Selective schools should reflect wider society

William McKeith July 20, 2018

We are a community that continues to promote separation and intense competition among young people. The debate on the merits or otherwise of academically selective schools highlights this.

We hang on to intensely selective schools, to rigorous academic grading, to defining one another by way of vertical, power-based structures. But is this what we want? We must weigh up the advantages of such a system against those offered by a system that promotes integration, acceptance and co-operation. NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes is right to initiate a public debate on these guiding principles.

Parents should be selecting schools for reasons that go well beyond academic results and published performance on NAPLAN.

Photo: Craig Abraham

I remember writing a letter for an anxious family supporting the application for entry of a young primary school student to an inner Sydney selective school. This year six student was on the autism spectrum, high functioning, with an extraordinary passion for history. The child was often seen alone around the school, head in some thick history tome: McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, or Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The student’s writing was terrible, almost illegible. Standing in front of a class, the student could engage fellow students with tales of political intrigue and enthralling, gripping stories from across the globe, throughout time.

The selective school required the child sit the standard entrance examination and despite my letter and my further attempts on the child’s behalf, enrolment was soon rejected. I guess they couldn’t be sufficiently flexible to recognise the contribution this student could make to the culture of the school, the classroom, to fellow students.

There are many similar stories that those of us who have managed schools can tell. I recall when I was principal of a large metropolitan high-fee-paying comprehensive school with a reputation for diversity of student intake, unusual for such schools at the time, I received an application for entry from a student who lived on the other side of Sydney.

I thought the travel distance was demanding on the child and I questioned the parents about this. They told me that their daughter was one of twins and the other twin had been accepted into the mother’s old school through a rigorous examination process. The school was effectively screening out less able students. In practice it was a selective school. The young girl under discussion in my office had failed to perform as well as her twin on that examination and was knocked back for entry. The parents were seeking another option that would welcome and accept their daughter. The family would make arrangements to transport her across the city, if necessary. One has to wonder how often parents face a dilemma such as this, which puts extra strain on their families and on the relationships within them.

Increasingly, we appreciate that much of the true value in a school experience derives from the subtle, the less quantifiable qualities – the human interactions, sometimes referred to as the values within "the hidden curriculum". Parents should be selecting schools for reasons that go well beyond academic results and published performance on NAPLAN. A well-rounded, happy child, empathic, wise and capable with a range of future opportunities is the outcome desired by most of us. A balanced exposure to the broad human condition is essential to this process. At one level, within the wider community, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is an emerging beacon for many of these qualities.

Fortunately, we continue to question and re-evaluate the way we structure our community groups, including our schools. But more needs to be done to affect structural change in our schools. If we are going to retain selective schools, they must be required to accept a proportion of possibly local students that could not otherwise gain entry. A wider range of entrance measures is needed.

And any non-government school, including those that are selective or partially selective, which accepts government funding must have that funding tied to broader entrance requirements - including acceptance of a percentage of students classified by the government as requiring special purpose (special needs) funding.

As much as possible, schools should both reflect the wider society and point society in the direction that we are seeking for our communities. Our young people will provide the leadership, the role models, the guiding principles, for our future community. For the education benefit of all enrolled students, a wider field of young people must be welcomed in all schools.

Dr William McKeith if a former school principal and now managing director of Schools Active Worldwide schools consulting.