• Do selective schools disadvantage Australia's underprivileged students? (Getty Images)
Selective secondary schools are supposed to cater for gifted and talented students across all sections of society, but increasingly they are the preserve of children from privileged families.
By
Nicola Heath

12 Apr 2017 - 5:14 PM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2017 - 5:26 PM

Selective secondary schools have a well-deserved reputation for acad­­­­emic excellence. In New South Wales, the home of the most selective high schools in the country, eight of the top 10 best-performing schools in the HSC in 2016 were selective.

Aside from their stellar results, these schools share some interesting characteristics.

One is affluence – students at selective schools are just as privileged as those at independent schools.

Of the eight in the 2016 top 10, all have above average scores in the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), a metric used by the My School website. None have more than five per cent of students in the bottom quarter of students.

James Ruse Agricultural High School has topped the HSC list for an impressive 21 years. In 2016, 73.1 per cent of students scored 90 or above in the HSC. James Ruse has an ICSEA score of 1240 (the average is 1000), with 89 per cent of students in the top quarter and zero in the lowest quarter.

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Have selective schools become ‘privileged’?

The selective school enrolment process has become notoriously competitive in recent years. In 2017, 14458 students sat the Selective High School Placement Test, vying for one of 4226 places offered in 47 selective and partially selective schools in 2018.

It’s a test that many students have long been preparing for. There are no official statistics, but in her research Christina Ho, a University of Technology Sydney academic, has found that most students who attend selective schools have had tutoring – some since early primary school. 

This tutoring often represents an enormous investment of time. In a not uncommon story, one child reported spending eight hours every Saturday taking extra maths classes in preparation for the placement test.

It’s also expensive – prohibitively so for poor families. Tutoring can cost thousands of dollars per year, posing “a huge inequality” in terms of access, says Ho.

“If you come from a poor family, it's pretty much out of the question for your family to invest that kind of money in training and training you,” she says. “That is reflected in the demographic profile of selected schools that we have now, where in New South Wales, in particular metropolitan Sydney, most of the selective schools have no children who come from the least advantaged quarter in our society.”

...in her research Christina Ho, a University of Technology Sydney academic, has found that most students who attend selective schools have had tutoring – some since early primary school. 

As Ho points out, it’s unlikely that there are simply no students from the lowest quarter who are gifted and talented. The distinguishing factor, then, is money. “It's all in the amount of resources that families are investing in this kind of thing,” she says.

The prohibitive cost of tutoring is not the only factor keeping disadvantaged kids out of selective schools. A well-established link between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes means that children from poor backgrounds are consistently out-performed by their more affluent peers.

By the age of 15, a student from a disadvantaged area is on average three years behind kids who attend school in wealthier suburbs. “If you come from a wealthier background you have educated parents who are in professional jobs; there's lots of books in the house, you've been read to all your life,” says Ho. “These are the things that make the biggest difference to how well you're doing in school.”

The number of selective schools in NSW ballooned in the 1980s under the Nick Greiner state government, which sought to introduce more choice to the education system “to try to stop middle class families essentially from leaving the public system and going to private schools,” says Ho.

...it’s unlikely that there are simply no students from the lowest quarter who are gifted and talented. The distinguishing factor, then, is money.

Today, selective high schools are the preferred choice for many migrant families, particularly from East Asia and South Asia, that don’t have the same cultural affinity to private schools held by many middle-class Australian families.

This is bourne out of statistics: a common feature shared by the state’s top selective high schools is the high percentage of students who come from households where English is not the first language. At James Ruse, that figure is 97 per cent.

What does this mean for students at the local high school?

“The expansion of selective schools has really come at the cost of your local comprehensive public school,” says Ho. “As governments have been pushing for more choice, parents are now feeling like they have to go school shopping.”

Removing the top-performing children from the classroom also affects the students left behind. Take away the brightest kids and you lose the students who raise averages and act as role models for other children. This is especially evident at primary school level when some schools lose many of their Year 5 kids to opportunity classes, says Ho. “When you look at the NAPLAN scores they suddenly take a dive…because all the best kids have gone.”

In terms of the socialisation of young people I think that's a real loss, because children don't get exposed to the whole variety of people that are in their community. 

Now that only a quarter of students attend school based on residence, the local school has diminished as a community hub. “It was where you met people that you lived near,” says Ho. “You were exposed to everyone who was in your local community, and that meant that poorer people, richer people, people from different ethnic religious backgrounds, different kinds of families, they would all be there in your local school.”

The result is schools that are increasingly socially segregated. “In terms of the socialisation of young people I think that's a real loss, because children don't get exposed to the whole variety of people that are in their community. They become more and more self-segregated, so you go to school with people who are like you,” says Ho. “That's not necessarily very useful in the globalised, cosmopolitan world that we're living in.”

'Testing Teachers' is a three-part observational documentary that will take viewers behind the school gate to reveal the struggles and success Australian teachers face in the schools of Australia's toughest communities. It follows six first-time teachers over the course of 12 months as they start their new career. Testing Teachers premieres on SBS on Wednesday 19 April at 8.30pm and will be available after broadcast, streaming anytime on SBS On Demand.

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath

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