Selective schools a ‘ruse’

16 April 2018

Opinion Piece from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

Getting into a selective school is a bit like elite tennis in some Sydney circles: high pressure, worked-up parents, early starts, frequent practice sessions, expensive coaching regimes. Education was never intended to be a competitive individual sport; at the very least, it’s a team game. Great schools for every child – not just for selected students – are the only way to play fair in education.

As the leader of a system of 80 low-fee Catholic systemic schools in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, I share NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes’ concern that selective schools are failing our young people. The research is increasingly clear that separating students based on ability is bad both for those picked and those flicked. It doesn’t allow for learning growth, as any late bloomer can tell you. Fairness demands that we give every student an outstanding start in learning and life, regardless of IQ.

Selective schools can be a bit like gated communities. A recent study found that 74 percent of students at Sydney’s select-entry schools are from the most advantaged backgrounds. In fact, average fees at selective schools are five times more than the voluntary fees at other public schools. The ongoing and necessary scrutiny of the impact of school fees on equity in education must include selective schools too.

Lately we’ve seen press about extraordinary commutes by students eager to access selective schools (which are few and far between in Western Sydney). Another common criticism of selective schooling is that the hothouse culture results in student burnout. All this is even before we consider the equity issues associated with the rise of the tutoring industry. And what do the roughly 70 percent of children who are knocked back from a selective school aged 11 or 12 feel? How does that support their learning and their wellbeing?

If the purpose of school is to sort the sheep from the goats, I’m in the wrong business. Every child can learn, achieve and excel given the right learning and teaching. If school communities can’t deliver this, the solution is not removing ‘bright’ students but transforming learning and teaching for each student. The measure of the effectiveness of education should be how well we meet the needs of each child, whatever those needs may be.

So by all means, be selective about the school you choose for your child. But it should never be the other way around. Why not just reintroduce the dunce’s cap?

Greg Whitby AM

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


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