The inequity of selective schooling
Russell Degnan

"My question without notice today is directed to the Leader of the Government in his capacity as Minister for Education. I refer the minister to the government's decision to establish two new select-entry schools, one in North Melbourne and the other in Melbourne's east. I ask the minister: why is this Labor government promoting an enhanced, publicly funded education for a select few?"
- Hon Peter Hall (Eastern Victoria) . Legislative Council 17th July 2007

While it isn't true to say I hadn't heard of the proposal for more selective schools before chancing across it in Hansard last week, it is true to say I have hardly heard a word on the implications of opening new selective schools in and around Melbourne. In the context of a local media willing to print idiotic rants on private education, the lack of comment is perplexing and sad.

Because selective entry schools are a terrible idea. They capture all the socially regressive aspects of private schools with few of the benefits. Even more sadly, they are being implemented by a Labor party that should be socially aware, and pragmatic, instead of actively destructive.

While it may be too much to expect a politician to be anything other than facile during parliamentary question time, John Lenders, in his reply, was bordering on willfully self-deceptive in his defence of the elitist institutions he is creating. His reply was either irrelevant

"[...] but I do take exception to his comment that we are providing education for a select few. Victoria has over 800 000 students in schools [...]"

or merely very weak

"[...] there is a message coming from members of the community that they want choice within schools. They want choice between systems, and they want choice within systems. [...] About 2500 Victorians apply for entry to those schools at year 9, and the schools take about one-fifth of that number, so there is a great unmet demand from parents who are seeking select-entry school places for their students. They see and parents make these choices their child as a gifted student, and they want them to be able to study with other gifted students in the government system."

If they cared to listen I am sure the government hear a message from the community that they wanted a selected number of mansions built in the public housing sector too, but that is no justification for them. People want a lot of bad policies, particularly when they'll be the beneficiaries.

When Melbourne High and MacRobertson were founded there was some justification for providing select entry schools. Senior secondary school education was relatively rare, as were opportunities to go to university. Private schools were comparatively expensive. Subsidising talented but poor students had an important social value. But it is not 1905. Completing year 12 is not rare, and there is no compelling need to promote state school students towards a university education. If parts of the state system was not in such utter decay it would provide sufficient opportunities for talented students in every school.

But it doesn't which is why thousands flock to private schools. Which goes some way to explaining my real problem with selective entry schools. A subsidised private system is an economically sound idea, reducing the burden on the public system. The problem with a private system - bigoted opinions aside, but we all have those - is that it scoops up the talent in the form of parents and their children with high expectations, decent learning environments and an interest in improvement. This argument - while not wholly compelling - is the only worthwhile argument I've seen against an all private, voucher based system. That is, that private schools increase inter-generational and geographic inequality.

But does John Lenders care about this?

"He [Hall] should talk to the 200 families who choose, for example, to send their students to Trafalgar High School -- my old school -- which has a select-entry program. Students come from as far as Traralgon, which is 40 kilometres down the valley from Trafalgar from one way, and they come from Warragul in the other direction. They have a choice within the state education system where students in that instance attend a select-entry program at a school."

Fan-f**king-tastic for Trafalgar kids - Lenders' old school, funnily enough - and pretty fan-f**king-tastic for the kids and parents who got into it too. But what about the students still in Traralgon - my old school, funnily enough. A school with maybe a dozen students in any given year with a serious interest in academic excellence, surrounded by boundless mediocrity and apathetic semi-literates. Those dozen students are the only thing keeping Traralgon Secondary College from being a day-care centre for post-adolescent deadbeats killing time on Youth Allowance before they have to make the serious step up to bona-fide unemployment. Lose half of them, hell, lose all of them, and not only does the school lose its only intellectual beacons, it makes it that much harder for anyone of slightly more modest ambition trying to make the best of a horrible learning environment and a decade of hardly even benign neglect.

This is Labor's plan for state school education. Ripping the guts out of what's left of a decrepit failing system.

Worse, it is exceedingly likely the actual benefits will be limited anyway. It is already widely acknowledged that reasonably well off parents will gladly move house to get into the catchment area for a decent government school. It is a given, that any test of academic merit to determine future schooling opportunities - university being the most obvious example - will be worked over by an army of the best tutors and outside help money can provide.

Increasing the number of selective entry schools looks great when the statistics show a trend back towards state schools, and an increase in the average mark in that sector. But if it has come entirely from a shift from the private sector into elite state subsidised selective entry schools then you've merely shifted the cost burden back onto the state.

Peter Hall is right to criticise, even if his interest is in neglected country areas. Selective entry schools increase inequality and burden the state system with students it doesn't need to cater to. They do however make for better statistics and good photo ops. Any wonder the government likes them.

Sterner Matters 17th August, 2007 05:13:55   [#]