August 13, 2017 Nic Rothquel

Should Selective Schools be means tested?

Recently the selective school entrance test has come under fire for allowing it to be ‘gamed’ through tutoring, therefore disadvantaging students from lower socioeconomic households who are unable to afford tutors.

The HSC has the same issue, but this is probably more prevalent because of the financial benefits of selective schools. I have known many families that have had a selective school as their first priority, with elite private schools as their back up option; so over 6 years of schooling it would be a difference of almost a hundred thousand dollars just in school fees.

The proposal by the state government is to change the format of the selective exam so that it tests generic skills rather than a test that can be learnt and rehearsed. The main issue is that any exam can be prepared for – they can’t stop students from preparing no matter how hard they try. Unfortunately the ability to prepare for an exam does favour wealthier families who can afford better support.

The other suggestion is to means test students based on household income. However this would probably work in reverse and discriminate against wealthy families, which I don’t see as any better. This will increase the divide – and my assumption is it will increase the number of students in the lower half working with tutors because they know they have a greater chance of finding success.

My suggestion would be to make the entrance exam a viva-voce of sorts; an interview where students are given random questions and need to communicate these responses back to the markers verbally. I would also include an section on persuasive writing, and rather than give them a booklet of 40 general ability questions, I would give them one unique challenging question that tests their reasoning ability and logic.

Of course, this is still not perfect. It neglects mathematical ability which is hugely important, and will favour students who are naturally outgoing and can communicate better over those who are introverted, but I think the ability to defend ideas and think critically is a crucial skill. This also becomes a bit more of a logistical challenge – with up to 15,000 students applying for entry every year, giving them the time and space to be interviewed fairly will be very challenging.

My guess is that in lieu of an ideal solution, nothing will change. The exam will remain as is – 3 x 40 minute exams plus a 20 minute writing section. The competition is fierce, but it is an exam that students can master with the right preparation. If your child is considering a selective school and you are fortunate to be in a position to help them achieve this through the support of a tutor, please get in touch today – selective school places are filling up fast.