First, a disclaimer. From 2002 to 2007, I attended a co-educational, public, selective high school in NSW. I loved my high school, and thrived there – knowing, both as I did so and in retrospective musings, that I would have flailed (and, perhaps, failed) at a different type of high school.
So naturally, a piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “Selective schools ‘the most socially exclusive’ in NSW,” caught my attention. Public selective schools, the article suggested, were more “socially exclusive” than even the most expensive private schools in Sydney. Really? And more importantly, what does “socially exclusive” mean?
Researcher Dr Campbell’s claim that selective schools are “the most socially exclusive schools of any in NSW” is, to my mind, bizarre. The problem with the quote (admittedly, a consciously sensationalist one designed to attract debate – congratulations, it worked) is that it conflates familial educational background with social exclusivity; indeed, a parent’s education is one of the only markers of this type of exclusiveness. In conjunction with the educational background of parents, Campbell notes the high rate of “professional middle class” occupations of selective school families, and uses the ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) values from the My School website to provide evidence for his claims.
The sample size of selective schools profiled in the article is also worryingly small: of the seventeen fully-selective high schools currently operating in NSW, just six schools were profiled as to their ICSEA ranking. Of those six schools profiled, all are based in Sydney, and three are located in Sydney’s affluent North Shore / North Sydney region. Fully selective schools outside of the Sydney region and partially-selective schools were absent from the analysis.
Certainly, analysis of the ICSEA rankings on the My School website paints a picture of some class exclusivity. The Central Coast’s academically selective Gosford High School (full disclosure: my alma mater), for example, has an ICSEA value of 1155; less than a kilometre down the road, the non-selective Henry Kendall High School has an ICSEA ranking almost at the national average, at 1015. Up the road from Gosford and Henry Kendall, Narara Valley High School has a similar ICSEA value to their non-academically selective neighbour school, with 1007. Indeed, Gosford High ranks similarly to the neighbouring private grammar school (Central Coast Grammar: ICSEA of 1157), and significantly higher than private Christian schools (St Edward’s Christian Brother’s College: ICSEA of 1055; St Peter’s Catholic College: ICSEA of 1025). Increasing the opportunities for socio-economically disadvantaged students to attend academic schools is absolutely crucial, particularly for those selective schools within the public education system.
But as Alan Davies noted in Crikey, ICSEA itself is a problematic tool for measurement, as it examines the generalised socio-economic value of the school’s geographic area rather than the socio-economic status of individual students and families. Affluent areas, Davies argued, do not necessarily guarantee affluent student populations. ICSEA measures a geographical average rather than individual data, conflating the ranking of schools in socio-economically affluent areas regardless of the school’s specific economic profile. To again take the example of Gosford High School, the school’s ICSEA value was boosted by the unique commuting patterns of its students. Where local public schools derive the bulk of their student population from the immediate geographic area, Gosford High School students originate from the entire Central Coast region, including southern areas of Newcastle and some of the more northern suburbs of the Greater Sydney region. This is a trend seen across the state at selective schools, as indeed at other specialist public high schools and private schools. If such a school is located in an area defined as socio-economically disadvantaged, but has a commuting student population, the ICSEA ranking with inevitably be comparatively unreliable.
Social exclusivity, I would argue, cannot be delineated upon purely economic terms, particularly those that comprise of averages rather than specific profiling. One way that individual social background is measured is through English as Second Language (ESL) rankings, and here selective schools become statistically more interesting. Campbell admits that selective schools like James Ruse Agricultural High School are remarkably linguistically diverse, with 97% of students coming from an ESL background. To continue with the example of the NSW Central Coast school system, Henry Kendall High School and Narara Valley High School have ESL student populations of between 10% and 17%. In this regard, Central Coast private schools fare much worse: Central Coast Grammar’s ESL population is 4%, while St Edward’s ESL population bottoms out at just 1%.
Meanwhile, Gosford High School’s ESL students make up 29% of the student population – almost three times that of the neighbouring Narara Valley High School.
Selective schools are a crucial part of the public secondary education system. They cater for a particular type of student, just as performing arts high schools, sports high schools, and ESL high schools cater for specific student abilities and outcomes. But where specialist public high schools are exclusive in terms of educational or extra-curricular focus, private schools are exclusive in terms of social background; familial wealth and class rather than individual student capability, is often the barrier to receiving an education at these institutions. As the article itself concludes, ”A lot of the families who were sending their kids to selective schools tended to see some of the wealthier non-government schools as too rich, too privileged.”
Are selective schools exclusive? Yes, in some respects. The very nature of an entrance exam marks some exclusivity, and there is data to suggest that, in terms of socio-economic averages, some public selective schools would do well to consciously increase the number of disadvantaged students admitted to their school populations. But “the most socially exclusive schools of any in NSW”?
No. For that, you’d need to cough up the hefty fees of a private school education.