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Pick and mix culture


It was a conservative government in New South Wales in the 1980s that set about establishing a significant number of selective high schools across Sydney and in the cities of Newcastle and Wollongong.

Today, even under a Labor government, New South Wales has 17 selective high schools - out of 400 across the state. Each is allowed to select on academic merit up to 150 students a year into the first year of high school. Pupils in their final year of primary school who hope to enrol in these schools, must sit a test devised by the Education Department and are then ranked on their results.

According to the Teachers Federation of New South Wales, the only reason there are not more of the selective schools is because of the transport bill. The government pays the travel costs of children who attend schools outside their own neighbourhoods - including those at private schools - and there are now more than 20,000 of them.

It was the prospect of having to spend millions of dollars more on train and bus fares for these peripatetic pupils that has deterred both Labor and conservative governments from expanding the selective school system.

The federation - and the federal teachers organisation, the Australian Education Union - is opposed to selective high schools. The union argues that all high schools should be comprehensive and adequately resourced so as to cater for a range of student abilities.

In Victoria, despite having the most radically economic-rationalist conservative government in Australia, there have been no moves to change the current system where all but three of the state secondary schools are required to admit every child from the local neighbourhood who seeks entry.

Melbourne High School, one of the oldest state secondary schools in Australia, admits boys from year 9 who must first pass a selection test. Its sister school is MacRobertson Girls High, which similarly accepts girls who have achieved a certain standard. Both schools receive many more applications than they can take, and students who apply are ranked on the results of the test.

University High School, which is located near to Melbourne University, admits a certain number of students from its local area but also applies a selection test to all others who apply.

The state's teachers fear the government plans to give much more autonomy to state schools, and this could result in some deciding to adopt a selective system of entry.

Unlike the other states, Queensland has no local zoning system that entitles children living in a certain area to enrol in their nearest primary or secondary school. Although that is usually what happens, a student can, theoretically, enrol at any state school he or she chooses.

As in the other states, however, a certain number of state schools do offer specialist programmes in such areas as music and sport, and these enrol a proportion of their students on the basis of their talents in the particular field.

Elsewhere across Australia, the comprehensive high school is still the most typical feature of secondary education and most of the nation's children continue to attend their local primary and secondary school.

Private schools, which enrol more than a third of the country's students, have their own systems of selecting their clients. For the Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist schools, admission is usually based on religious affiliation, but for the so-called independent schools, it is essentially a case of how well off the child's parents are.

If its parents can afford fees of more than $10,000 a year, any child will find a place in the most prestigious private school.

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