‘Hubs of concentrated advantage’: selective schools need a rethink

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 July 2018.

In the debate about selective schools, personal stories and beliefs can drown out evidence, especially when that evidence challenges the status quo. So we hear plenty of anecdotes about the successes of selective school students, but relatively few about the students and schools they leave behind.

Our own stories help to illustrate the selective school system’s polarising impact. Around 25 years ago one of us graduated from a selective school with Year 12 results in the top 1 per cent of the state. The other was a principal of a comprehensive school at a time when the government decided to drop a selective school into the neighbourhood, skewing the enrolments of every school within reach.

Some students benefit from attending a selective school, but new evidence confirms the impacts on the rest of the education system are less positive. Our research, published today by the Centre for Policy Development, shows selective schools have become hubs of concentrated advantage that contribute to growing inequality within the education system.

Selective schools were designed to cater to high achieving students and this is what they do. In 2016 and 2017, almost half (45 per cent) of all Year 12 “distinguished achievers” from NSW government schools came from fully or partially selective schools. This is remarkable given that selective schools comprise only 11 per cent of all government secondary schools in the state.

Yet selective schools were also intended to provide opportunities to the brightest of our students wherever they are found and whatever their family circumstances. Our analysis shows this is not happening.

In 2016 and 2017, almost half of all Year 12 "distinguished achievers" from NSW government schools came from fully or partially selective schools.
In 2016 and 2017, almost half of all Year 12 “distinguished achievers” from NSW government schools came from fully or partially selective schools.Photo: Janie Barrett

Nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of selective school students in 2016 came from the highest quarter of socio-educational advantage. Only 2 per cent of students in fully selective schools came from the lowest quarter. This includes selective schools located in relatively low-income areas such as Penrith and Wollongong.

Socio-educational advantage, as measured on the My School website, includes factors like parental education and occupation. Families of high socio-educational advantage may not always earn the highest incomes, but are well endowed with educational and professional capital.

This concentration of advantage and achievement has a negative impact on other schools. Our research uses Year 12 results and My School data to track the “brain drain” from comprehensive public schools when selective schools are established nearby. Four partially selective schools opened in south-west Sydney in 2010. These schools increased their share of local high achievers, sometimes dramatically, while nearby comprehensive schools, and some Catholic schools, lost many of their high-achieving students. Many also experienced consistent declines in overall enrolment.

All this amounts to a system of institutionalised separation and growing inequality in NSW public schools. The irony is that NSW is also in the forefront of catering for high-achieving students online, via Aurora College. This virtual selective school allows students in regional NSW to stay in their local schools while participating in online units with peers from other schools.

The chances of securing much-needed improvement in student achievement are diminished when we aggregate the most disadvantaged students — whatever their background — in schools which are already struggling. At the other end of the scale, the benefits of aggregating high achievers can be a mixed blessing, if reports of stress-related mental health issues are any guide.

If we are to ensure schools are properly equipped to serve all students — then it’s time to rethink the selective approach.

The NSW government’s gifted education policy review needs to not just review admissions regimes but seriously examine whether selective schools in their current form serve the best interests of all our young people.

We can, and need to, provide an education system where parents of bright children can send them to their local comprehensive public school, confident that their interests and needs will be catered for, together with the interests and needs of all students, regardless of ability.

In turn, a diverse mix of students in our comprehensive public schools strengthens these schools. Not only do they retain their high-achieving students, and families committed to quality education, but they are better able to give all students the invaluable education that comes from learning side by side with peers from all backgrounds and of all ability levels. Gaining an understanding and appreciation of this kind of diversity is one of the greatest gifts that schooling can offer our children and our society.

Dr Christina Ho is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.