Are Gifted Children Better Off in Private Schools? 4

The recent case of a divorcing couple has garnered some attention because of an unusual ruling which a High Court judge had to make in the case. In his judgement, Justice Hogan ruled that a 12 year old boy should attend a private school.

(disclaimer: I teach in a fee-charging school)

The manner in which this has been reported has been interesting. In this article posted at 16.40 on August 21st, the Irish Times reports the ‘High Court orders enrolment of boy (12) in private school‘. While the headline can be read a number of ways, given the current attack on private schools both in the media and from the Department of Education, it is hard not to attach a degree of sensationalism to the headline.

This is all the more so because the article cherry picked Justice Hogan’s judgement by stating that the judge said

“Given especially his scholastic aptitude it seems appropriate that he should go to a school that would seem best suited for his talents”.

To be fair, the judge did say this but also said much more, which the article left out.

At 22.39 on the same day, the Irish Times posted a second article with the headline “High Court rules boy will be ‘best served’ by private school” with the by-line that “boy’s mother anxious he ‘be given the very best opportunity in life‘. The only material difference in tone between this article and the first was the last line which stated ‘he (Justice Hogan) stressed this was not endorsing the private school at the expense of the other one’.

Again, quite a lot was left out.

I have an interest in this from two perspectives. One is the view it presents of private schools versus State schools. The second is the view presented by the first Irish Times article which suggested that in general, given the boys abilities, he was best served by a private school. This seems to imply that more able children are better served by private schools.

Before looking at what the judgement actually said (because how many people will read it?), I wanted to take the articles at face value to highlight exactly what they seem to imply. So pretend the judgement is not available for a bit!

1.  By suggesting that the boy is better served by the private school,  there is an implied statement that the State sector was not able to meet his particular needs as one would expect. Certainly some schools are better than others. But surely we should balk at the notion that the academic education provided by one school is in some way inferior to that provided by another (remember, private and State schools’ teachers come from the same stables) . On the face of it, this must be incorrect and in fact it is. Most State schools are excellent – all the more so when one considers the low level of funding (over and above teacher salaries) and the difficult environment in which many of them operate.

At a minimum you could conclude that the judge was not talking generally about State schools but rather specifically about the choice of schools available to the parents in this case.

What is it that private schools have that State schools do not? Not to dwell too long on it,  it is an interesting question and although money has a lot to do with it, it is not, I believe, the most important issue. Private schools receive approximately 50% less funding than State schools. They make up the difference with the fees they charge and while some of this may go towards smaller class sizes (less so since the recent discriminatory changes in pupil teacher ratio), the fee income is more often spent on providing additional classroom resources, extra-curricular resources and facilities that the State has failed to fund in schools.

But these resources do not answer the most basic question of how the academic education provided by one school can differ from another when the teachers in both types of school come from the same training colleges. The answer I believe lies in the wider sociological inputs to schooling.

Various people (take your pick of non-teachers downwards..) will state that the biggest single influence on how student performs is the quality of the teachers. THIS IS NONSENSE. The biggest influence on how well a student performs is parental and peer support for education. Certainly, where these are missing, teachers become relatively more important. One of the influences that the cohort attending private schools has relatively more of than those attending State schools is support for and valuing of education. To be sure, this is a generalisation and there are individual variations, but as a rule, it stands.

2. The second issue implied, in my humble opinion, by the Irish Times articles, is the notion that more able students – such as this 12 year old boy – are better served by private schools. I do not think that this is a hard and fast rule; however, given the way private schools attempt to make up funding shortfalls from the DES, and more particularly, given the school culture of private schools, it is hard not to conclude private schools do in fact offer better opportunities for gifted children. I don’t have a problem with this notion; but I do have a problem with the notion that gifted children – and all children for that matter – can not avail of the same educational opportunities as children who attend private schools*. Gifted children are entitled to, and should, in a Republic that cherishes all its children equally (!), receive an education appropriate to their needs and abilities. They shouldn’t have to depend on whether a family member just happened to have the money to send them to a private school.

(*If this was the case, you might ask why would we need private schools. Without going into it, the answer lies in the ethos of the school, and again, the State’s willingness to fund adequately, the education of its (minority) children).

If some State schools, by virtue of their particular structure and operation, is not able to generate an academic atmosphere in extent appropriate to this 12 year old boy, then the State needs to step in and provide such schools.

This is NOT to take away from the State school referred to in this court case. In all likelihood, and the judge alluded to it, it is a excellent school. It just happened to be considered by the judge less able to meet the boys needs.

The judgement was more subtle in detail than the Irish Times articles suggest. You can access the judgement here. It is a short, very coherent judgement absent much of the legalise of more detailed judgements.

The original conflict between school choice lies in the an offer to enrol in the private school and the mother’s wish that the boy do so. Although the Judge said of the State school….,

“It is common case that this is a perfectly good school with a high level of academic and other achievements. Many of his friends will be attending this school and the public transport links between his home and that school are excellent.”

….., it is clear the mother perceived the private school to be the better of the two options. The father, it seems for primarily financial reasons, preferred the boy attended the State school.

The judge stated,

“ is difficult to avoid the conclusion that School B. would be the more appropriate school for a boy of Conor’s aptitude, even if he would also do well at School A. He is a bright boy who would be likely to thrive in the more academic environment of School B.”

(School B is the private school)

While the second Irish Times article mentioned the judge’s statement that nothing was intended to endorse School B at the experience of School A, it left out the rest of point 29,

29. It must here be emphasised that this is not to endorse School B at the expense of School A, still less to suggest that private education is in some way more desirable than education in the public system. There are, of course, many – not least educationalists and social reformers – who decry the ranking of schools and the emergence of a small coterie of “elite” schools. Perhaps in an ideal world all schools would (and should) be ranked equally. But in considering what is best for Conor, I have to take the world as I find it and not perhaps as one might wish it to be. Given especially his scholastic aptitude it seems appropriate that he should go to a school that would seem best suited for his talents.

So what the judge seems to be saying, but which the Irish Times doesn’t is that in this particular case, involving these two particular schools, and this particular boy, with his particular abilities, the private school is the better option.

The judgement could easily have been the other way around; had the evidence allowed, the judge could have concluded the State school was better and that regardless of the families ability to pay fees, the State school could have been the better option.

The question that remains to be answered is why a State school could not provide an environment at least as well suited to the boys needs as the private school. I think I know the answer and it has little to do with the School A and its teachers.

The Irish Independent has it’s own take here.
The Irish Examiner reproduces the first Irish Times article here.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

4 thoughts on “Are Gifted Children Better Off in Private Schools?

  • Deirdre

    What I find most worrying about this judgment is the source of funding for the child’s private education: a partial tuition waiver from the school and ongoing support from the child’s maternal grandparents. Had the grandparents not been in a position to offer this money then there would be no question of the child attending a private school. In effect the grandparents have been given the right to determine where this child goes to school, completely removing the parents’ rights in this regard. If at some time in the future the grandparents decide to stop paying then the child will have to change schools, fairly disruptive for any child. This risk becomes more acute if the child experiences difficulties or gets himself into trouble that the grandparents do not approve of.

    This was a case that was brought to the court and had to be decided; the source of the dispute was not parental disagreement but grandparental interference. It is a pity that the judge did not appreciate this.

    As regards the public v private school and the academic child, Hogan J does say ‘Third, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that School B. would be the more appropriate school for a boy of Conor’s aptitude, even if he would also do well at School A. He is a bright boy who would be likely to thrive in the more academic environment of School B.’
    It is a sad fact of life in Ireland that many public schools, because they must provide the best for a wide range of children with limited resourses, tend to focus on the average. Children on either end of the middle, and not just in terms of academic ability, as a result do not get the education they deserve.

    • peterlydon Post author

      Great comment. I don’t have an issue in general with grandparents, for example, paying the fees. If there had been no divorce it is hard to see how anyone would object to the grandparents ‘helping out’.Though obviously in this case a fly on the wall might question their involvement (motives etc) in the total process.

      As you point out, if they decide to stop paying fees in future, the boy will have to change school. For me, this reads, ‘you are gifted but can only have an education appropriate to your needs if you can find the money to make up for the fact that the government does not ensure (this) State schools can meet your needs’.

      The judge did state that the private school was the boys choice. However, he also stated that neither parent wanted the judge to interview the child. Had the Children’s referendum come into force, this might have been different.

  • Keeping 'mum' for the sake of my child involved

    I have to add this, Peter. It makes a mockery of people choosing private over state schools in cases of divorce.

    My daughter, whose father left when she was 10 months old, attended the ‘local’ school for the first one and a half years of her schooling. At age six and a half he moved her to a private school, Year 3 class, because he was financially able to (we found out later in the year, her classmates had all gone into Year 2 that year). She struggled with reading all the time at her private school. We were not told, but just informed at our quarterly 15 minute interviews she reads ‘ok’.

    After five years at this private school, we were informed her reading and understanding difficulty was just her ‘bad attitude to school’. This came after my own concerns about what ‘comprehension level’ was she actually at could not be answered by her teacher. I also noted she had standardised test results <10% for both reading comprehension and listening comprehension that year. It turned out, her listening comprehension was poor as well, three years earlier, but had never been checked in the interim. And her reading comprehension had progressively deteriorated to this level.

    I had her tested at an educational psychologist – to find that she was moderately dyslexic and her 'bad attitude' had probably been developing as her lack of understanding had been getting progressively worse over her time at school. She was a very visual learner.

    I went back to the school with this information, politely, and was told they had tried to help her but she just had a bad attitude. Period. They did give her a reader for one test, but after the shame of having to be separated from her classmates to sit the test, and finding she still didn't understand the questions when they were read to her, she chose not to have a reader again.

    Needless to say, she was removed from the school at the end of that year. She went on to three more secondary schools (1 private boarding school and 2 state colleges) over the course of five years and finished with a reasonable level in most subjects, excellence in Tourism and Hospitality, and the absolute minimum needed to pass in Maths and English.

    If you wonder why 3 schools – she ran away from boarding school after 2 years, because she hated it; she returned to her first state college to finish her schooling in Year 12 and graduated, then decided over her holiday break, to return to a different secondary school for her final Year 13 year among a new set of friends and subjects that appealed to her.

    She now has her own nail, make-up, and beauty salon, and managed to learn all 105 cocktail recipes for a bar management course (after I drew pictures of them all colour coded for ingredients and order of mixing them). Her nail designs are exquisite.

    This 'little girl' had a beautiful, rich oil-pastel drawing of Sunflowers framed and on display in her private school principal's office when she was 11 and was having all the problems at school. She didn't know where her drawing had gone in the first term that year, and suspected it must have been thrown out! I visited the office a few times over the course of that year, admiring the picture (unnamed, I must add). So this little girl with a 'bad attitude to school' was not given credit for anything she was obviously good at, but just admonished for what she failed at!

    It hurt to think that she might have been helped so much earlier if she had been at a different school, private or otherwise, where a teacher may have looked behind the 'attitude' developing and identified her dyslexia much earlier!

    There is a funny side to the story – although not at the time. After her dad spent all the money for the first year at private school, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said, "A supermarket checkout lady". Ironically, when she did apply at the local supermarket 7 years later, she was given a maths test which she failed and was only able to become a shelf-filler, much to her horror! But at that age, having a job and pocket money was more important, so she took what she was offered!

    She went on to work many part-time jobs, took herself to Camp America to work, passed many different beauty courses when she returned, and had an amazing record for diligence, good team spirit, and punctuality on cold winter morning starts at her lifeguard job, 45 minutes from home, where she had 7.30 am starts on Sunday mornings!! I don't think she is a child 'with a bad attitude' in general, although she did have a miserable attitude during some of her schooling!

    It really does depend on who you rub shoulders with at school – just one teacher or counsellor could have made such a difference to my daughter's time at school.

  • Colin Irvine

    An interesting debate. I agree that the media have managed to dumb down this judgement in order to generate a catchy headline. No surprise there.

    It is sometimes the case that private schools can do more for gifted children, but I do not believe it is their funding structure that makes this so.

    There are good and bad private schools, and a wide spectrum of funding solutions for schools that carry that politically loaded “private” title.

    Some schools are immensely wealthy in land, assets and catchment incomes. Others fill their coffers with Russian boarding fees. Some compete fiercely in a crowded independent school market. Some must offer extensive bursaries to achieve their intake quota. Some are academically selective. Some set their scholarship sights on sporting glory. And lets not forget that most so called Irish “private” schools are far from financially independent of the state.

    So the first big problem with this discussion is that there is no such thing as a typical private school, any more than there is such thing as a typical student.

    I have taught in 4 schools that you might term private (one Irish, one Scottish, two English). Each has its own unique blend of funding challenges. They are all excellent schools, but I believe my current school offers a little more to really academic kids and this is why.

    1. The school is selective, and when bright kids are brought together, they thrive.

    2. The school has chosen challenging courses of study. A levels have been replaced with the rigorous IB Diploma, soft touch subjects are not offered, we do not play silly league games by collecting GCSE’s like football cards.

    3. Class sizes are small and extra help is widely available.

    4. Staff sign up to the concept that their teaching does not stop at the classroom door, or at the 4pm bell. Extra curricular involvement is key to improving relationships and ultimately unlocking intellectual potential.

    Of course there are lots of other things that need to be in place for a school to really work well, but I think these are the pillars of a top class academic environment: clever kids exploring challenging subjects with hard working, multi-faceted teachers.

    Does a school need to be private to achieve these things? Absolutely not.

    Sometimes it can help, sometimes it is a hindrance. Probably the most influential factor is being academically selective, and since income is a very poor predictor of gifted offspring, bursary provision is key. As such, we see our main competition as being the state grammar, rather than other private schools.

    Every school is different and must be judged on its suitability for the individual child… but that headline won’t sell papers.