Does it make a difference what school you go to?

Last updated 08:15 04/02/2013

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Christchurch's St Bede's College has beaten traditional mainstays Auckland Grammar and Christ's College to head an unofficial New Zealand Ivy League.

In a Sunday Star-Times survey of the schools attended by leading politicians, business leaders, Government mandarins and the judiciary, St Bede's topped the list, helped by new parliamentary Speaker David Carter, one of five St Bede's old boys in Parliament.

Auckland Grammar was second and Christ's College, once a prolific producer of parliamentarians, judges and business leaders, was tied for third with Matamata College, Napier's William Colenso College and Palmerston North's Queen Elizabeth College.

While other countries have private schools that routinely produce the next generation of business, state and political leaders, New Zealand is marked by the wide diversity of schools that contibrute to our ruling elite.

The 70 leaders asked by the Sunday Star-Times to provide information on their schooling came from 59 separate schools. Of those, 49 were New Zealand schools, the majority of them state schools from every corner of the country.

In the current national Government nearly three-quarters were state educated, including Prime Minister John Key.

Only eight of the 35 ministers and political party leaders polled went to state-integrated schools, many of which would have been private when they were students there. Only one politician went to a private school: newly-minted minister Nikki Kaye who attended St Kentigern Girls' School - Corran, in Auckland.

St Bede's College rector Justin Boyle said it was his college's goal to produce leaders for society so topping the Star- Times' poll came as a pleasant surprise.

Boyle said St Bede's was part of a strong Marist network that involved students in leadership courses.

"We think [it] gives our boys a structure and a philosophy around how we should lead and that's something that has now become institutionalised in our place," he said.

In the poll, the private-public contrast was greatest among top civil servants and the judiciary.

Four out of our five Supreme Court judges were privately educated and among the chief executives of New Zealand's 10 biggest government departments, the five New Zealanders were all educated privately (the other five were educated overseas).

That is in stark contrast to the leaders of our top businesses where almost three-quarters of the chief executives and board chairs of top-10 companies on the New Zealand stock exchange went to public schools.

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Most New Zealanders receive a public education: of the 760,000 current students, 84 per cent are in state schools. The divide between the largely private-educated state mandarins and the rest of us comes as no surprise to education expert Peter O'Connor, associate professor at Auckland University, who says the old boys' (and girls') network is very much alive, he said.

"It doesn't surprise me that you have people succeeding in the civil service who come from very similar backgrounds," he said.

"Although public education has been heavily criticised over the past couple of years we do have a system which allows people to, through a system of meritocracy, rise to the top which is really encouraging," he said.

"The figures with the civil service suggest another truth which we've always known, and that is it's not what you learn, it's who you learn with.

"Private schools offer an education alongside other wealthy, well- positioned people which build the kinds of networks necessary to succeed in a small country," he said.

United Future MP Peter Dunne wouldn't have swapped his private schooling at St Bede's for a public education but he did find some of the discipline "petty and silly".

He denies any advantage having gone to a private school, saying it didn't insulate him from life's battles.

"I was going to say I have had the advantage but my father died while I was at school and my mother brought up four teenage kids on a widow's benefit so I understand struggle," he said. "Has private schooling helped me, I'm not sure but I note there are more St Bede's old boys in Parliament at the moment than just about any other school."

While St Bede's might be the in vogue school for a current generation of MPs, the reality is that most of our elected officials, like those who elected them, went to state schools.

It's the same story in business, where a public education seems to assist rather than hinder progress. Among the board chairs and chief executives of our top-10 NZX-listed companies, three- quarters went to a public school.

Fisher and Paykel Healthcare chief executive Michael Daniell went to the community boys' high school in Hastings and says the exposure to a wide range of people at school prepared him for the broad demographics of business.

He would not trade his state schooling for a private education.

"I don't know whether it would have made much difference, I was always relatively certain in high school about what I wanted to do."

The judiciary is one area where a private education seems to make a difference. Of the country's five Supreme Court justices, four had private schooling. Judge Susan Glazebrook went to Piopio College and Tauranga Girls' College, while her colleagues attended King's College, Christ's College, Wanganui Collegiate and Diocesan School for Girls.

New Zealand Law Society president Jonathan Temm went to St Peters College in Auckland, which prepared him for his career in the justice system.

"Some of the Christian principles that were passed to me in my secondary education still operate in my life today and still influence me in my legal career in that I do try to help other people who ask for my assistance and I do try to look for the good in all people, including in the Curtis brothers who were found guilty of the murder of Nia Glassie.

"I don't know what a public education is like but the short answer is no [I would not swap what I had] because I'm content with how my life is now," he said.

- Sunday Star Times

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