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The Sydney School System, from the top (of my head)

One of my work colleagues has recently moved to Sydney, and was asking me about schools. Public? Selective? Catholic? Private? The second greatest topic of conversation in our blessed city after housing. There are no good answers; I think the most I can contribute is a biased, almost completely unresearched and probably fundamentally incorrect take on why it's such a mess.

In the before times, there were three systems. If you were rich, you went to a fancy private school; in such times, this was tautological. All private schools were fancy. Otherwise, if you were Catholic you went to a 'systemic' Catholic school for a smaller amount of money, and if you were neither rich nor Catholic you went to your local government school.

Then, the systemic Catholic schools started running out of money as the nuns and monks aged out and they couldn't afford to actually pay teachers, so they extorted the government of the time into funding them since it would be cheaper to do this than accommodate all their students in government schools. That Catholic schools were now being staffed by less religious people - along with the changing nature of society generally - meant that parents from all backgrounds could now avoid their local government school if desired.

Moreover, for fairness, government funding ended up being extended to all privately run schools. As disposable incomes grew, more and more people were faced with a real choice about where to send their kids. This put the government system under competitive pressure and into a nasty feedback loop: the more that motivated parents took their kids out of the public system, the fewer motivated students there were left. Moreover, for every decrease in motivation and increase in behavioural issues, the more teachers were tempted to leave the public system and apply for positions at private or Catholic schools. As those schools could soon offer comparable or more money - and had more flexible hiring polices - they had a tendency to end up with better teachers.

In part as a response to competition, the NSW government did two things: loosened restrictions on out-of-area enrolments (such that it was possible to 'shop around' for public schools) and increased the number of academically selective and partly selective schools (previously there were only a couple). Though this helped support enrolments in the public system, it had the predictable effect of making some schools winners (i.e. mostly selectives and some co-ed and girls schools) and some schools losers (mostly boys schools and those in disadvantaged areas). The good news is that this winner/loser effect doesn't happen as much in primary, where fewer parents are prepared to shop around and no-one likes the idea of 13 years of fees, but the government has done its best to mess with this with the introduction of 'Opportunity Classes' to syphon off high achieving students into particular primary schools.

Unfortunately, the clearer it is that there's value in moving out of your local school - or at least the perception of value, since how can paying thousands of dollars not get you something? - the more competition there is to get into 'good' schools. This has led to well-regarded private schools having vastly inflated fees, incredibly long waiting lists (don't forget to put your child down just as they're born!) and generational privilege (it would really help if your parent went here…). A new group of mid-range fee private schools have sprung up for those not quite privileged enough to make it. And selective school cohorts are now dominated by those who are prepared to subject their children to hours of after-school coaching in pursuit of the single winner take all exam; and those are largely immigrant parents with highly academically competitive cultures (i.e. China and India). Which makes many of the traditional private schools depressingly white, increasing student population segregation further.

So now we have six main choices:

  • Established fancy private schools: long waiting lists, incredibly high fees
  • New private schools: moderate fees
  • Systemic Catholic schools: moderate fees
  • Selective schools: dominated by the heavily tutored
  • Well-regarded public schools: at their enrolment cap, so no out-of-area enrolments, therefore restricted to those who can live in the 'right' area
  • All the other public schools

And the more successful the first five are, the harder it is for the average public school to compete.

Just to make this whole situation worse, a few years ago the Australian government had the bright idea of publishing the school by school results of a national assessment (NAPLAN) along with the ICSEA value (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage), not to mention LBOTE percentages (Language Background Other Than English). So now motivated parents can look up any school and instantly determine if 'their kind of people' are going to a particular educational institution. Surely this won't have any corrosive effects on society…

How would I fix it? Just start making the other options less attractive. Slowly reduce funding to private schools and remove their non-profit status. Remove their funding entirely if they offer more money/conditions to teachers than are available in the public school system. Dramatically reduce the number of selectives or make all schools partially selective (e.g. 15% of every school is the selective cohort who get some percentage of 'advanced' classes). And get journalists to write about as many private school scandals as possible.

What are my partner and I planning to do? As it stands - and there's always the chance I will turn into a total hypocrite when the rubber hits the road - my kids are going to the local public school and will go to a public high school. And I won't make them go to any outside of school coaching, but I will let them sit the selective test. Because I live in a privileged area, though, the local primary is a pleasant place, there are a number of selective high schools close by, and even 'falling back' to the local high school wouldn't be a huge sacrifice. I also think that a good experience in high school does depend an awful lot on luck and the individual: funnelling students into a highly academically competitive environment is no guaranteed recipe for success, the culture of many elite private schools is problematic, and there's something to be said for making your own way in the world.