CHRIS BONNOR Selective schools … again

Making stupid policy on the run is hardly new, but Gladys Berejiklian’sdecision to establish a new selective school in Sydney’s south-west has set new precedents. Few people seem to support it, even fewer will benefit. It ignores the debate about selective schooling, a debate underpinned by concern about the regressive impact on the unselected schools and students – without any significant gains for the annointed. This ‘captain’s call’ by the NSW premier even fails basic tests of fairness and logic.

New South Wales is almost alone in Australia in its addiction to selective schools. As a consequence it is trapped between the option of expanding their number or seriously reviewing their efficacy and impact. On several occasions the review option has been ignored or watered down in favour of expansion: initially adding more stand-alone selective schools and more recently, partially-selective schools.

Apparently her cabinet was left out of the decision loop and, if consulted, the education bureaucrats would not have been keen at all. The opponents already include a previous education minister and the teachers’ union. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has strongly expressed its opposition.

The rationale for the new school borders on the risible. Apparently the decision was made because selective schools are very popular and not every applicant is selected. On that logic the government should perhaps close down schools where attendance is low – maybe those schools are not popular? The other logic problem is that every expansion of the system, by definition, rather undermines the notion of selectivity.

Then we have a spokesperson for the Premier stating that “The fact that a new selective school has not opened for a quarter of a century is exactly why we need an additional selective school.” Maybe we should retrieve other past practices like flogging children, making them dance around the maypole or rote learning the kings and queens of England. Someone once told me that selective schools were the battleships of public education – something I recalled while recently gazing upon the long-mothballed USS Missouri in Pearl Harbour.

And the final logic problem is this: if they are a good thing, surely every suitable applicant in NSW should have access to a selective school. For geographical and cost reasons alone it simply isn’t going to happen, so we are left with an education system that overtly discriminates in favour of some children and families well ahead of others. It fails every fairness test.

Logic aside, the biggest criticism of the decision is that it flies in the face of what we now know about the impact of selectivity on surrounding schools and students. For years this was difficult to measure because the selective schools drew from a wide area, dispersing the impact on other schools and students. In 2010 however a number of partially-selective schools were established, including four in south-western Sydney.

How did that go? Not well, according to data from the My School website and from HSC results – crunched by Christina Ho and myself. The four partially-selective schools grew in size and snared an increasing proportion of high achievers, in general terms coming from more advantaged families. The reverse trend was evident in the nearby comprehensive schools. The establishment of the partially -selective schools has had a negative impact on nearby government schools and some non-government schools. And now they are to be blessed with an additional stand-alone fully selective school.

It was inevitable that the changing enrolment profile in all these schools – created by the existing partially-selective schools – would have an impact. In general terms this sort of impact was a clear concern of the first Gonski Review. The impact includes drifting levels of measurable student achievement.

For premiers and anyone else who needs to be reminded, which students who walk in through the school gate each day really matters. Schools which select students end up with those who are more advantaged. Such schools accumulate the social, cultural and even financial capital of the students and their supportive and resourceful parents.

Schools which enrol an increasing proportion of disadvantaged students gradually lose the resource of higher-performers and role models. As higher performing students leave, teacher experiences and expectations, as well as curriculum offerings, can change, and resources might become scarce. Teachers increasingly have to consolidate skills and knowledge some of their students have already traversed. The odds against making the much-needed breakthroughs in a child’s educational journey mount up.

Apparently all by herself, Gladys Berejiklian has decided to turn an existing disadvantage for so many young people into an ongoing disaster.

Chris Bonnor is a previous President of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council.


Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. Thanks to Dean Ashenden for assistance in the preparation of this article.

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3 Responses to CHRIS BONNOR Selective schools … again

  1. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Thank goodness for your clear sight Chris BONNOR – you have articulated very clearly why the so-called “selective” system advantages no-one – neither those who do well at entry level testing (largely these days coached with a lot of extra beyond-school-hours study costing a lot of money) and the subsequent hollowing out of what were formerly excellent comprehensives – high-achieving across the curriculum offering – and in sport, drama and music. With reference to countries like Finland – almost no private – and certainly no “selective” – all talents are fostered by well-educated state teachers – well-respected for the choice of profession, too! (As an aside – I am wondering why someone who is perhaps naive or misguided would criticise your thesis.) I graduated from a state high school – went to UoSydney – became a secondary school teacher in NSW – taught overseas for many years – including in government and private schools. Public is always best when comprehensive and properly funded – neither of which nowadays seems to be the case for much of Australia. Sad days.

  2. Avatar John Thomas says:

    Well, you said it, Mark.
    What this country desperately needs is a universally well-educated population, not a privileged elite supposedly leading an acquiescent under-educated mass. (Sort of the situation we have now in this country.) Gladys Berejiklian would do better to ensure that every student in NSW was funded to the Gonski 1.0 Student Resource Standard (plus allowances for disadvantage) than privileging the already privileged.
    Then those students who “…have greater abilities than most” can demonstrate them in a much larger pool.

  3. Avatar Mark Freeman says:

    I accept your points Chris and defer to your obviously greater professionally based knowledge. However I found this piece lacking in balance. There must be many individual examples of success or improvement in selective schools but you don’t even allow for this.

    Perhaps I’m naive or misguided but life has taught me that real progress is driven by a relatively small minority and we are collectively best served by identifying and conferring extra educational effort to those people. To me there’s a difference between elitism and accepting that some people have greater abilities than most.

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