Parents and students are currently making big decisions about next year.
Some will have just received or be about to receive offers of a selective school place for 2023. Other parents need to decide soon if they will apply for their children to sit selective schools tests next year for entry in 2024. Or if they should be looking at other high school options.
These decisions can seem overwhelming for families. What are some of the issues to consider?
What is selective school?
Selective schools are public high schools where students sit a competitive test to be accepted the year before entry.
They are mostly found in New South Wales, where there are about 50 schools. But there are small number in other states, including Queensland (years 7 to 12), Victoria (years 9 to 12) and Western Australia (7 to 12)
The pros and cons
Selective school places are highly sought-after – these schools feature prominently in the top schools for year 12 results. But they don’t have the fees of elite private schools.
Some students feel energised by the “best of the best” atmosphere in which they can focus and find similarly capable peers.
But there is an ongoing debate about whether they should exist in the first place. There is also an obvious focus on test performance, rather than the modern skills students need to learn such as collaboration, tech literacy and creativity.
And while academic streaming does seem to improve the performance of high achievers, it can harm the confidence of those who get in (as well as those who don’t). As Australian Catholic University education scholar Associate Professor Philip Parker has explained, selective schools can create a “big fish little pond” effect where students lose a realistic sense of where they fall within the full student achievement spectrum.
Even if students gain a place at selective school, they can find the competition counter-productive. Australian selective school students are increasingly speaking out about the mental health impacts of studying in a stressful, competitive environment.
Don’t forget tutoring
The Australian tutoring industry is huge, not just for parents seeking to improve their child’s performance in class, but in preparation for selective entry exams.
While the entry tests measure general literacy, maths and logic skills – and do not require study – many students undergo months or even years of expensive and often stressful tutoring to prepare.
A 2010 US study suggested tutoring and coaching for selective entry exams only had a moderate effect on student’s results, but this is far from conclusive. Given the competition to gain entry to these schools, students and their parents may be more confident knowing they’ve had tutoring. That confidence alone may improve their performance.
What should parents think about?
It’s understandable that parents might be confused. How do you know if the selective school is right for your child? Here are some issues to consider:
school culture: are the schools you are considering particularly competitive? Do they have an emphasis on other activities, away from exam marks? Do they encourage sport, music or creative arts? Do they emphasise mental health? Do they have programs to support students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse identities?
location: if your child is successful, will it mean a very long commute for them?
your child’s strengths: does your child enjoy school work and sitting tests? Or do their strengths lie in other, less traditionally academic areas?
your child’s temperament: does your child become anxious in testing situations, or do they enjoy the “performance” aspect of them?
your child’s opinion: is your child self-motivated to go to a selective school, or are you trying to convince them it’s “good” for them? If they are keen, giving them a chance – with the appropriate support – might help them decide.
tutoring: does your child want to do tutoring or exam preparation? Can you afford the fees and time if they do?
your child’s teacher: have you had conversations with your child’s teachers? Do they believe your child has the academic aptitude and emotional capacity to thrive in a selective school environment?
Daniel X. Harris receives funding from the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship scheme.