Key point missing in selective schools debate

Brent Michael July 19, 2018

Those who seek change by diluting or dismantling selective schools surely bear the persuasive burden of showing compelling reasons in favour of such a proposal.

In their report Institutionalised Separation, university lecturer Christina Ho and retired school principal Chris Bonnor aim to show that selective schools benefit the privileged. The problem is the conclusions in the report are based on defective criteria. The authors rely upon the proposition that 73 per cent of selective school students came from the highest quarter of “socio-educational advantage”.

Students sit the selective high school test.

Photo: Andrew Taylor

Not socio-economic advantage, but socio-educational advantage. Just what does that mean? “Socio-educational advantage” refers to the “Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage” for which schools are given a score that is reported on the federal government’s My School website. Crucially, that index does not measure parental income or wealth. Rather, it is calculated based on parental education, parental occupation and school geographic location.

Plainly, this is a deeply inadequate means by which to assess equality of educational opportunity. As is well known, many parents of children at selective schools are immigrants. Those parents often hold tertiary qualifications. But many arrive in Australia with limited English, very little wealth, and in effect start from scratch. Many such parents initially work in difficult jobs which do not allow them to use the qualifications they hold from their former country.

Tellingly, the report does not examine any data on these matters or on the economic circumstances of children attending selective schools. Evidentiary selectivity such as this offers no credible basis for serious policy thinking.

In fact, there is good reason to think that dismantling selective schools would actually benefit the privileged. The primary beneficiaries of such a move would be private schools — and those who can afford them. At the moment, the top selective schools thoroughly outperform private schools at a fraction of the cost to the student. Of all private schools in NSW, only Sydney Grammar and Ascham made it into the top 10 schools in last year’s HSC results. It seems likely that if selective schools were removed, private schools would take their place as the best performing institutions.

Similarly, the idea floated of “opening up” the few schools that remain fully selective to those within their local areas is a mistake. The areas in which selective schools are situated are already relatively affluent. This would only intensify under such a policy, which would drive up property prices. It would not benefit those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who often travel from outside the locality to attend.

The cost of tutoring is also a red herring. Many immigrant parents work exceptionally hard so they can ensure first and foremost the education of their children. Such parents know this is the surest path to advancement and regard those costs as a worthwhile drop in the bucket relative to the long-term gains of entry. We should not from an armchair be telling those parents that they cannot have the benefits of selective schools because the cost of tutoring is too much for them.

Selective schools are ladders of great social mobility. I have seen through friends and acquaintances how they offer a meritocratic pathway for students with a particular willingness and ability to learn who cannot afford to attend private schools. There are good reasons to think that removing them would increase economic stratification. We should therefore be cautious about diluting or dismantling selective schools without a sound evidentiary basis. None has been offered to date.

Brent Michael is a Sydney barrister and a selective school graduate.