Selective high schools in New South Wales are those public secondary schools that enrol students who have achieved highly in annually-held, competitive and state-wide entrance tests. There are academically selective schools in the nongovernment sector also, but it is those in the public sector that are commonly known as ‘selective schools’. According to the New South Wales Education Department web-site (retrieved 4 May 2020) they ‘cater for academically gifted students with high potential who may otherwise be without sufficient classmates of their own academic standard’.
In 2020 there were 21 fully selective high schools in New South Wales. These include schools further differentiated according to gender and curriculum. Eight schools were single sex, four for girls, and four for boys. Four of the schools were ‘agricultural’ schools. There was one school that operated in distance mode, for students in rural and remote areas. A further 25 schools were mixed selective and comprehensive. There were also schools that selected students according to other criteria. These included schools specialising in sports or performing arts for example.
There were near 50 secondary schools in New South Wales in 2020 that were partially or completely selective. That number is more than those in the public systems of all the other Australian states and territories combined. In Victoria and Queensland for example there were only four selective schools in each. The reasons that New South Wales organised its public high school entrants in this way were idiosyncratic compared with the rest of Australia. Over the 150 years before 2020, NSW responded to the demand for public secondary schooling differently from other colonies and states.
Social policy and the selective school in society
The method of organising public secondary schools into selective and non-selective in New South Wales has been politically and educationally controversial since the 1950s. At the heart of the argument are different ideas of how ‘equality of opportunity’ should be defined and administered, and the degree to which the creation of a meritocracy [see Glossary below] through public schooling was considered socially and democratically defensible and/or desirable.
Selective schools are meant to offer opportunities for any higher achiever, regardless of their background, whether that be social class or ethnicity, or residential: urban, suburban or rural. Nevertheless, sociological research, historical and contemporary, has consistently shown a high proportion of students in selective schools are from more advantaged households. The characteristics of this advantage shift over time. Originally enrolments from white middle class Anglo-Australian protestant backgrounds were privileged. By the twenty-first century many selective high schools enrolled large numbers of students from Asian-Australian families.
This caused tensions as those Anglo-Australian families that had come to regard enrolment in the selective schools as their children’s right were no longer semi-assured of places. One strategy to maintain this enrolment privilege was to assert the right of younger siblings to selective school enrolment, following other family members. While controversy and conflict over the social fairness of selective schooling has existed at least from the mid-twentieth century, the new difficulties have occurred as a result of the competition between different ethno-cultural groups for places. There have also been cultural difficulties for the older selective schools as newer students have often shown marginal interest in the sporting competitions and other activities that once signified an elite education, and the social elite itself.
Historical origins of selectivity in public secondary schooling
The Australian states have distinct histories when it comes to public secondary education. New South Wales began public high schools and superior public schools [see Glossary] in the 1880s; Victoria not until just before the Great War (1914-1918). In Queensland the foundation of public high schools was also slow due to the earlier foundation of grammar schools established by colonial governments.
Middle class families in NSW were users of public secondary education early, from the 1880s. By contrast, in Victoria opposition to government secondary schooling at that time was so successful that private and church corporate colleges were able to monopolise post-elementary education, including access to the university. Different patterns of loyalty by the wealthier and professional middle class to government and nongovernment schools in each colony and state, grew as a result. Peel and McCalman (1992) were able to show how this worked, even through to the 1980s.
The first high schools in Victoria were usually in rural areas, protecting the enrolments of church corporate and private schools in Melbourne. Later the Labor Party campaigned in favour of greater educational opportunity for working class youth. More generally recognised was the necessity for more higher and technical education for youth generally as Germany and the United States successfully competed with the British Empire. Many more public high schools were established in all Australian states, including Victoria.
Public high schools In New South Wales such as Fort Street Boys (1911) and Girls (1911), Sydney Girls (1883) and Boys (1883), North Sydney Boys (1915) and Girls (1914), Hurlstone Agricultural High (1907) and James Ruse Agricultural (1959) were usually selective from their beginnings. You needed to pass end of primary school exams with distinction to achieve entry. The schools were meritocratic in character, not accessible to all. As demand rose for secondary schooling for all in the early twentieth century a parallel system was established for the ‘less clever’, the ‘less likely to succeed’ or those with aptitudes considered suitable for non-academic, technical or ‘vocational’ (one can often, but not always read ‘working-class’ here) education. These were the central, home science and junior technical schools. They attempted to meet the vocational aspirations of mainly working class youth (with home-making and, early on, domestic service for girls). This was the beginning of the great mid-twentieth century age of vocational guidance, usually based on intelligence tests, and schools were differentiated accordingly. Different schools were needed for youth with differently imagined employment futures and low or high IQs.
Soon enough these intelligence-based technologies of differentiation were criticised. They were trapping children at the age of 11 or so in schools that determined narrow employment futures. With the post-World War II expanding economy and baby boom, pressure built for more schools, and the possibility of secondary schooling that opened rather than closed opportunities. The age of intelligence testing was far from over, but the rigidities involved in some of its consequences were challenged.
A way through was the possibility of comprehensive secondary schooling. Comprehensive high schools would take in all young people from a defined geographical area (usually zoned) regardless of students’ prior accomplishments at primary school. The junior technical and domestic science schools would close. There should be no place for selective entrance high schools either. New South Wales, through its adoption of the Wyndham Scheme in the early 1960s was an early proponent in Australia of the comprehensive ideal, and the technical schools were subsequently closed. Harold Wyndham was the Director of Education in New South Wales whose 1957 report recommended that comprehensive secondary schools replace the previous differentiated system.
The Wyndham Scheme was conceived as an assimilationist and equal opportunity delivering project: one kind of secondary school for all children, regardless of student differences. (At the same time children continued likely to be streamed within these schools, partly on the basis of intelligence testing.) All high schools would be turned into comprehensives. All high schools would be comprehensive, unlike in Victoria and South Australia which continued their dual systems of academically oriented high, and technical, schools.
The Wyndham Scheme did not suit everyone. Old scholar and parent communities associated with the inner city selective high schools, such as Fort Street fought hard against the turning of their schools into comprehensives. Such schools had educated a large proportion of the professional middle class; many more than similar schools in Victoria.
Leaders in both Labor and Liberal parties, and leaders in business and the professions had loyalties to their selective entrance public schools, and often retained a powerful desire for their children to attend them. Many of these schools had been accepted into the sports associations of the elite non-government schools. For boys, playing cricket and rugby, or rowing, in these non-government school competitions meant that being an old scholar of a selective-entrance public high school brought a similar if not superior cachet to that of the elite non-government schools. Selective high students inevitably achieved stronger public examination results and consequently won high rates of entrance into prestigious university faculties. You only had to be wealthy enough, paying fees, for enrolment in most ‘private’ schools. For selective school entrance you did not have to be rich, only ‘clever’.
As the Wyndham Plan was progressively implemented in the 1960s, many of the high schools that had selective entrance, including Newcastle High for example, were converted into comprehensive schools. But not all. A rump of selective schools survived. They were usually close to inner Sydney. In the face of powerful opposition organised by old scholars and parents, with significant support from the professions and both sides of politics, Fort Street High, the four single sex Sydney and North Sydney high schools and the agricultural high schools, James Ruse and Hurlstone, survived as academically selective public high schools. They formed a surviving base from which new selective establishments could be justified in the 1990s.
Why the small group of selective public schools survived
In the 1970s and 1980s, two or three arguments shored up the acceptability of the surviving selective schools. One was that there were too few selective schools to diminish the effectiveness and success of the new comprehensive schools. Most comprehensive schools attracted, kept and provided new opportunity for academically able students living in the newer suburbs. Another was that the examination results of the selective schools brought distinction to the public education system. It was in the interest of public education that the ‘best’ schools in New South Wales were public schools. A third reason was an argument that these schools provided deserved opportunities for very clever working class children. The most important reason for the survival however was the political influence of social class-based communities that supported these schools .
The revival of the selective schools
In 1988 the Greiner Liberal-National Party government came to power. The education minister, Terry Metherell professed high regard for public education but clearly saw the instabilities and injustices in the existing arrangements. His reasonable question to ask was: ‘Why was it that the mainly middle class and professional families of the gentrified inner city and suburbs should have privileged access to the selective high schools?’.
Equality of access to the range of public schools across New South Wales demanded the closure of all selective entrance schools as envisaged by the Wyndham scheme. This was politically impossible. The alternative was to establish more selective schools. At the least such schools should be established across the outer suburbs of Sydney, and in Newcastle and Wollongong. The Greiner government accepted this argument. It was popular with many electors aggrieved by lack of access to what were considered the best public high schools. The Wyndham comprehensive project came to a halt and numerous new selective schools were founded, usually by the conversion of former comprehensive schools such as Baulkham Hills High in the northern suburbs of Sydney (founded 1970, selective from 1990) and Merewether High in Newcastle (founded 1977, selective from 1989).
When the Carr Labor government came to power in 1995, there was no return to the democratically accessible and assimilationist vision of the comprehensive high school. The Carr government’s contribution to selection in public education was to introduce new selective streams to several comprehensive high schools. Not only would there be selective schools, but separated, selective streams in new dual purpose schools. For example, Newtown Performing Arts High School not only had a selective entrance stream, but also enrolled local students in its comprehensive stream. Access to selective schools and streams occurred mainly as a result of a demanding selective school entrance examination held in Year 6 of a child’s primary schooling.
The only mild setback in this period of increased selectivisation of public secondary schooling occurred following the publication of an education report in 2002. In this period it was increasingly argued that the increase of selective schools and streams was contributing to the difficulties of the remaining comprehensive schools. The Vinson Report’s recommendation that the number of selective schools be reduced from 28 to 11 was swiftly rejected by both Labor government and Liberal opposition.
Access and equity in public secondary education
Historically, the professional and aspiring middle classes have been the most successful in managing their children in ways that ensured their access to academically selective schools. A prestigious and effective selective public schooling is worth competing for. The main thing that has gone wrong for the traditional Anglo-Australian users of selective schools in New South Wales from the late twentieth century is that migrant families, many from south and east Asia have been even more determined that their children win selective school and selective stream places. Students are often coached intensively, sometimes for several years before the entrance tests (Ho, 2020).
The selective schools and streams provide apparently clever students with places in a peer-group that, in theory and often in practice, enhance student motivation for school success. Routinely excluded are the young people thought to threaten parents’ aspirations for their children. Whether the young people come from families of recent migration or older groups, the peer groups in such schools and streams usually cohere around an expectation that they will enter universities, often aiming for the more prestigious faculties of the older universities.
With the rise in youth unemployment since the late 1970s, the anxieties associated with finding a school that may advantage a child have heightened, initially for the middle classes but increasingly for all. A market of schools has been fostered since the 1980s as federal governments have deliberately increased the number of nongovernment schools, and made access to them financially easier. State governments have introduced or re-introduced differentiation within the public schools (sports, language, performing arts, technology and visual arts specialisations for example).
The ideal of the comprehensive school, a common school with a common curriculum for all youth in a locality has not been sustained. Several became ‘failing’ schools, triggering a move to multi-campus secondary schools. A result of the new differentiations, and the difficulties of many comprehensive schools, was that some youth were spending many hours each day travelling to and from school, especially selective schools. Some pressure emerged in 2019 for the zoning of enrolments for selective schools. There already existed a hierarchy within the selective school sector. James Ruse Agricultural High School consistently won the race for the highest number of Higher School Certificate top results, this from the late twentieth century. One of the predictable effects of zoning selective places would be to increase the already substantial high real estate prices in suburbs surrounding the desirable schools.
The place of selective streams and schools within New South Wales is securely established. The rise of a schools market where differentiation, specialisation and the promise of securing advantage for a child within the public school system, let alone between public, private and other nongovernment schools appears to be popularly accepted. The argument is consolidated by the strength of lobbies among parents, educational professionals and a segment of university academics, that the clever academic child is at risk in ordinary or comprehensive schools. The gifted and talented curriculum movement has certainly pioneered such a path, as has the long-standing OC, opportunity classes, for ‘gifted’ children in New South Wales’ primary schools.
With its history of selective-entrance public secondary schooling, education policy in New South Wales has been the least likely to resist an expansion of selective-entrance public schools. At the same time, there is instability built into any such system of selection. An attempt was made in 2019 to address some of these issues in the Department of Education’s Review of Selective Education Access.
More of the urban, well-educated professional families of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong attached themselves to meritocratic/selective public high schools earlier and more consistently than the same social groups in Victoria and other states of Australia. In New South Wales there was a powerful constituency that successfully resisted the democratising comprehensive school movement of the Wyndham Plan in the early 1960s. The survival of a small group of selective schools in NSW, with strategic and loyal support from left and right in politics enabled the selective system’s rapid expansion from the 1980s, especially as public policy promoted a new enthusiasm for markets, not only in schools.
An early version of this entry appeared in The Conversation, 22 July 2019. The author thanks Dr John Hughes, Western Sydney University for his critical reading of this draft entry.
Superior Public Schools existed from 1881 to 1931. Originally they were ordinary public (primary) schools that had a secondary ‘top’ added to them, two years, then three. They were the first public schools in New South Wales to offer post-elementary education. Their fees were less than the public high schools which were founded from 1883.
The word meritocracy describes a particular kind of governing class or elite. It depends on the practice of selecting those who show meritorious ability, through public examinations for example, for leadership roles in economy and society. The word literally means ‘rule or government by the meritorious’. It was a concept that challenged other forms of governance based on elites or ruling classes who won their positions through family connections, racial, ethnic, political or religious associations, and social class membership (such as aristocracies or in Australia in the nineteenth century, the ‘squattocracy’. ‘Meritocracy’ and ‘democracy’ are not incompatible but the relationship is difficult, especially as sociologists have consistently shown that the cultural and educational practices of some social classes and other social groups are more likely to foster the achievement of ‘merit’ than others.