NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently announced a plan to build a new academically selective high school in south-west Sydney. The news generated a range of responses across the sector, from “great” to “disgraceful”. For Gina, it raises the question: is another selective school a solution, or does it just create more problems for our education system?
As someone who graduated from a top NSW selective high school not too many years ago, I have my fair share of opinions on the selective high schools debate.
The NSW Premier rationalised the decision by stating that there was “strong demand” for selective schools across the state, with only 4,200 spots available for over 15,000 applicants per school year. I believe one new school is a far too simplistic solution, and is an example of how education at a state and national level is failing to prepare students for a successful future.
With a significantly larger number of selective schools than any other state in Australia, NSW is a hot-spot for this debate. Let me set the scene.
A land down and under
Sadly, Australia performs poorly in global educational measures. A 2018 UNICEF report ranked Australia 39 out of 41 high-income, developed countries in terms of education quality. Australian students who took part in a UNICEF-led survey about the standard of secondary education suggested that it is too focused on training students to pass exams and assignments, rather than teaching skills and knowledge that will be valuable throughout life. And, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found Australian schools were significantly outranked by other developed nations such as New Zealand, Canada and Japan in science, reading and mathematics.
The good and the bad
Selective schools are good because they support high performing students with alternate education that helps them thrive. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that the announcement of the new school comes at the same time the state “government beg[an] overhauling the selective school entry test to make it less coachable and more equitable for students from lower socio-educational backgrounds and other groups that are under-represented.”
This is positive, but shouldn’t we be ensuring all students across NSW and Australia – regardless of their socio-economic background and urban or regional locality – are provided equal opportunities to engage in quality schooling? Investing a portion of state education budget to build one school in suburban Sydney fails to recognise the need to lift the whole state’s educational standards. For me, it feels like a superficial quick-fix without a broader view. And that’s bad.
Where are the transferable enterprise skills?
Research by the Foundation of Young Australians says the average 15 year-old today will have 17 jobs over 5 different careers throughout their lifetime. To face this shift in the world of work, students need to develop transferable enterprise skills, often called “soft” skills . And yet a new selective school does little to build these skills into the curriculum.
The dominant pedagogy of current secondary education centres on exam rankings to measure student performance. Many top NSW selective schools don’t offer Higher School Certificate (HSC) elective subjects which develop enterprise skills in students, partly due to the low ‘scaling’ impact subjects such as society and culture, drama, textiles and design, and languages have.
Selective schools typically preference academically rigorous, traditional subjects such as the extension courses in mathematics and English, and the sciences, because they ‘scale well’ and can reward students with higher overall marks. Additionally, in a time of increased globalisation, the importance of strengthening young people’s cultural knowledge and experience is clear. Yet, NSW’s secondary education is becoming increasingly monolingual, with only around 10% of students in NSW studying a language for the HSC. Is it possible that the selective school curriculum may disadvantaged students in some ways? As a former student of a selective school, I have my concerns.
This is all not to say that selective schools should be abandoned. Providing a platform for high-potential young students to realise their full potential has its place. But perhaps, instead, we need to focus on improving the existing systems, in ways that can benefit many more students.
Instead, I would like to see investment in ramping up the quality and standards of current schools – private, public and selective – across NSW. Let’s work to decrease the barriers to accessing quality education across the state. And let’s make sure our educational system and curriculum is aligned with modern trends; always looking forward, never backwards.