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Today my daughter sat the NSW Selective Schools Test

March 14, 2013

Today my daughter sat the NSW selective schools test. Across half a day she attempted four exams to determine if she will gain entry to the (perceived) ‘best’ public high school education on offer.

As we walked towards the exam hall I suddenly felt ashamed to be participating in such an archaic system that effectively segregates our kids and communities. I was angry at the endemic perception that selective schools have better teachers, better education, better opportunities than local comprehensive high schools.

I wished we had a state government that prioritised public education rather than this outdated two-tier model that removes equity from education and creates a system where some kids have access to a better education than others.

Victoria is the only other state to have selective schools and there are only six of them, making way for many other types of high school options to emerge. By comparison, NSW has seventeen fully selective schools sucking kids away from their communities.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying there’s gifted kids out there who need to be challenged and nurtured in different ways as they grow up. But no-one can tell me that all the five thousand kids in these fully selective (academically segregated across all subjects) schools are gifted. All are smart students but many have been coached, at the exclusion of other well-being extra-curricular activities, to gain a place.

Of course, the selective schools get a better HSC result than non-selective, they’ve got all the top students. If there’s poor teaching in these or private school the parents often cover it up with extra tutoring. Hello, you can get tutoring for your kid whatever school they go to. But studies show that when there’s an academic mix of kids at a regular public high all the kids do better.

Many middle class parents I’ve spoken to will send their kid to a private school if they’re not offered a place in a selective school. I’ve heard more than once the line that parents ‘don’t want their kid to be at a school with all the dummies.’  Most offensive was a mother with an only-child who told me I could ‘risk’ a public high school education for my children as I had three of them.

The shift in Australia from community values to an aspirational culture of purchase power has driven this myopic vision of high school. Now it’s only about the individual child not the collective and parents forgo the joy of community engagement to send their kids far away to ‘better’ schools.

For many independent schools the HSC result is vital to their marketing machine to attract new students and keep parents believing that not paying those fees amounts to child neglect. It’s a more-cash less-kids social phenomena that there is a ‘best for your kid’ that money must buy. When I was pregnant I was told it was private medical care (I went to the birth centre), when they were little I was told it was a big four wheel drive as this was the ‘safest’ if there was an accident (but not if you backed over another person’s child), now it’s private schooling (take out another mortgage if you have to).

I want my daughters to learn good study habits and be self-motivated to do their best. I want them to find the subjects they are passionate about, not be pushed to do the ones that will promote the school in the ratings chart.

Two decades ago a fantastic HSC result may have been a once in a lifetime gold pass to academic opportunity. But that changed and alternative pathways developed to gain entry to tertiary education. If a young or mature person who bombed at school wants to get into med, or be a lawyer or accountant,  and is motivated to get there, universities have bridging courses that can make this happen. 

My kids’ Dad is an academic at a tier 1 university. Everyday he’s with students who have come from all types of schooling. He says he sees nothing that shows kids from the most privileged schools do any better than a good student from a comprehensive high school. Uni drop-out rates are mostly linked to domestic socio-economics (that is, has the student got enough money to pay rent and food every week) not high school grades.  Success rates are linked to self-motivation and, ideas.

In 2001 a NSW government report said the challenge was to better use public education resources to “provide exciting, innovative, engaging opportunities so that they provide a real alternative to the non-government options.” They have failed miserably but it’s not too late to try again. If we care that great public education should be about opportunity for all, we have to stop supporting a three-tier system and invest in high schools that are the pride and joy of the local community.

The selective schools test my daughter sat today wasn’t just for the fully selective schools, it was also for the selective stream at the local comprehensive. And that is what my daughter is applying for. It still seems odd though that the age-old-practice of streaming can’t just be worked out from the NAPLAN result or a little test on day one of high school.

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  1. iris permalink

    Thanks for the article. Our public school system increasingly resembles an apartheid system. The comprehensive public education system is a thing of the past. Young students at public schools are now segregated into academic high achievers and “the rest” by the age of 11 or 12.

    Selective high schools are ruthlessly exclusive. They are not designed for the gifted – see the Dept of Educations website – they are for academic high achievers – or at least for those who are high achievers at the end of year 5 which is when they are assessed for selective high school admission. For these children, excellent and prestigious education comes free of charge. Those who do not gain a place or don’t want this style of exclusive schooling will need to look elsewhere.

    The elephant in the room of course is that selective high schools are overwhelmingly attended by the children of first generation migrants (eg more 80 – 90% of students at some fully selective schools) and are leading to the creation of a racially / ethnically segregated schooling system. Selective schools are also mainly attended by the children of the affluent and educated – see the ACARA MySchool website for breakdown by school, including rating of parental affluence. Is this what we want for our kids? What happened to inclusive education and the idea that public education brought kids of all backgrounds together ?

    My children were in an OC for “gifted” children at their primary school. Many of their peers had spent years in coaching, attending sessions several times pw commencing in infants school in preparation for first the OC test then selective high schools test. In the months before the selective high school test these kids attended multiple practise exams in a large hall which perfectly mimicked conditions for the selective schools test. Some of the OC students referred to non-OC kids as the “dummies.” These students were given the old text books and apparently had less access to the school computers. We heard teachers at the school making disparaging remarks about the local high school (even though this had a selective stream.) Only a fully selective high school was considered acceptable. A place in a private school (preferably on scholarship) was also considered OK. When we said we were considering sending our child to the local school rather than a selective school an hour’s journey across the other side of the city the teacher rolled her eyes and later told our child they had “let the whole class down.” Such attitudes damage parents’ confidence and also send the clear message to kids that those who go to the local public are “loosers.” (Not helped by the fact that when we visited we saw cops outside and teachers standing around smoking.)

    Many of us do not want our kids in this segregated schooling system, we want high quality, local education for our kids that is inclusive, well resourced and non-competitive. Unfortunately, it seems the public system no longer offers this. No politician seems interested in taking this on board as the current system suits affluent and vocal parents who are willing and able to send their kids to selective high schools or live in the catchment for the best and most well resourced public highs (eg Mosman, Willoughby Girls, Chatswood, etc etc.) Too bad for the rest who have seen the egalitarian, community based comprehensive school system completely eroded by this competitive “winners and loosers” public school culture. The decision to go private (or even home school) is not necessarily about being a “consumer” or anything like it. It is based on an unequal and inequitable system where increasingly it seems for many people there are no good (and in some cases even safe) options available except the ones you have to pay for – or do yourself. (Note the boom in private education and the 300% increase in homeschooling in NSW in the past few years!)

  2. Bob Porter permalink

    Taught in selective high and witnessed the effect on the non-selected schools nearby. The DSE and polies need selective schools to ‘show’ that the govt schools are every bit as good even tho they are totally not representative of the whole. The continuation of the levels of funding to wealthy private schools also as you note creates ‘selective schools’ I dont think we can expect the govt selectives to be dissolved whilst the non government selectiveness goes on..they must be simultaneously dissolved. Starting with non funding by government for Private
    school education beyond year 10 begin with and eventually beyond primary school. Some political party has got to have the guts to confront the inequality with such concrete measures as this.

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