Selective High Schools

I hear Sydney Boys High School has requested the right to take on some more local students.

As a former educator, parent and once upon time student, I feel quite strongly about academically selective public High Schools. In fact I think that, as they have been established for many years, they are an educational negative for the great majority of children.

If High Schools were, in the later years, selective only as far as subject choice were concerned, this might have some merit. For example some schools might provide Latin and Ancient Greek for all those in the region who want it. Others might provide Japanese and Indonesian. Some might have a technological bent. This would provide students with more choice at an appropriate age. Selection of children by a limited written examination to try to find the most academically able at the age of 12 or younger is fraught with problems.

This opinion has been informed both by my experiences and from academic literature.

As a child I went at the age of 10 to an OC class. I then moved on to an academically selective all girls High School.  But by far my best educational experiences occurred when, after a move to the country for my father’s work late in Year 7, I attended (very reluctantly at first) what was then a small co-educational Central School. After a year or two it morphed into a full High School.  I learnt there that boys thought differently to girls on some issues such as what made a book a good book, (i.e. it may not necessarily be a Jane Austen). I learnt that some people who did not find learning easy, had occasionally fantastic but always interesting views on life and living. I learnt that sport and sewing and woodwork could be aspirational, not just enjoyable past times. And I learnt to learn for the joy of learning, not because it looked like a smart thing to do or because I was praised or spoon fed by my teachers.

When I arrived back in the big smoke to go to University I met up with some of my old friends from my previous schools. I felt that I had become a more rounded, understanding person than I had been when I previously knew them and I also found I could hold my own academically at Uni despite my lack of a start at a specialist academic High School.

Later I lived, as a mother, in a part of Sydney that sported selective High Schools. I feel for some of the parents living near Sydney Boys High as I was presented with the same problem. None of the nearby co-educational comprehensive schools were available to my children as we were out of their area.  My children wanted to go to the same school as most of their friends. They were lucky enough to be academically able children and I did not want them to be at a single sex school where all the other academically able children, including their friends, had been moved out. Therefore I went with their wishes and they attended single sex selective high schools.

The academic education was excellent and the teachers were on the whole extremely good and caring. It appeared, at the time, that the students quite enjoyed themselves. But to fill a school with children, particularly with all girls, who are all of a high intelligence and motivated to learn is a recipe for disaster for many. It can become competitive rather than co-operative. The children put pressure on themselves and one another, pressure which they seem to find it hard to lose later in life. They cannot help but absorb, perhaps only temporarily, some of the elitist values that this exclusiveness can only but foster.

Examples of this were that overtly, in those days anyway, the noble profession of teaching was regarded as not intellectual enough to encourage them to enter. Some of each of my two daughter’s friends left school early or had breakdowns. Sport was undervalued. This did not seem to be quite as bad in the boys’ schools. Perhaps this is because boys, in my experience, are slightly less inclined to put this type of pressure on one another.

All my children have sought out or plan to seek out a public, non-selective educational environment for their children. But such is the pressure that one of my daughters found her eldest son was only one of four children from his large primary school who did not sit the exam for a selective school.

After having done some work in country High Schools, outer city High Schools and non – grammar schools in London, it became clear to me that bright children can get much support and help in these more comprehensive schools and they can make very good community leaders there.

These have been my personal experiences.

There are many arguments that can be produced intellectually to back or to knock the concept of selective public schools. But I think we really only have to consider one.

Life is not selective. We meet and deal with people from all walks of life in most jobs and in other areas of living. The great majority of all people have some value to add to life, something from which we all can learn. What a deprivation it is to take intelligent children out of this learning experience at an important formative age just to learn academic facts and processes that they can and will continue to have opportunities explore for all of the rest of their long lives.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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