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New study questions long-term benefits of selective schools


New study questions long-term benefits of selective schools

As students across New South Wales eagerly await news about their Year 7 selective school admissions, new research raises questions about the long-term advantages of attending these prestigious institutions.

Every year, thousands of students vie for a limited number of spots in selective high schools, which are known for their stellar Year 12 results. This year saw 18,500 students taking the NSW selective high school test, competing for just 4,200 places. The NSW government maintains that selective schools offer significant academic and social benefits by grouping gifted students together. However, there is scant evidence on whether these schools lead to better long-term outcomes in adulthood.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers Melissa Tham, Andrew Wade, and Shuyan Huo from Victoria University tracked nearly 3,000 young people from age 15 to 25 to explore whether attending a selective school translates into greater success later in life.

“Our results suggest the benefits are very minimal. Participants who attended selective schools reported higher general life satisfaction at age 25, but all other measures around employment and education were not significant,” the researchers said.

Selective schools comprise about 1% of government schools nationwide. Most of these schools are concentrated in NSW, which has 21 fully selective institutions. Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia have fewer such schools.

The researchers analysed data from the 2009 cohort of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth, which tracks young people’s transition from school to further education, work, and adulthood. Using a method called “nearest-neighbour matching,” they compared selective school students with their non-selective peers, ensuring similar characteristics such as gender, socioeconomic status, and Year 9 academic performance.

The study found no significant difference between selective and non-selective students at ages 19 and 25 in terms of high school graduation rates, the extent of work or study, or total years spent in education. However, those who attended fully selective schools reported slightly higher general life satisfaction at age 25.

“General life satisfaction is measured using the average score after students were asked to rate factors such as how satisfied they were with their homes lives, jobs/careers, social lives, spare time activities, standard of living, independence, and lives as a whole,” the researchers said.

The slight increase in life satisfaction for selective school attendees was 0.19 points higher on a scale of 0 to 10 compared to their peers.

Despite the high ATAR scores achieved by selective school students, many parents invest significant time and money, including private tutoring, to secure a spot, viewing it as a path to future success. However, Tham’s 2020 research highlighted the varied experiences of selective school students, noting both positive and negative aspects such as immense pressure and stress.

Education researchers also point to equity issues within selective schools. While they do not charge fees like private schools, students are often from university-educated families with professional backgrounds, potentially concentrating disadvantage in non-selective schools.

The study calls for more research and transparency regarding the benefits of selective schools in Australia. If the purported benefits of selective schooling are not substantiated, it may be necessary to reconsider their role and possibly scale back their presence.

“Our results indicate they may have slightly greater life satisfaction, but we need more research and transparency around Australian selective schools to examine whether these schools benefit students,” the researchers said.

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