School leavers' class wars


Stressed studentYear 12 tertiary entrance exams: turning 17-year-olds into nervous wrecks since the 1830s. They divide the smart from the dumb, the hopefuls from the no-hopers, and, what it boils down to more often than not, the privately educated from the state educated. But what if there was another way, a way that properly acknowledged the impact high schools have on their students' access to university admission?

A recent study released by Great Britain's Department of Education radically advises that universities adopt different entrance requirements for students from government schools than those from independent schools. The research points to the fact that year 12 results correlate more with what school the student went to than they do with future academic performance at university. Students from lower-performing schools who do make it into university outperform students with equivalent high school grades from high-performing schools.

'On average, someone who gains BBB at a school where the average A-level score is CCC will do better in higher education than someone who gains BBB at a school where the average is AAA,' the report states.

Are students from lower-performing high schools brighter than private school students? Well, no. I don't know that school results, or even university results, can truly capture how bright or promising a student really is, as they can never account for what a student thinks they are getting out of school, or what their commitments are outside the classroom.

The literature is divided on what makes a student perform well, some studies indicating that socioeconomic status is the main factor. This makes sense in that middle- and upper-class students are usually less obliged to work for money to help with household expenses, and less obliged to care for relatives.

But that logic is distorted by the fact that selective state schools and Catholic schools tend to share a class-base with state schools, while garnering better leaving results. It seems to be that schools themselves predict what kind of university, if any university, a student will be accepted to.

Another angle: leaving results are arbitrary and should be done away with.

While we can probably all agree that school's a great idea, especially for nerds like me who lapped up the work as a way of escaping the monotony of school itself, of living in crappy suburbs, of working at McDonald's and never having any cash; a ticket into an imagined future. But the format of high school education is not right for many, if not most, students.

That's true even of the formalities of assessment — I remember writing a 'practice' short essay every night of the week throughout year 12, attempting to emulate an A+ Literature/History/Philosophy paper. The desired tenor of the ideal paper was always clean (read: boring), the permitted arguments were sound but usually on the safe side, the execution, of course, rapid. While this may be a fair way of assessing students — marking directly against criteria — is it really a great education?

I took that clean style that had nothing to do with me to university, and didn't understand why I wasn't rewarded for it in the same way I had been at school. It wasn't until I learned — by trial and error — that I had been faking it; that I wasn't very convincing writing in clean, dry, Aristotelian prose; and that using language as a subsidiary of my personality actually enlivened my ideas, that I began doing well.

Which brings me to Bard College, an elite New York liberal arts college. They've done away with traditional test scores and falsified 'volunteer' CVs as admission documents, and replaced them with an admission that comprises four essays. If you score a B+ or higher on all three, you are admitted.

The procedure is designed to select students who like learning, but perhaps, in the words of their admissions director, 'couldn't be bothered with what they saw as the 'busy work' of high school, and instead invested themselves in things not perceived as 'academic' ... like music or the arts — or just reading on their own'.

Education can either bolster class divisions, or erode them. I'm not sure I like the preening aspirations I see in Australia: the right for everyone to buy an elevated place in a heinous class system through consuming everything from café food to education. And it depresses me that 13 years of reading and writing and playing and building friendships is accumulated into a single score that can determine an adult's future, especially when that score is so defined by markers of class that precede a person's birth.

We can't dismantle the inequalities of secondary education in Australia: we are too emotionally invested in creating a caste-based society for that. We can, however, change how this affects young adults' futures.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Stressed student image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, schools, universities



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Existing comments

Some years ago the Academic Board at Melbourne University set up a committee to review their entry processes. The committee called for submissions and I suggested that instead of just using the enter score as the criterion they should take the top x% of students from each school where x is calculated to give them the total number of students wanted. I was told that the University could not do this as that would disadvantage those parents who had invested in their children's future by paying for them to go to a "good" school. I should add that this wasn't my own original idea. I got it from Paul Paget, the geography tutor who managed the geography students' entry process into Jesus and Pembroke Colleges in Oxford. He accepted the top performers from private schools and passed over the second level in favour of students from the state system with lower marks, claiming that the second tier of the private schools had been coached to get the marks they did and were not as good as kids with lower marks form the state system.

Brian Finlayson | 13 June 2014  

Thank you for this very timely and challenging article, Ellena. I think the literature is absolutely correct about socioeconomic status and although it is true that many Catholic schools have students from low socioeconomic status, this can't be said for selective state schools I don't think. And certainly, the bulk of low socioeconomic students still go to government secondary colleges. I really warm to the findings of the British study you mention which advises, "That universities adopt different entrance requirements for students from government schools than those from independent schools." I really wish that we could change the way that the inequalities of secondary education in Australia affects young adults' futures. Gonski pointed us in the right direction but, tragically, we hardly hear of his reforms any more.

Robert Van Zetten | 13 June 2014  

That students from Cathoic and Public schools perform better at university than those from expensive, class-filtering private schools is old news - I remember (but can no longer name) two research papers from the 1980's and 1990's that reached the same conclusion as Ellena Savage has- university students from public and Catholic schools get better results- and stick to their courses- than the spoon-fed products of expensive private schools. When/if parents wake up to this fact and patronise our wonderful, democratic public schools, good education for all will become a possibility.

Adrian C. | 13 June 2014  

Why is there such a fixation on class warfare in education in Australia? Attitudes of parents & children have got far more to do with it than socioeconomic status . In a poverty stricken place like Africa children will do anything to get educated. In Australia where few people are really poverty stricken in the real sense of the word (survival threatened) many kids need a kick up the rear to study instead of everyone whinging about socioeconomic reasons why they do not do well. I am an ex teacher, an ex-migrant, a mother who had to bring up children alone & my kids have succeeded in this very privileged environment of Australia. Everyone here has a fair fact far too much of a fair go compared with so many parts of the world. Sorry can't agree with this argument.

Penny | 13 June 2014  

Maybe this is one of the debates we have to have in Australia,Ellena. There are obvious caste systems in other parts of the world. We might ask: Where are we in our country imposing hierarchical systems that relegate some people to the lower levels of society? What systems and institutions play out unfairly to some? What change is needed in schools and colleges and universities. Your article gives us food for thought. Thanks.

Celia | 13 June 2014  

Good on you, Penny. You have it right! The biggest problem we have in this country is being over privileged. To accommodate everyone in the grand level playing field we have dumbed down universities to the point where we have opened some 20-odd so-called Universities which are unnecessary. Some run remedial English classes in an English speaking country and expect us to believe that the recipients are true "University Material". Some entry requirements (eg, entry to Education Faculties require an entrance tertiary score as low as 52 which effectively means a dismal academic failure in year 12 at high school). Some of the courses offered as University degree courses are laughable eg, leisure studies, alternative medicine, hospitality etc.

john frawley | 13 June 2014  

Thanks to Penny for bringing some sanity to this discussion. I also suggest that the attitudes of some education authorities & teacher elites (in addition to parents & children) need to be questioned. As a proud product of public central & high schools in the 70's I'm appalled at the confusion that now exists between values & standards in education. That is, standards are being wrongly confused with values.

Paul Crittenden | 13 June 2014  

If you are a person who is unemployed or working for a basic wage and have children ,how can you motivate them to work hard and better themselves if those very kids have to get a part time job ,maybe at Macca's or shelf filling at a supermarket to help ease the strain on the family budget. How can those same families afford the cultural pursuits , the veneers of society that lead to an awareness of the need to delay gratification and go on to higher learning. The imperative often is to get any job that pays a wage that allows for some entry into the world of the working class. Some parents just can't do it alone. Our education system and institutions have to be proactive in encouraging and even positively discriminating in favour of kids who have the odds stacked against them reaching their full potential. It's a perfect partnership when student ,parent and school are working together for this end. Sadly this is the ideal ,not the reality. Come on teachers , educationalists , policy makers stop the educational class system in Australia. Give all kids a fair go regardless of the school they attend and their socio economic background.(this doesn't mean "dumbing" down courses or "lowering standards" by the way)

Celia | 13 June 2014  

Many years ago I was awarded a post-graduate scholarship that took me to a significant English university where I did my doctorate. A kid from country town NSW with a school and university career littered with failed subjects who managed to rustle up sufficient credibility for the scholarship. One conversation mid way through my first year there still lingers. A staff member was bemoaning the time it took to get through all the first year application interviews. I had no idea what interviews he meant as my own experience of university entry was all to do with previous exam results and mystical numbers. He explained to me that written applications were culled and prospective students were called to an interview before being granted a position. I asked him why they did it like this. He said, ‘We need to ensure that each student brings the right tone to the university.’ I wondered for a moment what ‘tone’ I brought to the university until I remembered that I was paying foreign student post-grad fees. In my case, and especially with my accent in that particular environment, it seemed they were tone deaf. It was my first foray into the moneyed class system that has crept downwards and outwards to now include teenagers from country town NSW trying to get into the university closest to their home and family. Somewhere inside me I look forward to the establishment of Ned Kelly University.

Kim Miller | 13 June 2014  

Ellena Savage’s concerns with how tertiary entrance exams can accentuate class divisions are valid. But perhaps the focus should also be on the inequality-generating factors that operate much earlier in a child’s schooling in Australia. These include the trend towards increased privatization of schools, especially under the Abbott government. This is clearly a pet project of Education minister Pyne who under the “Real Solutions” slogan wants to “create one choice for parents”. He talks of increasing the number of “autonomous and “independent” schools. But this is code for privatization of schools which will further entrench class differences. Last February Pyne announced a $70 million plan to turn 1500 public schools – about a quarter of our schools – into independent schools by 2017. That’s something that all those concerned with equality of education should be opposing. .

dennis | 17 June 2014  

Celia I can't agree with you. Yes parents can do it alone especially in Australia. My children & I have. Support comes in so many ways in Australia, whereas in other countries [Africa] people have no support whatsoever without a job. That is real poverty and yet they urge their children on, telling them the way out of poverty is education. The kids study very hard and people don't whinge about favouritism. In Australia everyone has the opportunity of succeeding. Teach your children not to waste opportunities as there are few countries in the world with so many.

Penny | 17 June 2014  

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