School zone report card
The Australian school catchment zones which have had the most capital growth.
Now I can say it. With my youngest child having safely fled the school system, I can finally say, without fear of jinx or reprisal, that how we educate our kids is insane. It's not the teachers, who show the normal human range from fine to feeble. Not the particular schools, which included public and private, selective and non-selective. What's insane is the system and – feeding it, as fear feeds war – an intensifying cultural madness. Not theirs. Ours.
"If I don't get an ATAR of 90-plus I'm dead," says student Angela Zhang on ABC's My Year 12 Life, "my mum will honestly run me over, no joke she will."
Angela's mother may have been unfairly maligned but there can be no doubting the intensity with which Sydney parents approach the HSC. Mothers take the entire year, or sometimes two, off work to feed, poke, cosset and cajole. Fathers set themselves ludicrous earning hurdles, into the hundreds of thousands, to keep their offspring in schools that cost $30,000 every child, every year. Houses are bought and sold by proximity to the "best" schools. Kids are stressed and babied, drugged, sedated and stimulated to the point of self-harm and, sometimes, suicide.
And for what? Are we seeing the benefits? Is society improving? Are our kids happier, richer, more professional, more successful than ever? Are they better citizens? Uh. Duh.
Your heard it here first. This is crazy. Truly, batshit crazy.
Don't get me wrong. I am a deep, deep believer in education. In fact, of all societal goods, education seems to me the highest. Were I dictator, I'd prioritise free, fine and universal education over healthcare, social welfare or public housing; over parks, pools or solar panels. Why? Because it underpins all these and sustains them. Education is civilisation. Sine qua non. Period.
But this is not education. It's almost the direct opposite. Based on bad science, false logic, fashion, crowd-think, self-ignorance and an extraordinary collective cruelty, it will, if we're not very careful, destroy us.
"A desirable school zone can influence prices by up to 10 to 15 per cent," says Domain chief data scientist Nicola Powell. "The school catchment helps determine the type of life you're going to live, your commuting time and the education for your children, so it's understandably something people will pay more for."
Understandable, if (and only if) people are actually stupid. The huge fees and huger house prices reflect three beliefs: one, that schools can reliably be ranked on academic excellence. Two, that this "excellence" translates as likelihood of a high ATAR. Three, that a high ATAR means a better life (more money, more status).
For these beliefs people rearrange their entire lives, and their children's. Yet they are all demonstrably wrong. Ranking education, and ranked education, is rank nonsense.
How can you evaluate a school? Oh, I know. Let's test the kiddies (NAPLAN). Let's collect and compare their exam results (ATAR). Then it's simple, right? We order these results and whammo. You have your school performance, your excellence, your property prices, sorted. Oh, and will you look at that! The results prove we were right all along. The more expensive the houses, the higher the marks. QED. See? Market knows best.
Hang on wait. Maybe it's not quite that simple. In fact maybe it's not simple at all. Because what mark – what number – do we compare? The number of kids over 99? Over 90? The mark of the average kid? The average improvement from, say, year 7 to year 12?
Clearly, the way you crunch the figures shapes the story they tell. But that's normal statistical hazard. There are other, more-significant reasons the attempt to scientise education ranking is a dangerous furphy. For one thing, school-ranking cannot be scientific because there is no control for the experiment. Kids vary.
Surprise, right? Who knew? And the way they vary – the way their NAPLAN and ATAR scores vary – mirrors their socio-economic status. So, wealthy kids with educated parents and home bookshelves outperform the rest. A selective school, admitting only high-performing pupils, could have the worst possible teachers and still rank well.
So there's actually no way of knowing whether your expensive or selective school is academically "good." Moreover, the chances that it is academically "good" are diminished by a system that consistently rewards ease of rote assessment over original thought. This box-ticking approach is especially destructive in the humanities, allowing bad writers to perform well in English because they play, and are marked, by the rules.
So academic excellence is unverifiable. Quite verifiable, however, is that private schools cannot be morally good. Indeed, they can only be morally reprehensible, since by definition they snag the best teachers and equipment for those least in need of them. This is the cruelty. In the end, private schools are no more than a means to perpetuate and entrench inequality, thus wasting talent because it is not born into money.
Then there's the better-life fallacy. Traditionally, the really high ATARs have been needed for medicine and law. But the best medical courses are now post-graduate, since it is universally recognised that this yields happier individuals and better doctors. As to law, many law degrees routinely accept ATARs 20 or 30 points lower than advertised. Plus, neither law nor medicine is the sinecure it once was.
Our hyper-competitive schooling system, then, militates against a better world by entrenching inequality, wasting talent, destroying the humanities and giving the false impression that the point and purpose of education is to increase earning capacity.
But perhaps worst of all is the early training in life as the relentless competition of egos, since this is precisely what will drive us over the cliff of climate change. Good education, simply, equals good teacher; prophet, coach and guru in one, who grabs you by your imagination and pulls you into your highest and best self. Good prospects? Thanks Angela's mother. Personally, I'd go for fulfilled humans, expanded consciousness, good citizens.