Inside Story

Selective schools, a problem that could become a solution

The rising number of selective government schools is harming other students. But could those schools become part of a better solution?

Chris Bonnor 7 February 2023 1901 words

Any evidence? NSW premier Dominic Perrottet (left) and education minister Sarah Mitchell recently announced yet another selective high school. Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image

Amid all the talk about school reform three things stand out. First, most existing ideas for improving schools have already had a run. Second, while many of them are good ideas, they don’t seem to have improved overall student achievement. And third, our framework of schools — where and how we provide and resource them, who goes where to school, and what still needs fixing — is rarely mentioned.

Nothing illustrates this better than our addiction to selective schools. It’s mainly a NSW phenomenon — with almost fifty of them, the state is on a frolic of its own. (Victoria, by contrast, has four.) For years, the claimed benefits of selective schools have been convincingly contested. Yet successive NSW governments and the education bureaucracy have ploughed on regardless. Many of these schools now resemble monocultural refuges for students from well-off families.

The choice of location for new fully and partially selective schools is also a puzzle. They do tend to appear in places where high schools have lost enrolments, but the announcement in 2018 of a new selective school at Leppington appears simply to have been a “captain’s call” by the then premier, Gladys Berejiklian.

The decision to create a new mega-selective school at Westmead, west of Parramatta, illustrates the lack of any real rationale. If the hype is to be believed, it will be a beacon of opportunity for high-achieving students in Sydney’s west. In reality, unless it is radically different from other selective schools, it will have to look elsewhere for students. The pool of high achievers in the comprehensive schools in Sydney’s west and southwest — raided for decades by their neighbouring selective, part-selective and private schools — has all but dried up.

What happens when a new selective school or a selective stream is established? Data from the My School website and the NSW Education Standards Authority make it possible to track the progress of newly formed selective schools and the fate of their neighbours — particularly in the case of part-selective schools, which are more likely to draw students locally or regionally.

In southwest Sydney, where six part-selective schools have been created over the past thirty years, the new schools, together with local private schools, have stripped most of the neighbouring schools of their high-achieving students, increasing the achievement gaps between local schools. The number of what are called “distinguished achievers” in the NSW Higher Education Certificate results has all but collapsed in many of the neighbouring comprehensive schools, and the achievement profile of the selective schools and most private schools has risen.

On the surface, and in the inevitable league tables, the quality of some schools appears to have grown while the quality of others has declined. But it’s not about the quality of the schools — there’s no shortage of stories about school innovation and achievement in Sydney’s west. All we have seen is a shift of academic higher-achievers to schools more able to choose whom they enrol, creating two classes of schools and two classes of kids. In school education, this local story is also the NSW story — and the Australian story. A lot of movement, but no overall improvement.

A closer look at three local areas — Liverpool, Fairfield and Camden — highlights the increasing gap between local secondary schools. In 2006, eighteen government schools accounted for 54 per cent of local distinguished achievers, and seven non-government schools accounted for 41 per cent. By 2021 just four of the government schools, now well-established as partial-selective schools, accounted for 20 per cent of the local distinguished achievers, and the fifteen remaining government schools accounted for just 25 per cent. More than half (53 per cent) of the local distinguished achievers attended a larger number of private schools.

Over the same period, the number of the most advantaged students declined in more than half of the areas’ comprehensive public schools, especially in Liverpool, and those schools have ended up with a much higher proportion of the least advantaged students.

Robert Mulas, a previous principal at Fairfield High School, tells me how, as the number of students declined, “so did the ability to provide a wider range of subjects to those students.” Roger Berry, another principal, relates how his school, Camden High School, struggled to maintain its strong results — “the data showed that our disadvantaged student enrolment was growing” — and how some of the teaching staff “found it difficult to accept demography had changed and as such we as teachers needed to make adjustments.”

Despite the best efforts of principals and teachers, academic results fell in both those schools.

Another school, St Johns Park High, experienced one of the sharpest falls in headline student achievement. Yet the school’s results had been improving outstandingly as recently as 2015, according to the Department of Education’s Centre for Statistics and Evaluation. In that year, more than 90 per cent of St Johns Park students came from a non-English-speaking background, and more than one hundred were refugees. In 2014, according to the then principal Sue French, the school “had five students with ATARs over 99, fifteen over 90, and 146 out of 170 students received a university offer.”

Who goes to which school, and whom they go with, really matters. One of the significant findings of the 2012 Gonski review was that concentrating students from certain socioeconomic groups within different schools has a noticeable impact on the educational outcomes achieved by all students at the school.

This is sometimes called the compositional or peer effect, and at one level it is hardly new: it has long been articulated by teachers who know that the learning culture and academic focus of students can vary from one cohort to another.

A student’s peer group has two impacts on learning. The first is relatively direct and generated by current peer behaviour or outcomes. Teachers know how student engagement and behaviour (and misbehaviour) affects classroom management, time-on-task and the attention that can be given to individual students.

The second impact comes from the wider context. A child’s peer group affects their identity, their post-school aspirations and their motivation to learn. It can also have a powerful effect on the curriculum, in terms of both subjects offered by a school and how lessons are pitched. This effect can make it harder to engender a shared sense of the value of education, and is intensified when resources, including teachers, are in short supply.

Australia is increasingly aggregating strugglers in disadvantaged schools, making it harder for formerly high-profile schools like Roger Berry’s Camden High to maintain their academic success. The prospects of such schools completely restoring their previous academic reputations have simply walked out the door.

Yet the impact of peers on student learning hasn’t filtered through to the policymakers. The final report of the recent Productivity Commission review of the National School Reform Agreement made several references to the peer effects and the impact of concentrated disadvantage on student achievement. But the closest its findings came to discussing this impact was the lame statement that “students from priority equity cohorts can lack access to an inclusive learning setting that supports their learning needs and wellbeing.” In systems distorted by selective schools, students increasingly lack that access.

There is another reason for us to be concerned about the impact of selective schools. In response to the NSW government’s Westmead announcement, the Sydney Morning Herald’s education editor reminded readers of a 2019 government plan to identify genuinely gifted students and extend them outside the selective school system — and “to widen the definition of gifted from purely academic, and acknowledge all sorts of talents.”

This isn’t a new idea. Twenty years ago, Tony Vinson’s inquiry into NSW secondary schooling questioned the definition of giftedness, arguing that selective schools were simply enrolling well-off children of above-average ability. A more recent paper showed that the schools overwhelmingly enrol students from very advantaged backgrounds.

The government and its education bureaucracy need to review the role, scope and impact of selective schools and how they might better reflect what we know now, rather than what we assumed a generation ago. This means going back to the drawing board, to the basics of how to best support all students with particular gifts and talents — and the role of selective schools in any new structures.

In New South Wales, the government shouldn’t wait for the outcome of any such review. It should immediately turn the Westmead proposal into a pilot project, using an entirely different approach to serving gifted and high-potential students — one that will reach out to suitable students, and not just high test-scorers, across west and southwest Sydney. Such a project can draw on existing best practices in innovative schools, including features of the learning design already implemented in Big Picture public schools in New South Wales and other states.

Rather than gather selected students into exclusive settings, the Westmead school could offer special classes for students, mainly in year 11 and 12, who would come from participating public high schools for a designated time each week. (Obviously this requires coordination, but there are already schools that run a four-day week for senior students, creating a full day for them to complete courses in other places.)

Participating students would be chosen by their home school on the basis of their curriculum, their related interests, and their capacity to pursue these in a supportive and partially structured program. Westmead would be a coordinating and administration, as well as teaching, centre. Its staff would include specialist teachers. Together with other professionals and chosen Westmead precinct employees, they would develop mentoring relationships to support participating students. As an additional professional learning bonus, some teachers in the home school could accompany their students and work alongside the Westmead specialists.

Most students would complete the same subject requirements as if they were in their home school, but would also have online time with their Westmead teachers and mentors. Most would choose to meet requirements for the HSC and ATAR, but they would also gain greater access to early and/or portfolio entry to tertiary education, again an increasingly common pattern today.

Schools in western and southwestern Sydney are hardly beginners in establishing links with other providers, including universities. Many have been innovators in this field for decades and have long had links with local businesses. Students in schools like Liverpool Boys High undertake internships in the community. Student research and mentoring form part of the reason for their success.

For decades the discourse about catering for high-potential and gifted students has been about either doing so within every school or shifting selected students to separate schools. This is a false binary, and better pathways can be created with a mix of both.

The mixed model would also create wider access to highly skilled teachers. For understandable reasons, comprehensive schools have a broad curriculum, and many have lost subject specialisations. They won’t easily get them back, and teachers are in short supply. A reshaped Westmead school could potentially revitalise comprehensive schools.

It could also take the heat out of the debate about selective schools. For years, discussion has been closed down out of a fear of what would happen if the schools were, in fact, closed down. Public education would lose its high-profile battleships, students would shift to private schools, disruption would reign. A successful Westmead pilot would open minds to different ways to reach a much larger range and number of high-potential and gifted students. •