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Where’s the equity in Selective Schools?

October 7, 2013

Reading parent blogs and talking to kids after the NSW selective test results were announced last term was dispiriting. There’s the smug relief of parents whose kids did get in. There’s the sense of failure from kids who didn’t and the profound disappointment of their parents who wanted excellent academic education from the state.

NSW is the only state to persist with the archaic system of selective schools that segregates kids into a two-tier public education system from year 7.  There are seventeen fully selective schools in NSW and 25 more with ‘selective streams’ and 90% of the kids come from socially advantaged backgrounds. If the test really was on merit there should be an even representation from all backgrounds. (Melbourne University a few years ago allowed lower entrance scores from students from less advantaged schools. The ‘lower grade’ kids then performed as well as other students from more advantaged backgrounds.)

It’s a highly flawed system that values children with pro-active parents and entrenches disadvantage for the others.  Social mobility is the foundation promise of meritocracy and achieving success based on talent yet this is lower now in the US and Australia than for past 50 years. The rich are getting richer and the gap between rich and poor is growing. An excellent education is a right, not a privilege yet by supporting a selective school system we are saying some deserve a better education than others and this is  to the detriment of the entire public high school system.  We must fight so that kid from the disadvantaged background has a chance to grow up less poor and local high schools with a mix of kids of all academic abilities and socio-economic backgrounds would help.

In NSW the schools test industry that didn’t exist 20 years ago has had exponential growth. It’s a no brainer, as a small investment in test preparation can net a secondary education worth $120k ($20k per year at a private school).  Selective school segregation is also flawed in its assumption that kids who are good at English are also good at Maths. In comprehensive schools streaming allows kids to be in different ability classes by subject and share sporting teams with rocket scientists and rappers.  At my kids’ public primary school  everyone’s streamed for Maths and English from year 1:  it works for the teachers who can teach a narrow band of ability, it works for the kids who get taught at the level they’re at and not feel like dummies or underperform. Hang on a moment – aren’t these the arguments people give for the selective system? So why do we need them?

 Kids in selective schools also benefit from all-powerful teacher expectation to a much greater degree than those in the under-resourced, less disciplined, less socially supported comprehensive high school system. A recent study in UK reveals how kids who had been scoring highly at public primaries were performing at a vastly lower grade five years later at the local comprehensive school – unlike their equivalent peers at selective schools.

 Studies also show that the brightest students would do equally well in the local public high school and academic results are hugely skewed to family socio-economics. But it’s that old adage of advantage for some means disadvantage for others and kids left in a comprehensive system with all the good students with pro-active parents ripped out, do worse. Kids know when they’re being undervalued and it’s self-fulfilling.

Of course parents whose kids go to selective schools are happy with their kid’s education in these privileged environments of aspirational learning free of ‘dummies’ and disruptive kids. But this doesn’t make the selective school system equitable or fair, nor do studies show these kids do better than they would at a local public high school.

NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli is under huge pressure and his education policy seems to be purely budgetary focussed (TAFE cuts, special teacher cuts…) The principal of Sydney Boys High School is also still waiting for an answer from the minister to take a local intake of students but this is only a short term solution for the increasing pressure on the three public school options for half a million population who live  East of Hyde Park in Sydney.

If Piccoli and this government cared about education they’d be seeking to address all inequity in our public education sector, education is the key to addressing disadvantage and increasing productivity. (Imagine if we were investing as much in IT training as in mining subsidies – we’d be a knowledge super power rather than a quarry)

If we want our society to be doing well, we have to ask how we can help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds have a stake in the education opportunities other kids do. We have to help them grow up less poor and advocate a system that values all kids, not creates a parallel universe of education that entrenches disadvantage.

Academic Research and Discussion Papers

The Great Equity Debate – Dr David Zyngnier (Monash University)

Selective Schools and Academic Achievement -Dr Damon Clark (2011)

Click to access dp3182.pdf

School Dropout and Completion – Edited by Stephen Lamb (Melbourne University)

‘My School’ and others: Segregation and white flight – Christina Ho (2011, UTS)

Non selective state schools failing students thru culture of low expectations (2013)

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