Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Honey, I coached the kid: curse of the pushy parent
N ow it’s over we can say it: coaching kids is like drugs in sport. Just as most serious athletes believe most of their peers take performance-enhancing drugs, most kids who make the selective schools take performance-enhancing tuition. In each case this field-tilting is undeclared, undetectable, unpreventable and increasingly prevalent, gradually forcing the rest to sign up or drop out.
This time last week some 13,000 angsty pre-teens were herded in for the four-hour trial – aka the NSW selective schools exam – that will largely determine their future.
Few parents and fewer educators believe it should be thus. The selective system was meant simply to provide intellectual kids with a peer-system that would turn potential misfits into successes.
Recent research on “orchid children” reinforces this belief that, for the dangerously clever, context can be the difference between genius and dysfunction.
But that’s not how the system works. Now everyone wants their kid a genius and parental faith in the comprehensives is low-to-non-existent. So primary education increasingly resembles a foie gras factory where the force-feeding is semi-voluntary and semi-clandestine and authorities turn away as the child’s brain is artificially enlarged, like the goose’s liver, to many times normal size.
At least that’s one way of seeing it. Then again, you can see any education as an artificial enlargement of the brain – and that’s the problem. Even if you banned private coaching, the gavage would continue.
Many parents and most schools oppose out-of-school coaching. Just as many, however – and often the same individuals – feel coerced into conformity. The selective schools unit insists coaching is futile; their exam tests for native intelligence and cannot be fooled by cramming. But the statistics are not with them. There are no official figures, but one college alone claims to have filled more than a quarter of the state’s 4127 selective places last year and James Ruse, the state’s “top” school, has said 90 per cent of its students were coached.
Increasing numbers of primary-age children now spend six or seven hours a week in out-of-school lessons. That’s before you get to the weekly gym, flute, dance, violin and tennis, or “Chinese school” to which many of these kids devote all Saturday.
And it costs. Last year’s bungled attempt to bribe a teacher for special treatment lost one family $2500, and a certain dignity, but many pay twice that a year for coaching, starting
in year 3 or earlier.
Less and less, then, is selection based on native ability; more and more on money. So public selectives increasingly resemble private schools, even as the privates suck ever-larger dollops from the public purse. It’s not a culture you’d want to be poor in, especially not poor and bright.
Yet primary schools are in denial, maintaining a policy silence and leaving it to the individual teacher either to practise for the tests or simply advise serenity; it’s “not life and death”.
Parents of the uncoached, however, fear precisely that. They fear their children will miss out on selection, relapse into a comprehensive, under-perform in the HSC, be forced into merchant banking instead of medicine or law and generally be blighted for life. More ominously, perhaps, parents fear the loss of the Aussie childhood.
What were you doing at eight? Scarcely even homework, me; certainly not coaching. I recall the odd piano lesson, a spot of cello and the undeniable horrors of practice before breakfast. But after school was mainly tearing barefoot round the neighbourhood’s back gardens, tunnelling through its back hedges being pirates or unicorns ’til dusk sent you reluctantly home for dinner.
No way that’ll happen these days, what with paedophiles under every bush. (I do recall one chap exposing himself in the local churchyard. Presuming him caught short for a pee, I politely looked away.)
But is it real, this Aussie childhood of reverie? More to the point, is it resurrectable? Proponents of performance drugs argue sport is an exploration of human limits so why not let rip. Regarding academic competition, similarly, they argue to legitimise cognitive enhancers or “Viagra for the brain”. If it’s truth we’re seeking and a pill can help, why not pop one?
I can’t answer that, nor explain why I’m OK with fish oil but not with, say, Ritalin. But the childhood question remains. You only get one. Do you want your kids’ memories replete not with hedges and unicorns, but with concrete rooms and smartboards?
Are these the brains we want running the country?
We can’t ban coaching, but we can make the exam virtually impossible to cram for. The selective schools
test is formulaic and iterative, designed to be marked, cheaply, by computer. Testing for intelligence is possible. But anything that can be marked by computer can be taught by (and to) robots.