My former workplace in the news today

Not sure why, really, but the current lead story in the NSW news on the Sydney Morning Herald web site is Year 7 rethink for Sydney Boys. It is much less prominent on the actual newspaper.

One of Sydney’s top selective high schools could relax entry requirements to make it easier for high-achieving local students to enrol, in a significant break from existing policy.

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said he had received a proposal from the principal of Sydney Boys High for a change to its year 7 entry requirements, in an effort to boost the number of boys from the local area who attend.

Sydney Boys High, the oldest government high school in the state and alma mater of numerous politicians, judges and sportsmen, is one of 17 fully selective schools in NSW.

Competition for year 7 enrolments is increasingly fierce and based on an entrance exam and the child’s academic performance at their primary schoo

Fairfax Media understands the proposal involves relaxing the academic entry requirements for about 30 of the 180 places offered in each year 7 intake.

These placements would be offered to students who live within five kilometres….

There have also been repeated calls for a change to entry criteria at the school over the years by former students, including one to admit sons or grandsons of alumni, a campaign which was criticised for having racist undertones.

An article in the Old Boys’ publication in 2002, quoted in the Herald, stated: ”The demographic of the school are fast evolving and Year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby”.

The school principal, Kim Jaggar, declined a request to be interviewed.

As well he might, given the shit-stirring in the tail of that story, which refers to events I was very much part of in 2002: see my page For the record: the great SBHS race debate of 2002.

In my time, up to 2005, the geographical centre of the school intake was, rather like Sydney itself, somewhere around Strathfield/Ashfield, with many students coming from even further away. It seems this hasn’t changed.  Dr Jaggar has explained the proposal in the school newsletter — High Notes, Vol 14 No 12, May 03 2013 and High Notes, Vol 14 No 14, May 17 2013. Little arcane research was needed then for Fairfax Media to “understand” the proposal, which is currently getting ministerial consideration. To quote Dr Jaggar:

Over the last few weeks I have received 13 emails of support for the proposal from staff, with no negative assessments. There was a concern about how this action would affect local comprehensive school enrolments. My argument is that The P & C discussed and ratified the ‘Class by Local Selection’ proposal with 15 votes for and 4 abstentions. By email I had 5 messages of support. I received one letter from a student, Nelson Tang, opposing the proposal on the grounds of equity. He represented the views of around fifty Facebook friends. His main argument was that everyone, wherever they are in Sydney, should have an opportunity to access one of our 180 places in Year 7 by means of an open and fair competition in the SSET test. The counter argument is that politicians have opened up a large number of extra places in NSW schools over the last 5 or 6 years that were not there before. The availability of selective school places has become a political rather than an equity issue. He was also opposed to positive discrimination on the basis of where you reside, meaning people with the means to live near High were advantaged over those who could not afford to live in the area. This view is opposed by the notion that local communities need access to local schools. The population around High is growing rapidly but public education opportunities are static. Given that 30 possible places for local area students won’t do much to fix the problem, at least it is a first step. Another high school in the area is the long term solution for a growing population of inner city dwellers.

These issues were canvassed at the School Council Meeting, also held this week. The School Council unanimously supported the Proposal. The main benefits to High of having greater than the existing c10% of its students living ‘locally’ are that more students (and their parents)  may have more time to engage in the activities of the school. High has now developed an impressive infrastructure of facilities, resources, personnel and programs to accommodate 1,000 boys doing many activities. We produce all-rounders and we want to attract more all-rounders, or those who want to develop as all-rounders, to the school. As a consequence of this level of support I have written to the Director of Business Services requesting implementation of the proposal for the Year 7 intake of 2015.



Rough map showing the proposed drawing area at 5km radius

Now a bit of nostalgia for me: the 2006 GPS Debating Team winning against Kings at Kings. I had just retired by then, but I knew these boys. I was a debating coach.

25 May 2013

The story rolls on in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and there is even an editorial.

Selective high schools reward hard work and deliver strong results. Parents should not be punished for seeking the best for their children. But selective schools also raise problems of fairness, social cohesion and lost opportunity for students with untapped talents who don’t fit the increasingly rigid mould.

Policy makers in NSW need to rethink entry rules and boost the number of partially selective schools.

The latest push for change comes as the O’Farrell government considers a proposal from the principal and parents of the selective Sydney Boys High School.

It has the third highest entry test cut-off in the state. Rather than only accept students who score in the top 2 per cent of that one exam, the proposal would allow one-sixth of the SBH entrants to be students who fell short but live near the school and meet criteria for extracurricular activities, sport and leadership.

One suggested rationale is to help SBH more closely reflect its local community. Enrolments are overwhelmingly from out-of-area families of Asian heritage. But that alone is no justification.

Another is that SBH should fill the gap because the inner east has few comprehensive schools. Again, the government could build a new school.

But one concern, the narrowing of the school’s educational focus, is worthy of action. The entry test for SBH and other selectives laudably seeks out the most academically talented but misses students with other intelligences and talents. It also encourages cramming and tutoring not available to all children.

Entry requirements should be broadened to account for the local community, special talents and changes in student performance during high school.

In the SBH case, that might mean accepting local students who scored in the top 5 per cent but did well at music auditions, sports trials or community work. In addition, interviews would reveal much about a child’s true potential…

In 2002 the landmark report into NSW schooling under the chairmanship of University of NSW professor Tony Vinson found partially selective schools improved social cohesion. They could also deliver a ”rub-off effect” as selective and non-selective students enjoy high teacher expectations.

The inquiry conceded students in mixed schools could be labelled as either smart or dumb, doing neither any service.

Vinson suggested schools signal clearly through awards and leadership opportunities that all students are valued.

Most important, the system needed to increase mobility between selective classes and community classes to reward hard work and emerging talent.

While the Herald backed these principles at the time, it rejected Vinson’s call to scrap all but the seven oldest selective schools and force the others to accept half their students from the local community. Most of Vinson’s recommendations were not adopted.

In the past 11 years parental expectations have risen but the selective schools system has arguably narrowed.

So it is time to improve on Vinson’s vision. The government should consider changing the entry criteria for the state’s 17 fully selective and 25 partially selective schools. New partially selective schools could be created from comprehensives in areas where the most talented students are just missing out…

There are real issues around the way selective education and specialist schools of varying degrees of validity have metastasised in the past decade or two. The implications for the other public schools and for local areas have not always been good. It could well be argued that NSW was better off in the late 1960s and 1970s when comprehensive schooling was a reality.

There is a related story in the April 2013 South Sydney Herald.

Last year, community group CLOSE (Community for Local Options for Secondary Education) used the Sydney by-election to draw attention to the absence of a non-selective public high school option in the electorate. “This area has the densest population in Australia, all the public primary schools are full and the only local high school options are one hundred percent selective,” says CLOSE Director Skye Molyneux. “It made sense to get some political attention to this issue and push the government to reveal its plans.”

City of Sydney data shows that between 2006 and 2018 there’ll be an increase of 2,700 children in the 5-9 year-old age group and 1,200 in the 10-14 year-old age group. Yet, in 2001 the NSW government cited “changing demographics” and declining enrolments for shutting down public primary and high schools around Sydney. It ignored increasing enrolments in comprehensive public high schools and that tens of thousands of inner city dwellers would be piling into new apartments.

CLOSE has learned this demographic planning for schools was based on the assumption that all families moved to the suburbs when their oldest child reached the age of five and that no families would live in two-bedroom units. “This is simply not true,” says Ms Molyneux. “Many families now live in the city in apartment blocks and are looking for good public secondary education options for their children. The Department of Education’s outdated planning presets from the 1950s are no longer relevant and no one seems to be taking responsibility for the fact that our kids don’t have a local high school to go to.”

The “local” high school for inner-city families is currently Balmain High School, across Anzac Bridge and an hour’s public transport journey away. But Balmain High is full. The Department of Education and Communities (DEC) has said it will begin a consultation process, in term two this year, to alter boundary zones and redirect kids from Surry Hills to Alexandria Park. This is only a stop-gap solution, though, as DEC has already said Alexandria Park High will also be full in two years’ time.

Last year, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said there’d be a need for a new public high school for Sydney by 2016. If this is to happen, planning must start now, and this is what CLOSE has found lacking in all its communications with government. “There is an urgency,” says Ms Molyneux. “The kids who will need this high school are already in year 4. Cleveland Street High School is already built and in a good location. In the absence of any other ideas of locations from Piccoli, we want a feasibility plan done for this so it can become a local comprehensive high again.”…

Good planning is the key to good government. Yet, as far as public education is concerned this is sadly lacking. In Ultimo, last year’s Census data showed more than 500 children under the age of 2 living in the area. The local primary school option is already full, even though in 2007 local MP Clover Moore asked in parliament what planning was being done to manage the demand. In 2012 Adrian Piccoli proposed selling the site to developers as a solution with the requirement that a primary school would be built as part of the high-rise development. Community outcry stopped this and the government has set up a working group of council, DEC and parents to look at future options.

If public schools are to compete with non-government schools and be diverse, vibrant centres for learning and our young people, governments have to start treating education budgets as an investment rather than a cost centre. All future urban planning and residential development assessment must recognise that increasing population densities be accompanied by the provision of adequate sites for public schools, both primary and secondary school. Segregating and separating high school students based on family fortune or academic performance goes against any notion of equity.


2 thoughts on “My former workplace in the news today

  1. Neil, I think that this weekend is the annual SBH visit to TAS. It seems (is) a very long time ago since I played football against the school.!

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