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Selectivity in schooling does not deliver

By Chris Bonnor - posted Monday, 12 July 2010

The recent focus on selective schools might promote thought about how we are serving up secondary schooling to our children. Some problems are visible, others are bubbling below the surface. Depending where you stand, any ethnic divide between selective and neighbouring schools may or may not be a problem. I don’t think it matters - there are bigger problems relating to selective schools and beyond.

In fact you have to feel a bit sorry for the selective schools. Apart from any apparent ethnic divide they are alternatively seen as a lottery-winning pathway to achievement and success; or a blight on the landscape of schools, gathering up the best and the brightest students and leaving everyone else to struggle.

Selective school teachers know about both sides. Like most teachers they work hard and deserve credit for their successes. Their principals are also aware their schools are served up an advantaged clientele - and they reject popular assumptions about good and bad schools. During the recent NAPLAN dispute they forthrightly objected to My School’s absurd comparisons (thank you, Julia) between their schools and comprehensive schools.


But our selective schools are New South Wales public education’s special contribution to a bigger problem: the growing social and academic divides between our schools created by wider selectivity in enrolments. In our era of increasing choice between schools we’ve allowed up to half our secondary schools to exercise some control over who walks in through the school gate each day.

In this broader sense, the biggest group of selective schools are the growing number of private schools. Leaving aside issues of purpose and necessity, the charging of fees alone is an inevitable way to sort school enrolments along social lines - and devices such as tests, interviews, scholarships and references are additional discriminators.

The results are also inevitable: in 1996 there were around 13 low-income for every ten high-income students in public school playgrounds. In 2006 there were 16 for every ten. The opposite trend occurred in private schools. Even Cardinal Pell has lamented the fact that Catholic schools have disproportionately become schools for the middle class.

But a number of public schools are also part of the problem. Apart from selective schools any high-demand public school has some capacity to pick and choose. Sure there are procedures, rules and zones, but my experience has been that little of this gets between a school principal and a desirable enrolment. It is hardly surprising that the high-demand public schools are in middle class areas. The My School website doesn’t say anything meaningful about good or bad schools, but it does begin to tell us who goes where.

Of course I’ll have to brace myself for howls of protest from the public schools which claim to enrol the mainstream and the private schools which claim to be inclusive and enrol the poor. I could wallpaper my room with newspaper stories about such exceptions.

And it isn’t that the past was some glorious era: we have always had schools which set entry tests, which catered for children from a particular faith or for whom any level of fees acted to exclude. The problem is that a much greater proportion of our schools are like this and reach deeper into each and every community.


The disciples of school competition and choice - and everything else which goes with quasi markets for schools - would say that none of this matters. But the jury is out: selecting kids for special schooling does not create a quality education system (PDF 5.67MB). And there is an increasing body of research and opinion which points to the social and economic costs of divided schools. It’s not only a matter of social justice - there are downstream economic costs in having a divided system of schools and a long underperforming tail. We urgently need to know the extent to which our hierarchical structure of schools is contributing to this tail.

This issue is about the balance between the private and positional good of schooling versus the common good. It is about providing advantage for some against the unmeasured and undebated cost to the rest. We can't afford to allow our schools to be agents for any social and academic apartheid. We have to reverse the long slow march away from predominantly inclusive schools, which were rooted in community and which, in their 100-year heyday, significantly cut across social divides.

As far as selective schools are concerned there may be an opportunity to extend access to selective schooling to all students while at the same time reducing the number of discrete selective schools. Following an initiative by the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council the NSW Government and education department has established an online selective school - students stay in their home school and community and access the selective school for portions of each school day. They also have some face-to-face contact with their selected peers.

But the large number of selective schools in NSW can’t be reduced unless we also reduce the level of selectivity in non-government schools. Public and private schools don’t exist on separate planets. One opportunity to do this lies in the Gillard government's review of school funding. We have a chance to seriously commit to funding based on the need and to reward schools, regardless of sector, which commit to inclusive enrolment practices.

Local public schools especially should be funded so they become a real and active choice for all children. Most of all we have to deal with the awful reality that we have a divided and hierarchical system of schools. It is simply not sustainable.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 8, 2010.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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