Selective Schools The Magic Button?

01 October 2012
I was recently moved to read a twitter friend's account of her experiences with her ten year old son, a sensitive, intelligent boy who was being bullied at school. They worried what to do, met with the principal, eventually made the difficult decision to move their son to a new school. One point that struck a dark note with me is their prior hope that they and their son would be able to wait it out until he got to high school, or specifically a selective high school, where he would be amongst children like himself and the bullying would stop. The reason this caught in my throat was I experienced the worst bullying of my life at a selective high school. I'm dismayed at the perception that bullying doesn't go on at selective schools, and that they're the answer for intelligent, bullied kids.

In my case it made festering problems worse. I arrived at selective high school age 11, young for my cohort, and with the manifestations of Asperger's Syndrome that would not be identified for another almost 20 years. In addition, there were problems at home, and I was, basically, an awkward, oversensitive, emotional wreck. It was hoped that after a friendless primary school experience, selective school would be where I "found my place". But even at a selective school, kids are still kids. They can immediately spot the outsider, the weak one. In this case I became the target, and the target of kids who had not only the streak of nastiness that bullies can show, but the intelligence to make their attacks all the more personal, insightful and vicious. The things I did "wrong" - from wearing an official school hat (I quite liked them) to reading the encyclopedia at lunch time - made me a target for physical and emotional bullying that has left me with scars to this day.

But no one would believe such things could go on. Smart kids were good kids, right? For me it was a dreadful time. My academic performance suffered, inevitably. Therein lies another issue with selective schools - someone has to be at the bottom of the academic rankings. Kids with a history of academic achievement, who would be the star pupil at a comprehensive high school, find themselves at the bottom of the pile with all the disincentive and damage to self esteem that entails. For some it is a spur to work harder; others never recover. Some of my former classmates are human rights barristers, TV personalities, academics, surgeons. Others have disappeared into the same pit of despair I languished in for much of my life.

As for my education though, by the end of Year Nine, I'd had enough and refused to go back; the school, with me marked as a trouble maker and failure, wasn't so keen to have me around either, so by everyone's agreement, I transferred to a comprehensive high school, repeated Year Nine, got heavily involved in drama and debating (it had a good performing arts program), and did well academically, and my teachers liked me, and if there was any bullying I was older and smarter and able to handle it.

I'm not a fan of the selective school system. I know it works well for some children, but it drains resources from comprehensive schools, and can have a terrible effect on the kids who go there who don't do so well there. I don't know what I'll do if BabyG wants to go to a selective school. And they're not the magic cure for bullying. If only something was.


  1. Mr 10's Mama01/10/2012, 17:45

    Schooling our kids should be easy, shouldn't it!

    Our reasoninb on possibly sending Mr 10 to a selective school was that we felt it would be an environment where he would be more likely to 'find his tribe', or at least a handful of funny little frogs like himself.

    We never assumed there would be no bullying there, or at any other school, but that at least he might have a chance of having a friend or two who would understand him, be able to join in conversation with him, maybe share an interest. Perhaps he would feel less isolated, less alone, less the odd-one-out.

    I held back in my blog post about the degree of his, and our, distress. Going into the details of what had been happening (over a long period), the impact on him and our ways of trying to address it would, I felt, but just a bit more personal than required.

    Suffice to say our fear for his wellbeing was such that a move had to be made promptly. Believe me, there have been *many* discussions, phone calls and visits to school before we moved him. It was far from a snap decision.

    I'd also spoken to current and former students, and their parents, of the selective school in question and had many of my former biases against the idea allayed somewhat.

    However, Mr 10's distress had become such that any further delay was untenable and would be irresponsible.

    I am sorry to hear of your own experience of bullying. Both my husband and I copped it at school, too. It is horribly common. How do we stop it? I don't know, but we try the best we can to ensure our own kids don't bully.

    I don't expect Mr 10's educational journey to be easy at all. I fear it may well be university before he feels he's met some like-minded souls and finds a real friend, but we'll do all we can to assist in the meantime.

    We are very lucky that we can afford to move him.

    And none of us think it will be a 'magic bullet', although he already feels like less of an outcast, he feels safer, and he feels less like HE is the problem.

    Don't worry, although we feel confident that we have done the right thing for him, we both worry about problems that he'll encounter at his new school, and we know there'll probably be more bullying along his path.

    But we also feel more confident that his new school has far greater resources to step in where necessary, to help and to foster a better attitude amongst all students.

    In my perfect world there would be no need for selective schools or private schools because our public schools would be funded and resourced the way they should be.

    I Give A Gonski!

    I just can't let my child be collateral damage while we wait for it to be implemented some 10 years from now.

  2. Oh I hope you didn't think I was implying you were being simplistic or naive in your hope things might be better at a selective school. I understand (well partially, I haven't been there yet) what a difficult decision it was. I also support public education but if there was an issue, I wouldn't throw my kid under the bus to support it.

    The belief that such things couldn't happen at a selector school is one I faced 20 years ago, and I've heard it said several times since when I've described my experiences.

  3. Sorry posted too soon. Anyway, I really hope your little man can find his place at his new school and his journey from here is a happier one.

  4. Mr 10's Mama01/10/2012, 19:22

    No no no! Not at all. Just as many people I've spoken to have moved their children OUT of private or selective schools for all sorts of reasons.

    I think you and I are very much in agreement - we want all kids to get a great education. But it's not surprising that some families are feeling driven away from public schools when the problems they face seem insurmountable.

    Moving him away from the public system that I want *so much* to believe in was agonising and made me feel like perhaps I was the failure - that I was such a classic case of 'first world problem' ...


    Come over for cheese and cider!

  5. Thanks might take you up on that :)

  6. A selective high can be a great thing for a kid. But, it depends on the child and also on the staff. Around this way the high school hasn't been selective for decades which means while the present crop of students are selective not all the teachers are.

    Add to that my friendship with the selective high's counselor and her constant need to work her social life around 'suicide watch' of her students, I decided that no child of mine would be exposed to such pressure.

    My partner has an opposite view and wanted the kids in selective. Eldest was accepted to a selective, but so was his mate who was already clinically depressed in primary school.
    Did I want him going through his teenage years with a best mate who would crumple under the strain of a selective high? No way, so he went to the local high of his own choice with the rest of his mates and he's topping several of his subjects and getting a more rounded education. He's had opportunities at the local he would never had had at the selective academic and the selective performing arts school, yes including things you'd expect the performing arts school to have for their students.

    If we were in Sydney where selective highs and selective teachers were a long standing tradition I may have made a different choice. And even then I would have had to look closely at the friendships he would be going into the selective high with.

    Our second kid outstrips the eldest academically (and oh boy is she an odd fish) and the pressure was on for her to go to a selective high, but after the lad's four years at a plain high school where the emphasis has been on a rounded education not just marks, where I've seen first hand how bullying has been dealt with immediately there is no question.

    I'd rather my kid coast through highschool and have fun and get a decent HCS mark as opposed to a near perfect one, to get into uni. At the age of 15 to 16 few people really know what they want to do when they grow up so I'd rather a kid that finishes high school with a rounded education, not just pure academic subjects. And I want them to be kids, to fuck up occasionally and not have a bad mark haunt them.

    And odd fishes find like minded kids, regardless of where they go. They do and they blossom. The main issue is that at primary school there are smaller numbers so a lesser chance to find friends that fit. Highschool with bigger numbers means more chances of friendship.

    Mr10's mama - a massive cheer for you. We also went through a massive load of bullying (which escalating to a Ministerial and a teacher leaving the system). We did end up moving, to another public school because we found a perfect fit, but if we didn't find that perfect public school it would have been a private.
    My kid's ex-chalkie grandparents who worked in the public system applauded our decision and were prepared to foot the bill for any private school we wanted rather than risk the safety of our kids.

    I just wish we could clone the staff at our local primary school so all little ones can have a safe time.


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