaching qualifications and time in the profession doesn’t matter provided they have a passion and commitment to improve how they teach and add value to student learning .

The only caveat is with teachers who have less than three years experience. Those teachers need to be in an environment where there is mentoring of them, feedback and support – not left alone for deep end learning.

The best education systems that produce the best student outcomes have a focus on teacher development throughout their teaching career and intensely when they enter the profession. Professional development of teachers is not just one-off courses or doing post-graduate study. It is best done as both informal and formal program within the teaching environment, within schools and in the pursuit of teaching excellence.

Leadership: namely Principals but also the leadership team of a school

It is the School Principal and their leadership team that will have the biggest influence on a school.

It doesn’t matter if that school is in a small regional town or a bustling outer urban area. The school leaders who have the most positive effect on student outcomes take an instructional leadership approach. This approach has five elements:

  1. Implementing a hard-core teacher improvement agenda
  2. Closely monitoring teacher performance
  3. Hiring the right teaching staff
  4. Maintaining peace and order
  5. Setting goals and expectations

A leader like that will not only be actively working to ensure the school has effective teachers, they’ll be trying to make them even more effective.

David Gillespie boils down the measurement of a principal to one key question:

How do they manage their teaching staff?

 A good leader will answer that they don’t have a magic solution. They do the best with what they have [teachers and students] and they have a plan for incremental improvement.

For parents this means the principal can:

  • articulate that plan
  • outline the objectives the school and teachers have set
  • demonstrate how that is being tracked, measured, evaluated and plans adjusted
  • be transparent about the process
  • explain how they mentor staff and improve teaching methods
  • ensure student performance data is used to monitor every child and provide feedback to teachers
  • talk about how they select and retain their good teaching staff (where they have opportunity to do so).

A checklist to assess a school

A good school has…. effective teachers and leaders

The two critical things Questions to ask – things to consider
1. Teachers
  • Is there a monitoring program of students that informs teacher performance and planning
  • What informal/formal mentoring system is in place focussed on improving teacher performance?
  • How are new teachers mentored/developed?
  • (If a high school) What student feedback is conducted on their experience with teacher effectiveness?
  • How do teachers ‘teach to student’ so that all students are challenged despite various abilities in a single class?
  • Is there a culture of high expectations of both teachers and their students?
2. Principals and/or school leadership team
  • What is their leadership approach?
  • Do they have high expectations of both teachers and their students?
  • Do they have a plan for continuous improvement?
  • Can they articulate it?
  • Does it involve real measurement of student performance? What are the   KPI’s and is there a plan to address underperformance?
  • What is their approach to improving teacher effectiveness? Is that   linked to student outcomes?
  • What is their personal track record? Don’t just look at the school   they are in – which schools did they come from, what improvements did they   oversee in education outcomes. This point is especially important for   Principals new or less than 2 years in a school.

The most telling element of the above is how teachers and leaders shift or add education value to lower SES, disadvantaged or lowest quartile of students. If they have done this in their previous school and have plan in place for their current school – then this is a sign of a very good leader and a good school.

A great school has … up to 11 things that make a real difference to education outcomes

11 other things Questions to ask – things to consider
1. Learning to learn If students are taught the most effective ways to learn – they can   drive a lot of their own learning and it sets them up for life.

  • How does the school teach and embed learning skills in students?
  • Do they teach study skills, planning skills, research skills,   goal-setting and how to self-evaluate?
  • Do they require discipline to embed strong learning habits from the   earliest stage and is this reinforced?
  • Does the school foster a ‘love of learning’ culture from the principal down to the student body?
2. Extracurricular activities – especially music Music is very important. The good news is it doesn’t matter the type, how much or the level of music studied.  Any learning and participation that engages students in music results in   better educational outcomes.

  • Does the school offer music programs for all abilities?
  •  Is music integrated into the standard curriculum program or do you have to choose it as an elective or additional component for your child?

Other activities that encourage participation, allow kids to learn   new things and take risks in a safe environment and set high expectations for   trying add value to education outcomes. On top of music if could be sport,   drama, visual arts, community involvement or leadership activities. Schools   don’t have to provide everything just some of the above.

And DO check if it is participation that is valued more   than competitiveness. Some schools – either due to size or desire for success   – may limit participation through auditions, tryouts or minimum levels to be   included in some activities.

3. Languages other than English – applies from K-12 Learning a language – no matter  what language and to what intensity – improves results in other curriculun  areas, especially maths. So any school that includes language as part of its   core curriculum will give your child a leg up. Once again good news – they   don’t need to be good at it. For whatever reason the learning of language   other than one’s native tongue helps improve a child’s other curriculum   areas. For a sustained benefit the research shows it is best if the language   instruction starts early and keeps going. Note – this does not have to be the same language.
4. Effective use of technology Technology is a tool – short and   simple. Technology should not be used to replace teachers. Schools that use   technology to supplement classroom teaching AND provide students   opportunities to practice and receive individual feedback produce the best   education outcomes.

Schools that adopt things like Mathletics and Into Science which allow kids to drill and practice, self-pace, reinforce curriculum and classroom activities, cement foundation knowledge   and extend learning are great.

Effective teachers and schools use   technology to support what they are doing. Children do not need their own   computer. In fact using computers in pairs produces optimum learning   outcomes.

  • How does the school use computers? What access do students get to IT?
  • What is done at school and what is done at home?
  • How is technology used to monitor student progress and how are parents   and teachers informed of this?
  • What software programs does the school use and in which curriculum   areas?
 11 other things Questions to ask – things to consider
5. Effective behaviour management One of the clearest signs of an effective teacher is how they   control disruptive behaviour in a classroom. A school with teachers who set high   standards for student behaviour, which is reinforced and supported by parents   at home, produces the best results.

Research shows that the most effective way a school can manage   disruptive behaviour is with credible punishment combined with positive   reinforcement. What is credible punishment for students? Telling their   parents!

If a school is communicating with parents when a student doesn’t
meet behaviour standards and the parent and school show a united front to the   student then behaviour patterns shift.

Given that schools contain active children from diverse   backgrounds, that ratios of adults to students is usually quite high and that   in high schools you are dealing with teenagers there is always going to be   behaviour issues. So what do you want the school to have in place to best   address this constant issue?

A behaviour management plan

The plan does not involve reasoning with disruptive children

Includes an element of punishment and an element of positive   reinforcement

It escalates quickly to involve parents when necessary

 6. Homework policy – where it matters Many, many, many studies show that homework or no homework does not really impact educational outcomes for  children – except for the higher school years.

So it is not about whether the school requires homework it is about what that homework is and how it is conducted.

Parent involvement in homework is   actually the biggest contributor to improving student outcomes. This is NOT parents   doing the homework. It essentially boils down to parents demonstrating a   serious interest in their child’s education, reinforces high expectations,  shows that you care about your child and their school work.

Excessive homework in primary and   junior high school years is not a good thing and doesn’t make a difference. In higher school years, if there is a foundation of ‘learning to learn’ skills   and allowing kids to practice and drill the learning areas they are studying it will positively impact their academic performance.

7. Effective parent communication This is a very important area that   schools are not always known for. So what makes the communication effective? Direct and regular communication with parents – beyond the meet the teacher sessions and biannual school reports.

This needs to be more than the   email/call/meet me ‘anytime you are concerned about your child’. It has to be   a communication program that can engage all parents and see them as part of   the learning community.

  •  How do schools let you know what is being taught and why?
  • How do they keep parents in the loop of teaching as it is occurring –  so you can reinforce it at home?
  •  Is the homework program explained to parents so they can supervise and   support their child to reinforce classroom learning?
  • What resources do they provide to parents to assist them support their   children?
11 other things Questions to ask – things to consider
11 other things As involving parents in a child’s learning produces much better results schools need to give parents the resources/guidelines to help them understand what is being taught. Many parents haven’t studied since their time in school or lack confidence (especially in science or maths subjects), which can prevent them, getting involved. There are lots of online resources now that can help (i.e. The Khan Academy).

A school that invests in supporting parents to better support their kids is a great school.

8. Primary schools that use phonics approach to literacy Learning to read by the phonics methods has been proved hands down to be THE most effective method. As literacy is the building block for the   rest of our school learning it is critical the program your school offer is   phonics based. Note: the hugely popular ABC Reading Eggs is phonics based.
9. Avoid streaming according to academic ability Tracking or streaming kids   according to ability does not improve their educational outcomes. In fact it can have a negative effect – especially for those who are tracked at a lower   ability as it sends a message of low expectations. It can also reinforce   inequities, polarise the student body and impact negatively on school spirit.

David says it best “When you take into account that is   delivers absolutely no academic benefit (for anybody), it seems a big price to pay for parental bragging rights (or making some teacher’s lives a bit easier).”

10. However ‘acceleration’ is good HOWEVER schools and teachers that   ‘teach to student’ are effective.

Meaning if you have a gifted and   talented child, or a student that is exceptional at a particular subject then accelerating their learning is a very good thing. That doesn’t need to be in a selective school or a streamed subject. Good schools and effective teachers can teach students of varying abilities within the same class. Acceleration means that students can be paced at a greater speed through the curriculum. They could be assigned in subjects to higher year levels. Gifted kids that get accelerated through the curriculum outperform streamed/selective kids.   And in case you’re worried about the ‘social’ effects, research shows there   is no downside. It does not harm younger children being accelerated through   higher grades or subjects in their social or interpersonal development.

The question for the school is:

  • How does this school ‘teach to student’ so individual learning needs   are met?
  •  How do they extend and challenge children that do well overall or in   subjects?

Can students that are gifted be accelerated?

11. Caters for special needs if you need them Finally if you child has special needs then you need to investigate how the school will meet those needs and   support your child’s learning. If you are that parent you are better placed then   I to list the questions you need answered.

For parents with children NOT   requiring special needs but concerned a school has children with special needs mixed in with your child know this:

The research shows that there are many benefits of a school that includes children with disabilities and   diverse background especially improving the social skills of all children.   Provided that teachers are appropriately trained and resourced there is no negative effects on your child’s academic performance.

What else? What can you do?

When all children reach their potential, the academic performance of a nation as a whole improves.   A rising tide raises all boats.

I’d encourage you to take a look at the schools in your area. You’d be surprised how many local schools – including comprehensive public schools – have all or some of the above.

If your school isn’t measuring up think long and hard before moving schools – the research shows it has a big impact and can significantly impair performance.

So if you don’t have the perfect school what can you do? The best thing is to get involved. The parent community can have a big impact – from an individual, to a small group, to the P&C.

Make it clear that you expect the school to deliver on strong leadership with a plan to create and maintain effective teaching and address the 11 other factors that makes a good school great.

Start with demanding better parent communication and engagement. Through this process you will learn a lot about your schools ability to change, its expectations, its leadership, what it teaches and how it teaches.

This is not someone else’s responsibility – this is all parents’ responsibility to demand better for our schools and our taxpayer funded education systems.

My husband and I truly believe our kids are precious, special and deserve a great education BUT so does every other child.  I’m not prepared to have mine benefit at the expense of others. Unfortunately our current system encourages this. I am a passionate advocate of public education and I am prepared to put my kids where my advocacy is. Not at their expense but for their benefit.

I respect other parents’ choices. I do want better transparency and honesty about why choices are made.

I do not want the concept of ‘choice’ to mask other underlying motivations or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of what makes a good school.

I also want recognition that individual choices that parents make can help or hinder the quality of our education system as a whole.

If we want Australia to perform better internationally – and all our systems have been failing over recent years – then each and everyone one of us need to do our bit.

I expect a lot from you – you can do the same for me.

I hope this helps,

Carla Stacey

Parent of three primary school kids and an education enthusiast with high expectations of everyone

A final word on My School website and NAPLAN results

The My School website is a mine of lies, damned lies and statistics dressed up as information every parent should know. It purports to tell parents which schools are performing and which schools aren’t using a neat little colour-coding system. And while there’s very useful information buried in the pile of steaming data, its not obvious and it’s not where you might think it is.

In Free Schools there is a detailed section on how to use the myschool website in an effective way that tells you something. I won’t go into it much here but recommend you read this section if that is what you are relying on to compare schools.

In short:

  • do NOT compare two schools by comparing their average performance of NAPLAN – to compare like for like you need to compare ‘similar’ schools – otherwise the results tell you nothing real
  • do not use ‘league’ tables it is completely misleading about judging a school’s success.

How to find schools with effective teachers using My School?  Use the ‘Student gain’ item under the NAPLAN menu. This will show where the school has added value to the student cohort they got – beyond what the students would be expected to do. In other words, how the teaching at the school accelerated their students learning.

This must also be considered in context. It will always be historic data – not current data. So if the school has recently changed leadership (Principal) or has introduced a new monitoring program to improve teacher effectiveness and student outcomes then that school will be implementing changes your child will benefit from and this won’t show up in NAPLAN data for another 12-24 months.

Schools should be judged on what they do with what they get. Not what kind of student, parent or class of people they attract.

Many schools unfairly benefit on performance judgements simply because of the nature of the student body they recruit or attract. You can assess their marketing skill by who attends does but not how effective they are at teaching.

One of the telling things about reviewing the research is that those schools that are, or can be, selective on the students they accept are actually not performing to a level their talented student body shows promise for.

So use the My School information with caution and use the checklist of the two critical items and the 11 additional items as you main assessment tool against considering schools.

There is one more thing can’t you control – your child’s IQ

A child’s IQ is another significant indicator of their capacity for academic success.

6 responses to “What makes a good school?

  1. Pingback: Is the school your kids attend a good one? A special guest post written by Carla Stacey | workingmumsaustralia

  2. Pingback: Schools -Start Here

  3. I concur. I think the leader at Marrickville High School is solid and the teaching staff are clearly enthusiastic and passionate teachers. As a leader in public education myself, at a top performing comprehensive high school, I have no qualms in sending my boy to MHS. Let’s all make the decision to go together as a critical mass from our local community. Thanks Carla for your very informative report. I’m heading off to buy David Gillespie’s book now.

    • I am with you Karyn. In the last 12 months of working and getting to know Marrickville High, their teachers, leaders and students and have been continuously impressed. Not only is it good academically – with a strong leadership and teachers that love to learn and teach – it epitomises the community I want my sons to understand and be part of. It walks the talk on inclusiveness. The fact that it shares its campus with an Intensive English Centre and a DET Support Unit means the student body mixes with and embraces diversity. They have much to be proud of and I am very pleased I bothered to step past that high fence, look inside and ask some questions a year ago. It would of been so easy to not bother and go with flow. Choosing to follow popular opinion or listen to playground gossip without investigating and assessing the school on its merits. It was one of the reasons I was so attuned to reading about education and with Free Schools came out I had to read it to see if what I thought was backed by research. It did so much more for me, that somehow I felt compelled to write a summary – something I would never normally do. I have a life you know! Anyhow I am glad I did and in the last couple of days have got so much useful feedback from parents I have never met. Thanks for bothering to read me!

  4. Thanks Carla for the summary! I have been meaning to listen to him on the ABC Conversation Hour (recommended by numerous people) but haven’t yet. Now I can feel less guilty since I’ve read the summarised version. Really relevant research.

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