Selective outrage for selective education: Segregation in NSW

14 June 2019

It was refreshing to hear Maurie Mulheron, the President of the NSW Teachers Federation, speak out passionately and openly on Sydney ABC 702 Radio against the recent “captain’s call” by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to build the State’s 48thselective school for gifted students – the first for 25 years – in Sydney’s southwest corridor. The NSW Teachers Federation has rightly condemned the move.

NSW has significantly more selective schools than the rest of Australia combined – and ten times as many as Victoria. Nevertheless, the NSW Premier apparently wanted to announce the building of even more selective schools – but was “persuaded not to”.

The arguments against another new selective school as outlined by the President of the NSW Teachers Federation included:

  • There is no “evidence-base” supporting selective schools as improving the academic results of their students over and above what they would have achieved in a regular school [This position is also supported by educational luminaries like Professor John Hattie].
  • Selective schools increase educational and social inequality – and their adverse impact is long-term [Selective schools have become islands of privilege – and have undermined the educational and social balance within the general education system].
  • Selective schools are not “representative” of their communities – with over 80% of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds and most from outside the local school area. [Further, a recent review by the NSW Education Department found almost 75% of students in selective schools come from the highest quartile of social-economic advantage – with only 2% coming from the lowest quartile].
  • Selective schools harm the general education system by draining it of students who are the strongest performers academically – threatening the running of certain academic subjects in regular schools for the general school population [If a subset of the school population is removed from general education, then of course the specific interests and needs of that population are less likely to remain catered for the remaining general population.  Further, when those for which the system has the highest expectations are removed from the general school system, expectations are inevitably lowered for those that remain].
  • The fact that some parents want selective schools – and that places are over-subscribed – does not mean that evidence-based views should be supplanted by uninformed “parental choice” [There is a natural tendency of parents to associate ‘special’ programs with better resourcing and accordingly better students results, despite clear evidence in support of inclusion].

Professor Adrian Piccoli, a former NSW Education Minister from 2012-2017 and director of the Gonski Institute for Education, stated this week that Australia – and in particular NSW – has one of the most segregated education systems in the OECD.

However, the loud and cogent criticism of the NSW Premier’s decision in relation to the new selective school and the greater segregation of “gifted” students stands in stark and selective contrast – a form of “selective attention” – when compared to the silence in the face of the increasing segregation of students with disability in new NSW “special” schools, “special” units and “special classrooms” – which are similarly and equally:

However, unlike segregating selective schools for “gifted students”, the segregation (and particularly the proportionately increasing segregation) of students with disability in NSW is in contravention of Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as outlined in a new journal article published this week, critically analysing recent policy developments in NSW that will increase the segregation of students with disabilities.

So where is the outrage against the increasing segregation of students with disability in NSW? Why aren’t students with disability afforded the same level of concern?

Segregation by academic streaming results in inequality – or in Professor Hattie’s words “educational apartheid” at both ends of the spectrum of academic function – but education professionals, politicians and educational luminaries seem only capable to be moved by segregation of “valued” students – those labelled as “gifted”.

The increasing construction of the segregating infrastructure of “special” places for “special” students with disability goes on unabated – unchallenged – seemingly unheard – by the chorus of concerned stakeholders who spoke out strongly this week about selective schools.

When it comes to the segregation of students with disabilities, “parental choice” in favour of segregation of students with disability is not questioned.  Educational professionals and stakeholders do not express a counter view – despite decades of evidence challenging the practice and notwithstanding that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has stated explicitly that disability segregation in education is a a form of disability discrimination and parents do not have the right to deprive their child with disability of an inclusive education in a regular classroom; rather parents are trustees or custodians of their child’s right to education, and their parental choices and responsibilities are subordinate to that right.

Professor Piccoli is correct to state that NSW has one of most segregated education systems in the OECD – but the segregation is not just at the selective school end – the segregation is throughout the NSW education system – and in particular in relation to students with disability and learning differences.

A representative, equitable and inclusive society can only be built on a representative, equitable and inclusive education system.

NSW, Australia’s most populous State, has a long way to reverse.

Read also:

“Marginalising Students by Ability Grouping: Elitist, Ableist, Unfair and Contra-Inclusive Education”

[Cover photo © Nathan Dumlao]

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