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The lesson from Canada: why Australia should have fewer selective schools

Schools in Canada are less selective, and therefore the system is more equitable. Sean_Marshall, CC BY-SA

In most English-speaking countries, students are guaranteed a place at their local public high school. Students also have a right to apply for admission to a school of their choice, such as a private school or a non-local public school.

While students have a right to apply to a school of their choice, schools also have a right to choose their students. For example, they may use entrance examinations or prior academic performance to select students. Religiously oriented schools may only grant admission to active members of the faith.

Most English-speaking countries have a comprehensive system of secondary education, in which there is just one type of secondary school that offers both academic as well as technical/vocational subjects. In most comprehensive education systems, students are guaranteed a place at their local public school and school selectivity is minimal.

Most experts agree that comprehensive education systems are more equitable than differentiated systems (where the schools choose the pupils) because they are less selective. Differentiated systems tend to reproduce social inequalities. When schools are able to select their students, students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have a competitive advantage. This is because they often enjoy more support and resources than those from less advantaged backgrounds.

School selectivity does not necessarily have negative consequences for equity, especially if schools are more or less the same. This is the case of Finland, where policymakers are committed to ensuring that all schools are good schools. When schools are stratified into a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” schools, however, school selectivity can have very inequitable consequences.

The system in Australia

Almost 40% of Australian high school students attend a non-government high school and another sizable group attends a non-local government school. In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) dataset, a high-quality and nationally representative dataset of more than 14,000 Australian 15-year old students, only 29% of students attended a high school where admission was always based on residence in a particular area. This suggests that school choice is widespread, even within the government sector.

School selectivity is also widespread. In the same PISA dataset, 24% of Australian students attended a high school where admission was always based on past academic performance. Another 27% of students attended a high school where admission was always based on parents’ “endorsement” of the school’s religious or instructional philosophy. For most Catholic schools, this means being a member of the church. Some schools from other religions or Christian denominations have similar requirements.

School selectivity can be inequitable when there are large differences between schools. My recent study of curriculum offerings in Perth found that only 10% of low socio-economic status high schools offer advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics and English literature. These are the traditional subjects that provide pathways for university study and the professions. For students that reside in the catchment zone of these schools, options for accessing rigorous academic curricula are often very limited.

For students and families that are seeking academic curriculum pathways in low socio-economic communities, the only option may be to purchase access by attending a private school. In low socio-economic communities, this often means a Catholic school. Catholic schools in Australia do a good job of providing access to academic curricula, but they charge fees, which makes them unavailable to some families. They are also not typically available to non-Catholics.

The other option is to apply to a non-local government school. Pretty much all middle and high socio-economic public schools offer a solid range of academic curricula. The problem, however, is that there are often not that many extra places available.

Schools respond by setting rigorous selection criteria for non-local students. In many instances, only the very talented are given access. In some states like NSW, public schools that are 100% academically selective are becoming increasingly common.

The Australian education system appears to be moving more and more towards a differentiated system characterised by high levels of school selection and differing access to subjects that is strongly patterned by social class.

The Canadian way

Like Australia, Canada is a prosperous country that requires a large number of highly educated individuals to meet its labour market needs. Canada is the highest-performing English-speaking country on PISA and is among the very best educational systems in the world.

Students in Canada can choose to apply to a school of their choice. Most Canadian students attend their local public school, however.

In the Canadian 2009 PISA dataset (which includes over 23,000 students), 74% of students attended a high school where residence in a particular location was required for admission. Only 6% of students attended a private school. This lower number is partly explained by the fact that Catholic schools are classified as public schools in some Canadian provinces. As such, they do not charge fees.

School selection is also lower in Canada than in Australia. Only 16% of students in the PISA 2009 Canadian dataset attended a high school where admission was based on academic record. Only 15% attended a school where admission was based on parents’ endorsement of the school’s religious orientation.

Lessons for Australia

The Canadian education system excels on international tests because it is equitable. Data from PISA shows that students from high socioeconomic backgrounds perform the same in both countries, but students from low socioeconomic backgrounds perform better in Canada than in Australia.

Where one goes to school also matters more in Australia than in Canada. The achievement gaps between schools are substantially larger in Australia than Canada. The correlation between school socioeconomic status and the quality of its educational resources is also much smaller in Canada than in Australia. Only two countries are worse than Australia in this regard – Chile and Mexico.

When schooling becomes stratified and where one goes to school matters a lot, a vicious cycle can start. Competition among students for places at a “good” school increases, which in turn raises schools’ ability to select students. And with the advent of public reporting of school performance data via the My School website, the incentive for schools to become selective becomes even greater.

Being able to compete with Canada on international league tables of educational performance requires that Australia, paradoxically, tone down competition within its educational system. Our education system is characterised by winners and losers and haves and have-nots, with students competing for places and schools competing for students and resources. While competition in education systems can spur innovation, it more often leads to inequalities and inefficiencies, neither of which is good for individuals or the larger society.

Further reading on what Australia can learn from education overseas:

Should Aussie kids go on US-style summer camps?

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