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Give academic excellence a sporting chance

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 7 April 2005

If ever there was an example of double standards in politics, then the recent announcement by Education Minister Lynne Kosky about establishing an elite sports academy in the western suburbs of Melbourne takes the guernsey.

Kosky is reported as agreeing to establish a specialist sports school, to be opened in 2007, on the basis that such a school would allow sports-minded students to train at the highest level.

One can only assume that existing government schools fail in this regard and that the Bracks Government now agrees that a "one-size-fits-all" approach to school education has failed. So much for the ideal of comprehensive secondary schools where the needs of all-comers are met with the same curriculum.


The contradiction, of course, is that while it is now OK to have a secondary school specialising in sport, where students compete for entry and where the curriculum is tailored to meet students' unique demands, the State Government has failed to extend the policy to the academic side of the curriculum.

Competition and excellence in sport is acceptable: unfortunately, the same incentive for academically able students is sadly lacking. Over the past 12 months, not only has Kosky withdrawn funding from the Government's gifted students program, she has also refused permission for schools outside the program to become involved.

Since the election of the Cain and Kirner Governments some years ago, Labor Party policy has consistently downgraded academic excellence and competition. The Victorian Certificate of Education, in its original form, was intended to promote greater equity and social justice by reducing the emphasis on competitive, graded assessment.

Given the policy of the state branch of the Australian Education Union, the Government's reticence when it comes to promoting academic excellence and specialist academic programs is understandable. The AEU is firmly opposed to gifted programs or allowing schools to compete for students by having selective entry.

The union argues that the school curriculum must be premised on co-operation rather than competition and that allowing selective government schools to pick the more able students will mean that other state schools will suffer.

Ignored is the reality that parents are voting with their feet and turning to non-government schools in the search for stronger academic standards and better examination results - especially at year 12, where 40 per cent of Victorian students now attend independent schools.


In Victoria, only Melbourne High School and MacRobertson Girls High School are fully fledged selective high schools where academically minded students sit an entrance examination for entry at year 9.

Compare Victoria's situation with that of NSW. There are 30 academically selective high schools in NSW and last month about 14,000 students sat examinations seeking entry to the school of their choice.

Not only do these selective high schools represent a strong, viable alternative to the NSW independent school system but, unlike the situation in Victoria, NSW selective high schools consistently outperform non-government schools at year 12.

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First published in The Age on March 31, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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