Why comprehensive schools matter

By Greg Whitby, 27 April 2017

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

It’s been argued recently that while we continue to have three school systems operating in Australia (government, independent and Catholic), we will always have inequality in education. This argument is framed in terms of expenditure vs student outcomes.

I don’t believe inequality in our education system comes from having government, Catholic and independent schools co-existing in our communities. There are many examples of local government and Catholic schools in low socioeconomic areas where students are achieving outstanding learning outcomes. We are fortunate to live in a country that can offer parents choice when it comes to schooling.

No, the real inequity in our education system lies in the selective school model that systematically skims the best and brightest students out of local government and systemic Catholic schools. It is probably no surprise that last year’s top four HSC high schools were all selective where the majority of students come from the most advantaged backgrounds.

Gaining a place in a selective high school has become high pressure and high stakes. It is akin to elite sporting competition with parents paying to have their children tutored from Year 3 onwards. In certain areas of Sydney, there are coaching schools that cater to opportunity class and selective school exams. This creates a hothouse culture where the love of learning is replaced by a fast-track formula for success.

On the other hand, educating students within a broader learning environment like comprehensive schools can be incredibly beneficial and rewarding for students including the most gifted. A comprehensive environment aims at challenging each student based on their ability through quality teaching and diverse learning experiences.

All schools are meant to reflect contemporary Australian society not academically engineered versions of it. While the concept of selective schooling may be appealing to some parents and students, the practicality is that it reduces diversity rather than builds it.

My advice to parents is by all means be selective about the school you choose for your son or daughter – it should never be the other way around.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

Published 27 April 2017

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