Selective school students: 'tired of being told we are undeserving'

April 10, 2018
Yan Zhai defends selective schooling and believes there should be more selective schools. Photo: Supplied

Selective school students are dispirited. We are tired of being told that we are undeserving of our achievements, the hot-housed products of coaching. We are tired of hearing the common arguments against selective schooling – that it widens the wealth gap, that it favours a small elite group of students and that it ultimately does not raise the standard of education.

Ultimately, whilst these arguments are valid, it paints an overly simplistic picture of the selective school experience.

My selective school is a unique environment which fosters my personal development in myriad ways. It is an experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. The Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, is right: teachers and principals are equipped to handle a range of abilities at all schools. The Catholic Education director, Greg Whitby, is also right: “We need to build a robust learning community and invest in building that capacity in everyone”. But the true value of selective schooling lies not in the educators, but in the other students – the other bright, passionate and proactive individuals that surround you. That is why students are willing to sacrifice a bit of time here and there to attend these schools.

Selective schools are unique environoments.

But of all these many digs at the system, it is the criticism of coaching and its role in the selective system that perhaps hurts most. The ethics and validity of the coaching industry can be questionable, but it is unfair to question the intellect of the students who use it and to suggest they have somehow secured a place at a selective school they would not have won without it. These students value education so highly that they want to spend time improving and challenging themselves beyond the classroom. Their diligence should be praised not vilified.

Some have suggested that coaching allows wealthy parents to give their students an unfair advantage in the entrance test. However, this overlooks a key fact about the selective school cohort: a large proportion of selective school students are the children of migrants who speak fragmented English and had to build a new life from scratch while attempting to assimilate their children. These parents are often not wealthy but make the choice to invest the money they’ve earned into their children and their education.

These children did not have the privilege of being able to go home and ask for homework help from their parents; they may have even spoken broken English themselves and have had to overcome a range of obstacles.

Rather than a testament to privilege, the level of coaching speaks volumes about the dedication of these families and the level of sacrifice they are prepared to make for a prestigious education and the social mobility it brings.

In my own case, I attended coaching in primary school to prepare for the selective test. My parents were professionals in China but worked blue collar jobs in Australia. Unable to directly help me with school work (due to broken English and busy work schedules), coaching seemed to be the best option to make sure I was not being left behind. Lessons were one, three or even eight hours long - but my parents waited outside no matter how long they were because it was important that they invested just as much as I did.

I would be appalled if the current system of selective schools were to be altered to cater for students with slightly higher IQs over those who have poured their time and effort into education. It would be an even greater shame if selective schools and the type of environment it offers were to be overhauled completely.

Perhaps it is time to shift our way of thinking: instead of questioning why great opportunities exist for a select few and why students want to take advantage of them, question why they are not available more locally.

Selective schools are not the problem, but simply a model that should be replicated more often throughout the state.

Yan Zhai is a Year 12 student at North Sydney Girls High School.