CHRIS BONNOR. Selective schools: comprehensively routed?

Mar 14, 2017

When you are a school principal there are some days you don’t forget. For me it was the day the government ambushed my school by establishing a selective school down the road. No warning, no consultation – it just seemed like a good idea at the time. It was argued that it was a good idea for the selected, but even then we knew that it wasn’t a good idea for those not similarly blessed. We now know that it has done nothing for overall levels of student achievement. 

Australia’s framework of schools is riddled with distortions created by the unequal power of schools to actively or passively discriminate in who they enrol. The distortions just keep coming, most recently revealed by Christina Ho at UTS. Her article in The Conversation also appeared in the SMH: ‘Bastions of inequality’: selective schools increasingly cater to the most advantaged students’

Selective schools are government schools designed to cater for gifted and talented students with superior academic ability and high classroom performance. New South Wales has the lion’s share of selective schools in Australia, but they have become the most socio-educationally advantaged in the state, surpassing even high-fee private schools.

The easiest explanation is that the best and brightest come from higher SES families – but the reality is that the selection process doesn’t reach our full range of the gifted and talented.

We’ve known this for some time but Christina Ho sets this finding against the phenomenon of coaching aimed at mastery in the selective schools test. She points to the predominance of students from language backgrounds other than English, and to the subsequent social implications. Most commonly the media treatment of the issues has a focus on the strong representation of Asian-Australians in selective schools. This is also raised by Ho, but with far greater sensitivity and balance. At the same time she doesn’t walk away from the issues, contrasting the Anglo domination of high-fee private schools with the non-Anglo dominance of government selectives.

The problem that gets less attention is the role played by selective schools in the widening academic divide, created by school enrolments, between high and low SES schools. As Bernie Shepherd and I have shown (along with others) this is becoming very apparent. In effect the siphoning of more able students into selective schools is part of the zero-sum game that beggars all our schools: the additional advantages for some are balanced by the additional struggle for others.

Every now and then we get an official acknowledgement of this in one form or another. In 2011 the NSW Department of Education and Training published research which showed the gains which could be made by students who moved to higher SES schools. The paper didn’t dwell on the flipside of the problem, nor did anyone in the DET or government acknowledge the connection with the regressive impact of selective schools. In fact, for a time the research was hard to track down.

The difficulty for advocates for selective schools is that the evidence of this impact just won’t go away. Not only that, our attempts to shift the responsibility to the apparently underperforming other schools are looking increasingly lame. The challenge really lies in how to enhance opportunities for our most able students without creating what amounts to a separate development (to avoid the ‘A’ word) of the school experience for our young people. Not only that, the advocates for selective schools have never addressed the issue of how the schools can be justified when they are geographically, or in SES terms, out of reach of all the gifted and talented.

Ironically, the Fairfax media has (perhaps unwittingly) recently reported on a solution. Aurora College is the virtual selective high school in NSW, serving students from rural areas. Students attend their local high school but also log-in to Aurora’s online conferencing system each day for lessons. In the words of the college principal, “Aurora gives students the chance to stay in their local community but they are able to be part of a cohort of like-minded students.” Residential gatherings are held twice each year and students have access to specialised lessons and leading scholars.

The benefits of serving gifted and talented students in this way are substantial. The model can also serve other students with specialist interests. In this way the power and social benefits of comprehensive and inclusive schooling can sit easily with the advancement of students who benefit from additional opportunities. In effect, the often conflicting views of education as a collective good or a private and positional good can be reconciled.

The way forward is to expand the Aurora College concept in both scale and reach. Then the very existence of the four dozen selective schools in NSW should be reviewed, along with the unregulated capacity of so many of our schools to serve who they wish and ignore the rest.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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