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James Paterson needs educating about schools

The senator does not seem to understand what a service his public school did him.

Jane Caro

One of Australia's youngest-ever senators has been appointed by the LNP. He is 28-years-old and it would be nice to say that he is the proud product of the Victorian public education system but, sadly, he seems rather apologetic about the lack of an elite private school in his CV.

Given the educational background of most of our representatives, whatever party they belong to, I suppose this is hardly surprising. Most of them went to fee-charging schools of one kind or another so I guess poor Senator Paterson feels the lack.

Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson, , centre, being sworn in.
Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson, , centre, being sworn in. Photo: James Paterson / Facebook

Indeed, given his interview with Wendy Harmer on ABC 702 on Thursday it seems James Paterson couldn't wait to shake the déclassé public school dust off his heels. Despite what I assume is a complete lack of experience of private schools, he told Harmer that many parents are choosing private schools because they believe such schools are "better at conveying the values of a good work ethic, caring for your community and your neighbours and being raised in a way that is socially conservative."

According to his maiden speech he is also opposed to a national curriculum, which he seems to regard as a subversive, left-wing document. He believes it should be replaced by competing private curricula. He is also a fan of charter or so-called independent public schools and seems to believe that they will solve the widening gap between our lowest and highest achievers. Unfortunately, the evidence that they make a big difference is thin.

Some charter schools do well, some do badly – rather like all other kinds of schools. When they are bad, though, they tend to be very bad. A young woman I know is currently teaching in a charter school in the UK and she is horrified at the difference between her experiences in the English school and the public high school she taught at in Sydney.

That public school, by the way, is in one of Australia's lowest socioeconomic areas and is widely regarded as a very difficult school dealing with a high level of disadvantage. She now regards it as heaven in comparison to the (middle-class) charter school she is now struggling to cope in.

Classes are huge, funding is minimal, wages much lower, teaching vacancies (unsurprisingly) are impossible to fill and micro-management and centrali​sed control rampant. Way to improve education, Senator Paterson.

But let's unpack Senator Paterson's rather touching faith in the better values inculcated in private schools. First, let's look at his point about a better work ethic. It actually seems rather counter-intuitive to me. Inherited privilege – i.e. coming from a family that can afford to pay school fees – tends to dampen effort. After all, why try hard when you can tap into the old boys network – you know, the old ''its not what you know, its who you know''? Indeed, there is research to back this up.

Numerous studies have shown that university students from comprehensive public schools tend to outperform their (sorry James) private school peers. What does that say about their work ethic? In the end, the only discipline worth having is self-discipline. Maybe public school kids, because they are less ​spoon-fed, are better at developing the grit that enables them – I don't know – to get to the Senate by 28?

But it is the claim that private schools are better at inculcating care for your community and your neighbours that is most puzzling. How can they be? Think about it, private schools (yes, even low-fee ones) are a form of educational gated community. They exclude more kids than they include and one of the reasons public schools with high reputations drive up local real estate values and private schools don't, is because only public schools actually service their community and – yes – their neighbourhood.

There are sleep-deprived kids being bussed long distances just so they do not have to go to school with their neighbours (especially if they are black or wear a hijab). How can you better serve your community when you shut most of them out? Social tourism – the trend for privileged young people to spend a year building an orphanage somewhere exotic – is not the same as learning side by side with your less fortunate neighbours, nor does it provide a free pass for a lifetime of avoiding them.

As for social conservatism or its opposite, I reckon that's for parents to provide. Schools – public or private – should teach critical thinking and sceptical inquiry of all doctrines and dogma. Given that Senator Paterson was brought up by unionist parents with a much more progressive mindset than he now has, I'd say his public school – however much he may repudiate it (why do I keep thinking of Ja'mie slumming it at Summer Heights High?) – must have done its job exceptionally well. It might even be gracious of him to thank them.