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Don't let schools lose their best

By Stephen Lamb - posted Friday, 24 November 2006

Both the Labor and the Liberal parties recently announced plans to increase the number of selective-entry government schools in Melbourne. Labor plans to double the number to four, while the Liberal Party will increase them to six.

Before the election campaign there was little discussion or debate about the policy. In their campaign announcements, virtually no rationale was provided by either party on the need for more selective schools. Yet setting up more separate schools for high-ability students is highly controversial. Any separation of students in schools that leads to differential treatment needs to be justified with clear and demonstrable benefits for all students.

So why introduce such a policy? What is the increase in the number of selective-entry schools meant to achieve?


Is it meant to help raise achievement standards in government schools? This could occur if more able pupils perform better in selective schools while pupils attending other government schools do not perform significantly worse. Comparisons show that selective schools do very well on achievement tests and have strong year 12 results.

This is evident from the experiences of the large number of selective schools in Sydney as well as those in Melbourne, which outperform other schools. This is not surprising given that the students are selected for their academic skills. There is a hothouse effect through pooling talented students. In such settings students may well benefit in terms of academic success.

However, there is a huge cost to students in other schools. French scholars sometimes describe talented students in mixed settings as "pilots". They contribute to the academic climate in classrooms, contributing to discussions and being role models. Other children learn from them. If you remove these students, it can have a marked effect on learning for the remaining students. If selective schools drain other schools of their pilots then the children who remain may suffer from the absence of more highly able peers, and under-achieve relative to their potential. More selective schools may well depress mean achievement.

This was the conclusion reached in a report released in 2005 by the American National Bureau of Economic Research. Cross-country comparisons of school achievement revealed that systems that separate students through selective schooling or streaming tend to have larger achievement gaps between students. The report also found that selective schooling tends to reduce mean levels of school performance system-wide.

Is the policy to increase selective schools meant to reduce inequity by extending opportunities for the talented poor? Theoretically this is possible. Selection into schools is based mainly on results from tests of academic aptitude, not on the basis of race or social background. Some students who make it into selective schools are no doubt from poor families not able to afford similar education in a selective private school. However, the record of existing selective schools in both Sydney and Melbourne is more one of social exclusion than social mobility.

The Vinson review of public schooling in NSW, for example, reported that selective-entry schools tend to be socially as well as academically selective. Not only are there far fewer applications from disadvantaged students, the success rate for such students is poor. There is also a large disparity based on race, ethnicity and language background. Children of East Asian origin tend to be over-represented, while those from Arabic, Indigenous and Pacific-Islander backgrounds are under-represented. Analysis of Melbourne's selective schools reveals the same patterns.


Rather than open up opportunities, selective schools tend to intensify social divisions. This is because when students are sorted on the basis of test scores they tend also to be segregated by race, ethnicity, and social class. Thus, there is a huge risk that extending the number of selective schools will enshrine a two-tier system of government schools: one set of schools for the academically selected, largely middle class, and one set of schools for the rest. In this situation, educational inequality is likely to increase.

Is the selective schools' policy meant to make government schools more competitive with private schools? Governments have expressed concern about the drift of students to private schools. It is a long-term pattern, sometimes associated with the belief that private schools do better in VCE. However, each year, when year 12 results and university entry rates are published, the selectives outperform all other schools, government and private alike. Expanding the number of selectives may increase the number of highly competitive schools, make the sector more attractive and even draw back some of the students lost to private schools.

There is a huge danger with this strategy, though. It is likely to establish a small group of schools that are competitive, but weaken other government schools that do well and marginalise the rest. Expanding academic segregation may well depress achievement in other government schools, producing a large group of residual schools that many parents and families want to avoid.

If the aim is to make government schools more competitive and more attractive to parents, a far more effective strategy is to improve the quality of all schools in the sector, so that all schools are gaining the most from their students. This means providing sufficient resources so that schools are well-equipped and ensuring that they possess the conditions needed to support quality teaching and learning. High-quality programs are one essential feature, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers another.

What is needed is a universal system of quality schools, not a system where some schools are stripped of their high-achieving students and drained of resources.

On all grounds, there appears to be little reason for increasing the number of selective-entry schools. The policy may provide some benefits for the minority of students fortunate enough to be selected. But it comes at a huge cost. Remaining schools will be left behind, drained of students and resources, exposed to greater gaps in academic achievement, and left struggling in the important task of trying to build community confidence.

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First published in The Age on November 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Stephen Lamb is associate professor in the Centre for Post-Compulsory Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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