"They drain the public school system." 3 parents and a teacher on selective high schools.

Like thousands of other Year 6 kids across New South Wales, my son Toby will sit the competitive selective high school entrance exam this month. 

As a family we discussed our feelings on selective schooling in great detail last year, and while my husband Jules and I were keen for him to attend the local public school, Toby felt differently. He wanted to give the exam a try, so we supported his wishes.

Now that the exam is so close and I have seen how hard the sample papers are, and the hours of studying Toby has done, I feel even more conflicted. 

Watch: There are two types of parents when it comes to school shopping. Post continues after video. 

I know as his mum and from school reports and talking to his teachers that Toby is smart and doing well at school. Yet these exam results could make him feel very good or absolutely terrible about himself. 

We just want Toby to be happy, so I want him to do well and go to the school that is best for him, but we'll just have to see what happens next. 

As someone who just went to a local high school in the UK, I wanted to know about the advantages and disadvantages of attending a selective high school in Australia and what it means for the public school system.

I spoke to three parents and a teacher to find out more.

Michelle*, mum-of-two.

A selective school graduate of 20 years, Michelle speaks fondly of her time at high school, but is unsure what she will do when her children get to Year 5.

"I had a great experience at my selective high school. I had good teachers and a good bunch of friends," Michelle tells Mamamia.

"I was shocked to discover however at my 20 year school reunion, that many of my fellow year group felt negatively towards the school. They said they would never send their own children into a selective school environment."

Michelle describes how many of them still remembered feeling de-motivated by being in such a competitive environment.


"There were a lot of 'Type A' personalities trying to bump along together and they ended up with a warped sense of what was 'good enough'. Essentially, they were all good enough but found it hard to stand out. Many of them recalled eating disorders and feeling anxious."

Something else Michelle remembers as a selective school student was the long daily commute.

"Like many of my friends, I had to get a bus to school and because of the long daily commute I had to give up all my after-school activities.

"The focus was all about homework and as a parent now I will be factoring this in. I want my children to stay active in their hobbies and pursuits outside of school for as long as possible."

Susie*, mum of one.

Susie’s daughter Amy is in Year 9 at her local academic selective school in New South Wales. Amy was adamant that she wanted to attend the school and is now thriving in what Susie believes is a very supportive and nurturing environment.

"Amy’s school has exceeded our expectations on every level," Susie tells Mamamia

"The dedication of the teachers is astonishing and, in such a potentially competitive environment with so many gifted and talented students, they maintain the welfare of their students as a number one priority," she adds.

"Students are told their focus should not be on competing or comparing but rather on striving for personal best. It’s not about how your cohort perform, it’s whether you gave your best."

Susie also loves how the learning emphasis is definitely not only on academia.

"Amy is a lover of the creative arts and there are ample opportunities for her to grow her experiences in this field. I am positive she would not be achieving the levels she is if she were in a mainstream high school.

"“The children inspire each other to extend themselves and flourish in so many ways and they are buoyed by remarkable teaching and support staff.

"Without doubt, being in an environment of like-minded people results in improved outcomes across the board. At Amy’s school, it’s more than okay to be smart."

Pippa*, mum of two.

Pippa’s eldest son was school captain at his primary school, and he is now enjoying life in Year 7 at his local public high school.

"We chose the public school system over selective schooling as my experience was a positive and 'well-rounded' one," Pippa tells Mamamia

"Since my children were young, I would point out the local public schools to them and say that they will be attending them.

"Learning to be a part of a diverse population is one of life’s greatest skills and public schools allow that opportunity – shaping children to be non-judgemental and open-minded."


Pippa believes that the HSC is not the only pathway to an interesting career and there is far too much focus generally on exams today.

"I would like to see less pressure on all students in their senior years within every school system. I also would love to see a return to comprehensive schooling across the state with increased funding given to 'disadvantaged' schools.

"My kids are fortunate enough to have caring parents, friends and other exemplary role models including passionate teachers.

"I believe a combination of a decent public school and encouragement is enough for my two teenagers."

Natasha*, mum of two and a teacher.

Natasha is a teacher in New South Wales who is also mum to two primary school-age children. As an educator she is not a fan of the selective school system, but as a parent she is not keen on the public schools in her area.

"I really dislike the whole idea of selective schools. They are inequitable and unethical and they drain the public school system of the very best and brightest students, no one really wants to be on the B-team do they?" Natasha said.

Through her experience as a casual teacher, she knows the reality of public schools and feels worried for her children’s future.

"I am in theory a fan of public schools and I believe that selective schooling is elitist and inherently wrong. Working as a teacher in the public school system however, I have been verbally abused by so many challenging kids who are completely disinterested in learning.

"I have also seen many excellent teachers leave their jobs at public high schools and as a mother I do not want my children to suffer in the same environment."

This creates an interesting dilemma for Natasha and her family.

"I am an atheist but having taught at religious schools, I can see the benefit of that system which focuses on the whole person, not purely academic grades. They do not require students to sit entrance exams in order to be deemed 'worthy of entry' either.

"When the time comes for our children to go to high school, it is going to be a very difficult decision to make."

* While these women are known to Mamamia, all names have been changed for privacy reasons.

What do you think of selective high schools? Tell us in a comment below.

This post was originally published on May 27, 2019, and updated on March 9, 2022. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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