Breaking taboos on selective schools

Once a place for academically gifted students, selective schools have become what UTS Senior Lecturer Dr Christina Ho calls ‘bastions of inequality’.

One side accuses Asian ‘tiger parents’ of cheating by excessively tutoring their children into these schools. The other criticises ‘angry Anglos’ for being racist.

In an effort to make sense of the issue, Dr Ho interviewed students and parents at NSW selective schools.

Instead of just taking the traditional academic publishing path, Dr Ho worked with journalists calling for a public debate on the difficult topics of racism, parenting and class.

In the process, she captured the government’s attention.

In July 2017, NSW Department of Education secretary Mark Scott announced that selective school policies would be reviewed. In his speech, he directly addressed issues raised by Dr Ho’s research.

Dr Ho’s work shows that NSW’s selective schools are fostering ethnic and economic inequality with access skewed towards children who spend years in after-school tutoring courses.

Eighty to ninety percent of students are of a language background other than English with 95 per cent coming from well-resourced families.

As a selective school graduate from an Asian background, Dr Ho understands the anxiety migrant parents feel.

“Many fear their kids won’t have the same opportunities as Anglo-Australian students,” says Dr Ho. “This is due to their experience of discrimination and their lack of social networks. They see tutoring as the only way.”

Ultimately, Dr Ho hopes that in the future educational hierarchies symbolised by selective schools will no longer be necessary.

“Local public schools should provide opportunities for all kinds of students,” says Dr Ho. “It’s important for students to encounter maximum diversity, not only in terms of ethnicity, but also socioeconomic status, religion, ability, interests, and all the wonderful subcultures that make up our community. Exposure to all of these is an education in itself.”

Banner image: Students sitting an exam.

Case study

The Problem

Enrolment data suggests that selective schools in NSW are increasingly fostering ethnic and economic inequality. Access is skewed toward children who complete strategic tutoring courses.

The Response

UTS Senior Lecturer Dr Christina Ho conducted research with NSW selective school students and their parents to better understand the origins of the problem and influence the discussion.

What helped accomplish this?

Using government data and her own findings, Dr Ho opened a public media debate on parenting, race and social class in education. She raised awareness of the issues and what has caused this ethnic and socio-economic imbalance.

What has changed as a result?

Her efforts have created public pressure and sparked a government announcement on policy change, which directly addresses the issues in her research.


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