Almost alone in Australia, New South Wales has been expanding its number of selective schools, accompanied each time by arguments about the need to increase choice and cater for the gifted and talented. And each time we are left with one less school for local students, together with an ongoing trail of collateral damage to other schools and overall student achievement. The Department of Education, successive governments and even peak education groups have long ignored the downsides of selective schools – until now. The NSW Education Minister now wants to open the doors of these schools to solve a student accommodation problem.
It’s a real problem. In some parts of inner Sydney, families have no local comprehensive public high school, only extremely competitive selective schools, including Sydney Girls and Boys and the Conservatorium High School. Other public high schools are full, exacerbated by some being partially selective, including Newtown High School of Performing Arts (entry by audition) and Alexandria Park Community School. School choice has become illusory for many inner Sydney families wanting to access local public education.
The difficulties created by stand-alone selective schools don’t end there. Education Minister Rob Stokes has unfurled a range of other reasons why we should rethink the idea of selective schools, including the need to avoid creating “a rigid, separated public education system”.
Such concern is decades too late but we might at least have a debate if the Minister’s views are shared by significant others. It needs to be a wide-ranging debate: the current review within the Department of Education won’t touch on the pressing issues raised by the Minister. After all, selective schools by definition create educational separation.
The big issues won’t go away. Even the idea that a selective school provides choice for families with gifted and talented children is problematic. Gifted and talented children are found everywhere, including in our most distant towns – but bricks and mortar selective or semi-selective schools will never reach them. NSW selective schools are disproportionately found in middle-class suburbs.
There are two solutions to this. The first is to have selective classes in every school, something that is happening by stealth as comprehensive schools try to fight back.
But a second and better solution is operating right now in the bosom of the NSW Department of Education. Aurora College is an online selective school that successfully serves students in rural and regional areas. The school uses a combination of computer technology and residential camps and students are enrolled in the online selective class and complete their other subjects in their local school.
It’s a win-win solution: students gain the benefit of a more challenging educational environment online while still being part of their local school community. It’s time to ramp-up this model and, in the process, throw open the doors of most existing selective schools to local students.
In contrast, there is ample evidence of the win-lose problem of enrolment selectivity in all school sectors. Having a choice of schools has always advantaged some at the expense of others. Schools that select by setting tests or charging fees always distort the student achievement profile of most others nearby as they see their share of high-achievers in the HSC in decline.
Even enrolment in the selective schools becomes distorted. As Tuesday’s story reported, they become inhabited by educational elites. There is obviously good work done in the schools but the results strongly reflect the socio-educational advantage of the enrolled students.
Their enrolment also skews towards the children of relatively recently arrived migrants. Full marks to the energy and aspiration of these families; their children justly deserve their success. The bigger question is to what extent are we all served when our schools become additionally divided on the basis of cultural background?
There will be those who argue that selective schools are the battleships in the NSW public education system. But modern navies have little use for battleships. In school education it’s time to scuttle our selective schools and redesign our fleet of schools to serve everyone, everywhere.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. Christina Ho is a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2018.