Do academic results really matter?


As an ageing former teacher, one of the occupational hazards is encountering former students on a regular basis in the most unlikely places all over the world. I recently heard a “Hi Mr O’Shannassy” in the supermarket and turned around to see a 30 something mother with three kids in tow, who was a former Year 12 students of mine. She told me all about her life and then proceeded to recall all the quotes and sayings I used to bombard them with some 20 years earlier. It was both flattering and frightening to think that she could recall them verbatim all these years later. It certainly drove home to me the saying that a teacher never knows where their influence stops.


This is a sample of many encounters I have had and the pattern I have noticed is the preponderance of “poor” students who are in high flying jobs, running businesses and making a good fist of their lives. Some of the biggest rogues I taught, who performed poorly at school, have since achieved incredible things professionally. I walked away from one such encounter recently with a boy I used to teach saying to myself ‘he is CEO of what?, how?’. He was barely a C student!


There are also the  academic high flyers I taught achieving great things professionally but my anecdotal evidence suggests no more so than the poor performers. It did get me thinking about just how important academic results are?


I interview parents for a living about schools, their kids, expectations, values etc-as many of you know. When asked about what they want for their kids when they are 25-30 year olds, overwhelmingly ( 95%), their responses are about wanting their kids to be “happy” (whatever that means!), having a partner to love and not to be on drugs! Ask yourself the same question. Why don’t more of them say they want them to be wealthy, a lawyer, doctor or a professor? Given the amount of time spent analysing schools’ academic performances, why isn’t this one of the first things they say when asked the question?


Schools now spend an inordinate amount of time and resources promoting their academic performances - particularly Year 12 results and NAPLAN performance - and parents buy in to this with their choices. I understand that poor academic results could be a red flag for a parent but I wonder if it is too narrow a scope on which to base a choice. Given the skills and qualities that your child will need to excel as an adult, I am not sure good academic results are the most important thing.


I was in Hong Kong recently and a senior manager with a large Multinational was lamenting to me the lack of leadership and interpersonal skills of the young analysts in their employ. The Prestigious firm has for decades cherry picked the best performing students at leading Universities to work for them, but more and more they are now willing to take lesser performing students who have other important qualities.


Driving around Melbourne reading billboards out the front of the private schools quoting their % above 90 ATAR results is now commonplace. I remain unconvinced it will really matter that much in 10 years time.


The results cannot accurately measure your personality, warmth, perception, initiative, temperament, intuition, humour and ability to work collaboratively - all crucial to success in later life.


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”

This phrase is attributed to Alexander Pope( albeit slightly different to his original words) and it is funny how phrases you heard as  a child crystallize when you are an adult. An old university friend of mine is Vice Principal at a prestigious school in Hong Kong and he often uses this phrase.  On my last visit, he mused that “everyone” has been to school and therefore, in their minds, have a degree of expertise relating to schools, usually heavily skewed to their own experience. It was in the context of him having to deal with parents on a regular basis about various issues related to their children’s schooling.

I refer you to the link below , which is an article from The Age ( 6/6/14) and you will need to read it for the rest of the blog to make sense

Firstly, can I say that The Age is notorious for publishing anti-private school articles and opinion pieces( I have kept them all!). There is absolutely no balance in the views they publish and importantly, they always give the articles prominence. It was the first piece I saw when I opened the site this morning. Ironically, when I read it this morning, the article was flanked by ads for private schools and another one for The Age independent schools guide from which they make a fortune! Oh, the irony of The Age relentlessly criticising the product the private schools provide yet reap significant revenue from them at the same time.

So, to the article. The sad thing about this piece, is that the author actually makes some valid points which can get lost in her selective quoting and ‘chip on shoulder’ analysis of private schools. I tend to agree that private schools are not always the best preparation  for university life, which is far more independent. I also agree that some students in some of the schools she is referring to, have the sense of entitlement attitude the author talks about.  My issues are her “one size fits all” approach to her sweeping generalisations, the selective quoting and the author’s inability to separate her own poisonous experiences from what others may experience. Can I also add, she is not an education expert and I would like to know how much time she has spent in the private schools she is criticizing.

I would like to know what definition of “private school” the author is using?  She mentions “elite private schools” then quotes research which uses the term “private schools” then quotes further research which uses the term” independent schools”. So which is the author referring ?  Here is a definition I found after a google search for the term private school

“a school founded, conducted, and maintained by a private group rather than by the government, usually charging tuition and often following a particular philosophy, viewpoint, etc”


Notwithstanding  part government funding of private schools (and that is a topic for another day!) there are many schools which fit this criteria. For instance,  St John’s College in Dandenong , who have a low socio-economic parent base, is a private school  as it is “founded, conducted and maintained by a private group” and they charge annual  tution fees of around $3355 per year. Perhaps Katherine was referring to St Peter’s Cranbourne where the fees skyrocket to $4200 per year. There are literally another 50 examples of low fee paying schools which are defined as private schools by any reasonable definition. Are these schools included in the research the author is quoting? Is she saying these schools are failing morally as well?

To place these schools in the same category as say a St Catherine’s or Lauriston for example, is obviously ludicrous on a number of levels but the article doesn’t distinguish between ‘types’ of private schools. Even using the term “elite private schools” which is one of the many ways the schools are identified in the article, what is the criteria for being categorized “elite”? Who makes that call? Is St Kevin’s , a very  highly regarded APS school elite? It charges 17k as opposed to nearly 30k for several others in the same category, so is “elite” related to fees or something else? It staggers me that the author can extrapolate her own traumatic experience and bundle it up to stereotype “private” schools.

Several pieces of research are selectively quoted in the article. The author claims

 “The biggest influences of academic performance are home and parental regimes, coupled with socio-economic background.”  

Please allow me to do some quoting?

Auckland University professor of education, John Hattie conducted a 15-year study, drawing on results of 50,000 items of research on pupils' performance around the world, came to the unsurprising conclusion that the quality of a teacher's interaction with pupils, particularly the "feedback" they received for their efforts, was most important. Other variables such as class size, school type, homework, diet and exercise, came well down the list.”

So teacher quality is the most important thing? Well I’ll be dammed, here I was thinking it was just because all the kids were rich they did well. So school type is “well down the list”? It may be dubious as he did after all only conduct the research over 15 years!

The author claims that the school is guilty of false advertising of better educational outcomes? Really? I would be happy to walk her through many years of statistics to prove her wrong. It  may be  argued how they achieved those outcomes but to deny the outcomes  aren’t superior is just plain wrong. I could also make a very strong case about where the superior teaching quality is to be found, which according to the research, is the most important factor not socio economic factors.

 Private schools also provide many other benefits which the author ignores. Perhaps she should ask a parent who has a child with a learning issue and see which system can better accommodate for their child. The extra -curricular activities provided in private schools are simply in a different stratosphere to those provided in a public school and all these factors contribute to the quality of educational experience.

It is  pity The Age once again, has given this such prominence and the author who I would like to bet has been in one school in her entire life, has made such  sweeping generalizations. I have my good friend from Hong Kong’s words ringing in my ears about everyone being an expert on schooling because they went to one. I have worked in schools from Preston to Bairnsdale to “elite”(whatever that means??) schools in Melbourne and now work in this space every day and I don’t present myself as an authority on engineering, finance or the arts. Education experts, are everywhere unfortunately… a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!







                                               Lies, damn Lies and V.C.E results!        Feb 13




A head of a leading independent school told me some time ago that the yearly V.C.E results have a shelf life of about six weeks. It was an interesting observation with which I didn’t entirely agree, but I knew what he meant. Several years on from that comment and the analysis, discussion and the marketing importance of the results have increased significantly. The media (in particular ‘The Age’ newspaper) devotes significant resources to the analysis of the results, and several schools employ PR experts to act on their behalf to manage the publicity surrounding the results. Many of our clients are very interested in a school’s academic performance and, rightly or wrongly, both the V.C.E results and NAPLAN performance of a school are closely scrutinised.

Most of the private schools are acutely aware of the impact results can have on enrolment and their brand, and you only have to have a cursory look at their websites to see the importance many of them place on these results. I actually believe the results now raise as a many questions as they answer, given all the variables that need to be taken into account when trying to understand them.

Probably the biggest anomaly is the IB schools being lumped in with the exclusively V.C.E schools, when the V.C.E results come out in mid December (the IB result aren’t released until early Jan). It must be remembered that some schools such as Wesley and Geelong Grammar have approximately 25-30 % of their cohort undertaking the IB. This will obviously affect the outcomes they achieve in V.C.E.  Given the requirement of the IB that students undertake a subject from each area (ie Language, Maths) and the difficulty of the course, it is pretty much exclusively the domain of the “more capable” students. So these schools (and others) have their performance published, discussed and compared to schools who don’t participate in the IB and therefore have all their capable students included in their results. By the time the IB results are published (first week of Jan) the whole picture is blurred and the moment had passed, so to speak, with a lot of people out of the country on holidays. It is like looking at the batting average of your team with your 4 best batsmen not included.

In addition to the IB anomaly, there is the usual hysteria surrounding the results achieved by the selective government schools, namely MacRobertson Girls High and Melbourne High. These schools are totally selective entry and start at Year 9 (ie other than a very small percentage who can gain entry at the discretion of the Principal, each student has to sit an examination and achieve a certain score to gain entrance). So let me get this right. Every year the media and these schools themselves, publicly and loudly trumpet the outcomes they achieve in V.C.E. and, with at least 95% of the students handpicked from an entrance examination, we read article after article about their superior academic performance.

Well, I would argue that a school where virtually every kid is handpicked due to their academic prowess, should perform far better than any other school.  Many private schools are on a par with some of their outcomes, despite only two private schools in Melbourne having entrance tests. I could mount a case that, in some respects, the results of these selective government schools are disappointing given the nature of the cohort. I just watch in amazement each year as the media celebrates the fact that super smart kids, handpicked and screened, perform well academically. Oh, what I would have given in my teaching days to have every kid in the class basically on a tax-payer funded scholarship!

Another anomaly is that the % scores over 40 that are published in extensive tables are unscaled scores. Gaining a score of 40 or above in a particular subject equates to being in the top 8% of that subject and one of the major benchmarks used  when analysing the performances of schools. Harder subjects, however, are “marked up” (some considerably) so that a raw score of say 38 in Latin, wouldn’t be included in a school’s over 40 scores published in the media. When scaled up, it equates to a score close to 50 ( incredibly) such is the weighting given to it, whereas a score of say 41 in Business Management is scaled down to 38, yet is included, as the unscaled score is greater than 40. So effectively the schools that have more students doing the difficult subjects, have less raw scores over 40 but it isn’t a true indicator of their academic performance. 

So are the results of any value? They can very useful for identifying patterns of performance and it can be argued that the results do give a snapshot of the academic climate of a school, particularly at the senior end. I read them with caution due to the anomalies I have outlined and my strong belief that the “worth” of a school is far more than the statistical outcomes achieved by their Year 12 cohort. I worry about what the pressure to achieve those outcome can do to learning environments and the students who don’t “add value” to those statistical outcomes. A teacher told me last week that as the exams approached near the end of Year 12, she would devote her scarce time to those kids just around the 40 mark, as the more she got over 40 the better for her as that was how she was going to be judged. Too bad if your kid was in that class and on 32!




                                                           To IB or not to IB? November 23 2012


I am often asked by clients about the relative benefits of the IB (International Baccalaureate) program compared to the local curriculum offerings. Many have little or no idea about the IB or even what the letters stand for! There is also a perception that it isn’t overly relevant for their children in Australia or that its only benefit is that it will help their child gain entry to an overseas university. I had an Australian educator say to me recently that the IB is “just marketing” for schools to increase their enrolments and really is of little or no other educational value. So what is the reality?


In the past few years I have been dealing with numerous international clients (mainly in Asia) and more recently I consulted to an international school in HK where I met many parents. These experiences have opened my eyes to the world of IB, its benefits and how highly regarded it is on an international stage and how insulated we are to both what the program is and its benefits. So what exactly is it? How popular is it both in Australia and worldwide? It is something I should be considering for my child?


The IB is a global curriculum and associated assessment process that presents itself as an alternative to local offerings. It is in three stages Primary Years Program (PYP) ages 3-12, Middle Years Program (MYP) ages 11-16 and the Diploma ages 16-19. There are 3485 schools in 143 countries offering one or more of the programs. In Australia, we have 149 IB schools broken down into 83 offering the PYP, 43 offering the MYP and 63 offering the diploma (obviously some offer more than one). Interestingly, in Victoria and NSW there are only four (two each) offering the full IB program in 2013 but 15 schools in each state offering the diploma. So, as you can see, it is more widespread than most would have thought.


What are the differences between IB and local offerings? Well, essentially the IB is enquiry based learning, broader and the stated aim is “to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world”. IB learners strive to be : enquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk takers, balanced and reflective. They often use thematic/interdisciplinary learning and build the various disciplines around a theme and intertwine various subjects, particularly in the PYP years.


The Diploma (Years 11/12) is probably the best known program in Australia and it has several very appealing features. Firstly, each student has to take a subject from each discipline area (ie maths, language, science etc) so it results in a very well rounded program. Two other distinguishing features are the Extended Essay and the study of the Theory of Knowledge.


The extended essay is an independent, self directed piece of research culminating in a 4000 word paper, very much in the mould of what they may be required to undertake at University level. The Theory of Knowledge intends to give students a broader understanding of the interactions between their different school subjects as well as creating greater open-mindedness among students. It is based on a system of Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge, each of which is discussed in detail.


So, as you can see from the brief overview, there is more to the IB than simply giving students an internationally recognised qualification. It does, in my view, provide an excellent springboard for University type independent learning ( which a lot of young people struggle with!) and it also opens up nearly every possible option as students aren’t doing a particular stream (ie maths/science) of subjects. In Australia, the Diploma will usually be undertaken by approximately 20-30% of the cohort in a year level, so there tends to be quite small class sizes. The content is more advanced and, due to the students having to undertake maths and a language, it does tend to attract the more capable students.


It is interesting to note, in Victoria, we currently have 16 schools (soon to be 15) offering the IB diploma but not one single-sex boys school offers the program. Our international clients are aghast at this and struggle to understand why some of the most prestigious schools in the country don’t offer this highly regarded, internationally recognised course. It is also interesting to note that in Melbourne we have 50 schools with fees in excess of 15k per year but only 7 of these are single-sex boys schools. Most are very, very full and therefore one could argue have very little incentive to change their curriculum offerings if there are long queues to get into the school. On the other hand, girls and co-educational schools are in a very competitive market and are far more open to anything that will potentially give them a competitive advantage and, it could be argued, are more cutting edge in their thinking as a result.


So if your child fits the academic profile (ie will be proficient in a language and maths) then in many respects the IB diploma is well worth considering in my view.  Thanks to technology, we are increasingly living in a world with very few geographical boundaries and any program that is international in its focus would be seen as a positive.


Paul O'Shannassy

 Director-Regent Consulting




What should private school principals be paid? November 3 2012


In the wake of the MLC fiasco, we have seen a vigorous debate about what is the appropriate salary for a Principal. There have been several articles written comparing the former MLC heads package to what a government school principal or a company CEO gets paid. It didn’t read well with Rosa Storelli allegedly being paid in excess of  three times her state school colleagues (approx 500k). I also read another piece in a Melbourne daily essentially suggesting she was “just a promoted school teacher” and how on earth could she be paid that amount of money?


As someone who works full time in the education advice industry, I obviously have a close relationship with the independent schools. I also spent many years working in these schools in a previous life, so I have a good handle on how they operate. Without making any comment or judgement on the goings on at MLC, the notion that Ms Storelli was somehow overpaid is short sighted, often politically motivated and actually quite ignorant. To compare her wage with a State School principal, CEO or even another private school principal, is not valid.


Let’s look at some facts about MLC. It is clearly the biggest private girls school in Melbourne (2200 girls) with the next largest having some 1400 ( there are only three independent girls schools in Melbourne with over 1000 students) . The school employs 460 staff , generates revenue of over 57 million per year and has assets in excess of 100 million dollars. These figures alone differentiate it from a government school and put it on a par with a large corporation.


Significantly, MLC is also a boarding school (unlike any government school) and is accountable to parents in over 27 different countries. A boarding school not only increases the complexity of the nature of a number of relationships the school has but it also means  the Principal has a raft of out of hours “duties and/commitments” involving the boarders and their families. Add to this- international marketing activities aimed at trying to fill the boarding house( which is always a struggle) and the existence of boarders adds a another layer of staff, administration etc. It also gives rise to unique problems that can come up on weekends and after hours. E.g a student who hasn’t returned from a trip to the shop on a Sunday.



In a more general sense, the extensive raft of extra –curricular activities that these schools are involved in gives rise to a lot more out of hours commitments than a government school or even a corporate job. I recently spoke to  the Personal Assistant for a Leading independent school Principal, who told me that in 50 weeknights of term one ( ie 10 weeks times 5 nights) the Principal was at a school commitment 38 of those nights. She told me most would run from 7.30 until 10.00 ish (some later) and that this was a fairly typical term. They are at :music recitals, parent information nights, sport presentation night, school plays , old collegians dinners, fundraisers etc etc. At every single one they are on “duty” with every aspect –from what they are wearing to whether or not they have a red wine- being scrutinised and internalised by a demanding parent body.


  If the school is an APS or AGS school, these Principals will also work all day Saturday, attending sport, which is compulsory for students. To those of you who think they get all those school holidays, think again. Most Principals at independent school would barely take the standard four weeks. Can you imagine the daily, almost hourly unpredictable dramas that would arise in the job being responsible for so many students and staff? I can assure you parents that pay $22k per year for education won’t be shy in approaching the Principal if they perceive there is an issue.


The other unique facet of being a Head/Principal is that you are on duty 24/7. Do you think they can go the local pub and “let loose”? Everywhere they go they are under intense scrutiny regarding their behaviour and standards etc given they are leading large organisations that are espousing these values and educating children. Many of them are also constantly pestered by parents trying to secure a place at the school, a situation unique to the private system.


So, I wonder what a CEO running a corporation that generates revenue of approximately 60 million dollars per year, had nearly 500 employees, 10,000’s of stakeholders (families, former students etc), had to work a majority of evenings and  most Saturdays would get paid? Mmm.... let me think...I reckon more than 500k! Do you think there would be people writing articles questioning their worth and saying they are only “executives”? Would they travel business class? The great irony in all of this is the majority of people questioning this have comfortable 9-5 jobs and  are really  ignorant of the incredible complexity of the jobs these Principals have. I would love to see them take on the job for a few months as I am sure it would change their thinking.


Paul O'Shannassy


Driector-Regent Consulting






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