Lucinda McKnight

Do elite private boys’ school alumni have justice politics?

Featured Symposium at AARE 2021: Elite private boys’ schooling, feminism and gender justice: reimagining research in a post #me too world

On November 30 2021, while many of us were in paper sessions at the annual AARE conference, the findings of a review of workplace culture in parliament house were released. The review, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, was sparked by rape allegations made earlier this year by Brittany Higgins. The findings indicated that one in three people working in federal parliament has experienced some kind of sexual harassment there (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2021). What is also true is that a large number of MPs in the current parliament attended boys’ only schools, and recent revelations about the conduct of some boys in high fee-paying private boys’ schools have shone a negative light on them.

In September 2020, a year 12 muck-up day challenge at Sydney’s Shore school was made public which included such challenges as “spit on a homeless man”, “deck a stranger”, “sack whack a complete random walking past”, “get with someone below (age) 15”, and “get with an Asian chick”. In February 2021 Ms Chanel Contos, a former student at Kambala – an elite private girls’ school in Sydney – commenced a petition on social media for consent education to be taught earlier. This also attracted many testimonies from young women across the country regarding sexual assault from young men, many of whom attended elite private boys’ schools. 

A spotlight has therefore been focused on private boys’ schools and the male leaders they produce. All but two of Australia’s post war Prime Ministers (Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard) attended boys’ only schools, as did many men in the current parliamentary cabinet. Many of the men who attend boys’ only schools will come to occupy positions of significant privilege and power. There are crucial questions to be asked about the gender, class and race lessons being learnt by the young men attending such schools, and the way these travel with them as they come to occupy positions of influence in post-school life. Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway calls this the ‘misogyny pipeline’.

Published research shows us that such schools can be environments that are toxic for women teachers (Higham, 2018; Variyan, 2021) and indicates the sense of entitlement that can be fostered in such schools (Gaztambide-Fernández, Cairns & Desai, 2013). However it also indicates they are institutions that frequently engage in practices that are ostensibly about improving society and ameliorating justice (Kenway & Fahey, 2015). Indeed, how might these schools and their current and former students contribute to social justice rather than reproduce virulent forms of misogyny, classism and racism?

In response to such questions, AARE featured the research symposium Elite private boys’ schooling, feminism and gender justice: reimagining research in a post #me too world, at its annual conference. The symposium involved Drs Claire Charles and Lucinda McKnight, and Professor Amanda Keddie (Deakin University); Dr George Variyan (Monash University); Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway (Melbourne University); Professor Adam Howard (Colby College, USA), and Leanne Higham (LaTrobe University).

The symposium identified a range of challenges and opportunities for understanding questions of gender, class and race in elite private boys’ education both in Australia and the USA. A particular challenge identified was the ‘rules of entitlement’ that such schools implicitly teach their boys (Kenway). One such rule is that boys must know how to stay on top of all the hierarchies that matter. Given how strongly invested such schools, and their clients, are in hierarchies it was asked is it even possible to challenge this rule?

A key theme, in line with the conference title, was how we might re-imagine research in politically charged spaces, and in particular in/with elite private school boys and such schools’ alumni. Access to elite schooling for the purposes of research can be difficult. The symposium explored some different approaches to gaining insight into a culture where ‘what is part of the family stays with the family’. The schools were likened to a ‘secret brotherhood’ (Howard) where unsavoury are kept under a code of silence, although can sometimes be revealed to ‘insider’ researchers such as men who also attended elite boys’ schools, or by alumni who actively take up a more progressive justice politics. As part of re-imagining research in this space, the symposium also explored how researchers need to acknowledge their own positioning and investments (Charles, McKnight & Variyan).

A second theme was around how the schools themselves typically respond to revelations about their misogynistic cultures when they hit the media. Their crisis management techniques were identified. For example, they often respond by suggesting that such events are the result of a few ‘bad apples’ and are not representative of the broader culture or values of the school. A further strategy was their ‘dignified determination’ to address the issues. These defensive responses were described as a form of ‘misogyny masking’ (Kenway).

A key question, therefore, is how research, and the schools themselves, might address these problems. In particular, how research and teaching in elite private boys’ schools might seek to involve boys and men in working toward social justice. It is well established in research that involving men and boys in feminist projects can be a challenge yet one that is necessary if we are to change the status quo (Messner, Greenberg & Peretz, 2015). The symposium explored the discomfort and emotional intensities that boys and men often experience when they are invited to reflect on their complicity in perpetuating gender injustice (Keddie). It found that while such discomfort can be difficult, it is a necessary part of gender transformative work because you are dealing with personal violation. Such discomfort and emotions can be channelled in productive was for gender justice (Keddie). The role of researchers’ own relationships and emotions with regard to these schools was also explored (Charles, McKnight & Variyan).

In summary, recommendations arising from the symposium include the following:

·       That researchers continue to work with alumni from these schools to identify and further understand the factors that might assist some men to develop progressive justice politics both at school and later in life;

·       That further research is conducted into what may make elite private boys’ schools different from other elite schools that are co-educational or girls’ only schools, when it comes to addressing the problems outlined above;

·       That research and pedagogy continue to engage boys in working toward gender justice – including boys attending elite private boys’ schools.

Dr Claire Charles is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University. Her research advances understanding of the justice politics of privileged young people in an unfair world.

Dr Charles pulled together this overview of research, including her own, presented at AARE201. The other authors are: Dr Lucinda McKnight is a senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University. She conducts award-winning research into curriculum design’s role in teacher identity, autonomy and professionalism, especially in English.  Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. She leads the program: Children, Young People and their Communities within the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre. Her research interests and publications are in the broad field of social justice and schooling. Professor Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences; Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  Adam Howard, Ed.D., is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Education and Chair of Education Program at Colby College, USA. Professor Howard’s research explores social class issues in education with a particular focus on privilege and elite education. Leanne Higham is a Lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University. A former secondary teacher, she is interested in the everyday practices of schooling and how these increase and enhance the capacities of those within schools, and/or limit and constrain them.

The problem with using scientific evidence in education (why teachers should stop trying to be more like doctors)

For teachers to be like doctors, and base practice on more “scientific” research, might seem like a good idea. But medical doctors are already questioning the narrow reliance in medicine on randomised controlled trials that Australia seems intent on implementing in education.

In randomised controlled trials of new drugs, researchers get two groups of comparable people with a specific problem and give one group the new drug and the other group the old drug or a placebo.  No one knows who gets what. Not the doctor, not the patient and not the person assessing the outcomes. Then statistical analysis of the results informs guidelines for clinical practice. 

In education, though, students are very different from each other. Unlike those administering placebos and real drugs in a medical trial, teachers know if they are delivering an intervention. Students know they are getting one thing or another. The person assessing the situation knows an intervention has taken place. Constructing a reliable educational randomised controlled trial is highly problematic and open to bias.

As a doctor and teacher thinking, writing and researching together we believe that a more honest understanding of the ambivalences and failures of evidence-based medicine is essential for education.

Before Australia decides teachers need to be like doctors, we want to tell you what is happening and give you some reasons why evidence based medicine itself is said to be in crisis

1. Randomised controlled trials are just one kind of evidence

Medicine now recognises a much broader evidence base than just randomised controlled trials. Other kinds of medical evidence include: practical “on-the-job” expertise; professional knowledge; insights provided by other research such as case studies; intuition; wisdom gained from listening to patient histories and discussions with patients that allow for shared decision-making or negotiation.

Privileging randomised controlled trials allows them to become sticks that beat practitioners into uniformity of practice, no matter what their patients want or need. Such practitioners become “cookbook” doctors or, in education, potentially, “cookbook” teachers. The best and most recent forms of evidence based medicine value a broad range of evidence and do not create hierarchies of evidence. Education policy needs to consider this carefully and treat all forms of evidence equally.

2. Medicine can be used as a bully

Teaching is a feminised profession, with a much lower status than medicine. It is easy for science to exert a masculinist authority over teachers, who are required to be ever more scientific to seem professional.  They are called on to be phallic teachers, using data, tools, tests, rubrics, standards, benchmarks, probes and scientific trials, rather than “soft” skills of listening, empathising, reflecting and sharing.

A Western scientific evidence-base for practice similarly does not value Indigenous knowledges or philosophies of learning. Externally mandated guidelines also negate the concepts of student voice and negotiated curriculum. While confident doctors know the randomised controlled trial-based statistics and effect sizes need to be read with scepticism, this is not so easy for many teachers. If randomised controlled trial-based guidelines are to rule teaching, teachers will also potentially be monitored for compliance with guidelines they may not fully understand or accept, and which may potentially harm their students.

3. Evidence based medicine is about populations, not people

While medical randomised controlled trials save lives by demonstrating the broad effects of interventions, they make individuals and their needs harder to perceive and respect.  Randomised controlled trial-based guidelines can mean that diverse people are forced to conform to simplistic ideals. Rather than starting with the patient, the doctor starts with the rule. Is this what we want for teaching? When medical guidelines are applied in rigid ways, patients can be harmed.

Trials cannot be done on every single kind of person and so inevitably, many individuals are forced to have treatments that will not benefit them at all, or that are at odds with their wishes and beliefs. Educators need to ensure that teachers, not bureaucrats or researchers, remain the authority in their classrooms.

5. Scientific evidence gives rise to gurus

Evidence-based practice can give rise to the cult of the guru. Researchers such as John Hattie, and their trademarked programs like “Visible Learning” based on apparently infallible science, can rapidly colonise and dominate education. Yet their medicalised glamour disguises the reality that there is no universal and enduring formula for “what works”.

In 2009, in his book Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement Hattie advised that, based on evidence, all healthy people should take aspirin to prevent heart attacks. Yet also in 2009, new medical evidence “proved” that the harms in healthy people taking aspirin outweigh the benefits.

In 2009 Hattie said class size does not matter. In 2014, further research found that reducing class size has an important and lasting impact, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While medical-style guidelines may seem to have come from God, such guidelines, even in medicine are often multiple and contradictory. The “cookbook” teacher will always be chasing the latest guideline, disempowered by top-down interference in the classroom.

In medicine, over five years, fifty percent of guideline recommendations are overturned by new evidence. A comparable situation in education would create unimaginable turmoil for teachers.

6. Evidence-based practice risks conflicts of interest

Educational publishers and platforms are very interested in “scientific” evidence.  If a researcher can “prove” an intervention works and should be applied to all, this means big dollars. Randomised controlled trials in medicine routinely produce outcomes that are to the benefit of industry. Only certain trials get funded. Much unfavourable research is never published. Drug and medical companies set agendas rather than responding to patient needs, in what has been described as a guideline “factory”.

Imagine how this will play out in education. Do we want what happens in classrooms to be dictated by profit driven companies, or student-centred teachers?

What needs to happen?

We call for an urgent halt to the imposition of ‘evidence-based’ education on Australian teachers, until there a fuller understanding of the benefits and costs of narrow, statistical evidence-based practice. In particular, education needs protection from the likely exploitation of evidence-based guidelines by industries with vested interests.

Rather than removing teacher agency and enforcing subordination to gurus and data-based cults, education needs to embrace a wide range of evidence and reinstate the teacher as the expert who decides whether or not a guideline applies to each student.

Pretending teachers are doctors, without acknowledging the risks and costs of this, leaves students consigned to boring, standardised and ineffective cookbook teaching. Do we want teachers to start with a recipe, or the person in front of them?

Here is our paper for those who want more: A broken paradigm? What education needs to learn from evidence-based medicine by Lucinda McKnight and Andy Morgan

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a pre-service teacher educator and senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is also a qualified health and fitness professional. She is interested in the use of scientific and medical metaphor in education. Lucinda can be found on Twitter@LucindaMcKnigh8

Dr Andy Morgan is a British Australian medical doctor and senior lecturer in general practice at Monash University, Melbourne. He has an MA in Clinical Education from the Institute of Education, UCL, London. His research interests are in consultation skills and patient-centred care. He is a former fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and current fellow of the Australian Royal College of General Practitioners.