07 — a controversy — For the record: the great SBHS race debate of 2002

The media attention given to Sydney Boys High from April 2002, to its current cultural mix, and to selective schools generally, conflated a number of separate but interdependent issues. Much heat was generated in the process and I found myself quoted in several news stories, principally in The Sydney Morning Herald. These are extracts from material published at that time on my school (now English/ESL) pages, then on Tripod, where it was continually revised until 2004. There can be no guarantee that links to other sites still work, though most of them do.

GUIDE: After the introduction you will find —


Introduction to issues

The issues raised at that time included:

1. Is the selective schools test a fair and reliable instrument for choosing entrants for selective schools? This site does not deal with this. Arguments here range from whether there should even be selective schools to various ideas about how students might be selected for them. The March 2002 High Bulletin has an account by Dr Jaggar of current selection procedures.

2. Are concerns about the current population of Sydney Boys High (and other selective schools) motivated in part by xenophobia? Gerard Noonan seems to think so. There is no doubt an element of this in the discussion, and many in the “Asian” community and beyond sense this to be the case. There are certainly matters of cross-cultural communication and understanding to be addressed here, and this site is largely concerned with these matters. One has to ask, would the concerns of some be so sharp if the change in the population of selective schools was not so “visible”?

3. Is there some policy of positive discrimination in favour of certain groups? The answer to this is a categorical “No”. The only area some may perceive this way is the option to avoid the General Abilities Test in the Selective Schools Test where a student has been speaking English for a very short time. As of 2001, no student entering SBHS from the Selective Schools Test had taken that option, so it is a non-issue in this school.

4. Is Sydney Boys High in the same position as other selective schools? This is the issue the Old Boys have been most concerned with, and the answer has to be a qualified “No”. Our participation in the AAGPS does make a significant difference. Strategies to address this include making our many feeder schools aware of the unique ethos of SBHS, reaching out to the various family communities to explain the value of the ethos of SBHS and encourage participation, and considering varying the method of entry to allow some people who have passed the Selective Schools Test but may have other qualities to offer the school a chance to get in. The Committee headed by Mr Robert Outterside has been discussing this question and there is nothing xenophobic about such discussion. Here the media have treated the school rather shabbily, giving rise to unnecessary alarm.

I recently had the chance to discuss these matters with a Chinese-born and Chinese-educated member of the class of 2001. In Shanghai the top selective schools choose 5 out of 6 of their classes on academics alone; the remaining class is chosen on that plus what they may contribute to sports, music, or some other field–to give the school a healthy mix of talent. Coaching is practically unknown in China.

5. How does one explain the change in the population of Sydney Boys High and other selective schools in recent years? This site proposes some answers along cultural and demographic lines in order to open up the debate beyond the somewhat one-dimensional explanations one sometimes hears. It does not provide comprehensive answers but seeks to refute those whose answers do seem to be tinged with nostalgia or xenophobia.

This site (on all its pages) accepts and celebrates cultural diversity in line with Departmental policy on teaching and learning in multicultural schools. It encourages all the members of our diverse community to work together in harmony for the good of all our students. It attempts to promote inter-cultural understanding and communication. It is opposed to any “us” and “them” orientation.

NESB (now Language Background Other Than English, or LBOTE) is a fairly dubious administrative classification that amusingly includes quite a few members of staff! The concept of a “bilingual student” is much more useful, as it captures an ability rather than highlighting an alleged disability. SBHS has many bilingual students and they are fortunate in this. On the other hand their existence does raise a number of relevant issues concerning cultural hybridity and/or tension, all part of the long history of migrant experience in Australia. We all need to be well informed about these issues both as citizens and as members of the school family.

Sydney Boys High in 2004 is still 100% Australian, even if approximately 80% are now LBOTE.

Not all the views on this site reflect the official position of Sydney Boys High, or indeed of the compiler of the site.

Neil Whitfield

Dr Jaggar in High Notes Friday 12 April 2002

Much media attention has been given to a story running since last Wednesday on attempts to vary the way students are selected to come to High in Year 7. I would like students, staff and parents to know that there never was a plan by the Old Boys Executive or by the Committee headed by Mr Robert Outterside… to give preferment for sons or grandsons of Old Boys by allowing them to gain entry to the school without sitting for a Selective Schools Entrance Test. At an appropriate time next term I will report to the School Family on the progress made so far to give effect to the multilayered strategy discussed at the Staff Forum at the end of January, to enhance our school ethos.

On behalf of the School Family I would like to apologise to anyone offended by any statements printed in the March edition of “High Bulletin”.

Our school is proudly multicultural and consciously anti-racist.

Some personal reflections

Elsewhere on this [English/ESL 2007] site you will find a wealth of material on the nature of multicultural schools and the issues we confront, not to mention the riches we thereby may possess.

It is imperative to enter the current discussion with cultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, such sensitivity is sometimes lacking and all sides must work hard to achieve harmony and ensure the best of the Sydney Boys High ethos continues into the future.

  • In culturally diverse communities, differences may be expected to exist in the communication styles of students, teachers, parents, administrators and noninstructional staff. Perhaps the most important reason for educators to understand cross cultural communication is to improve their relations with the diverse groups of students and parents they will encounter. If left ignored, communication differences will inevitably lead to various types of miscommunication which may lead, in turn, to conflicts which erode school climate and cause certain groups of students … to feel unwelcome. ORLANDO L. TAYLOR, Ph.D.
  • It is important as you become a promoter of cross cultural communications that you reach beyond stereotypes. These do not represent the population they seek to identify. It is necessary to evaluate people on an individual basis. Stereotypes often reflect the differences in socioeconomic status, religion, or dialect. These differences are apparent in all races and cannot identify one specific group of people. It is important to suspend judgment, avoid misconceptions, narrow perspectives, and immature reactions. Stereotypes often contain a granule of truth, but this tiny truth cannot characterize an entire culture. Getting the whole picture is being active, and thinking critically about people and their behavior.

    Ultimately the barriers that exist between cultures are weak. We need desire, information, and the willingness to take interpersonal risks to break them. — Sally Nulph

  • “The manager who knows only his or her own country is doomed to become obsolete. Most organizations can no longer afford to employ culturally myopic managers.”— Philip R. Harris & Robert Moran, Managing Cultural Differences, on the site Cultural Savvy
  • Coaching only partly explains the current composition of Sydney Boys High. It is an interesting fact that the more recently a student has arrived in Australia, the less likely he is to have been coached.

    I also deplore the degree to which some students are dragooned into coaching colleges, but if that explained everything, if indeed they are “hothouse plants” one would expect many more to wilt under pressure in high school–but most don’t. In very many cases the coaching was probably unnecessary!

    The coaching phenomenon does have a cultural basis in certain countries, especially Korea, where its prevalence causes local concern:

    Gap in education among the rich and poor widens: Those who can afford ‘hagwon’ and high-priced ‘kwawoe’ lessons more apt to get into top universities.

    In the affluent Ichon-dong area of Yongsan-gu, Seoul, a first grader who requested to be identified only as “Choi” treads back from school around 1:30 p.m.

    A stubby boy with spiked, bleached hair, he has all the appearances of a neighborhood punk. But he is a model boy any parent would love.

    He takes seven subjects a week in private tutoring – science, math, arts, piano, swimming, English and world history. These “kwawoe” classes begin around 4 p.m., and generally last about two to three hours.

    According to recent statistics released by the Korean Educational Development Institute, the cost of kwawoe done on an individual or group basis in seven subjects averaged 1.37 million won a month. Kwawoe done only through “hagwons” – learning institutes, which are cheaper than private tutors – in the same subjects averaged around 449,000 won per month. Choi takes a mixture of both hagwon and private tutor kwawoe classes.

    The Korean Herald

    Out of 1,431 youths in elementary, junior high and high schools polled, 36.6 percent, or 524, said they have felt the urge to commit suicide, the survey found.

    The survey was conducted by the Seoul Family Court’s Conference on Volunteers for Youth Protection.

    The Korean Herald

    While the coaching industry in our city began in the Korean community, then spread to the Chinese, it now involves children of many backgrounds, including native speakers. While we are right to deplore the extreme cases as robbing children of their leisure and perhaps stunting their creativity, we must also acknowledge the positive side–the dedication, the value placed on education, and the fact it is driven as much as anything by love.

    People are quite capable of having a range of “cultural preferences”. I, as a cultural preference, should be devoted to Rugby League; actually I couldn’t care less about it. Not only do “Asians” vary as much as anyone else, but they are even capable of adapting to circumstances. Some “Asian” kids even decide that lying on the beach and not thinking a lot are actually fair enough things to do. To some degree most migrant families become cultural hybrids, or become very adept at “code-switching”.

    Sometimes indeed, but not so much in Chinese as in Korean** families–and there are plenty of exceptions to this generalisation too–the pressure to “work hard” can lead to too narrow a life, too much pressure. Some students “break out” around Year 9-10 and take to truancy, begin to underachieve, and react to excess stress in fairly predictable ways. In a few cases this can lead to very serious consequences with the rebellious activity becoming very worrying to parents and teachers, with sometimes excessive punishments of students by parents, and so on. Here very sensitive handling of a major crosscultural problem is definitely needed.

    For many parents, getting involved in school activities can be a touch hard — if your English is a bit shaky, your Chinese PH D is not recognised here so you have to work seven days a week from 7 am to 10 pm in a corner store to keep your family going, and so on…. Many older children of migrants, many of them Old Boys, will recognise the picture I have just painted.

    The fact is too that more and more parents are becoming involved, and the current controversy should in fact increase that.

    We need to stay positive, rather than to condemn. We need to avoid stereotyping people, or seeing them as “them” when in fact they are “us”: we are all members of this one school family. We need to reach out, and I am pleased that Dr Jaggar and the school executive, and many others in the school, are doing just that.

    Neil Whitfield

    The problem of enrolling a child in a good school begins with kindergarten. The number of famous “name” schools is relatively small, and the competition to enter is tremendous. Certain famous schools in Seoul have arrangements for their students to advance to the next higher level big-name school. Parents are under great pressure to enter their children in good schools in Seoul. Their future depends on it, they say. Children are put under great pressure to pass entrance examinations. Extra tutors are often hired, and great time and expense is spent in preparing for the examinations.

    To fail an entrance examination is a family as well as a personal tragedy. One doctor gave up a promising career and moved to a new locality because his son failed to enter a desirable kindergarten. He could not stand the loss of face.
    — Paul S Crane, Korean Patterns, Seoul, Hollym Corporation, 3 ed. 1970.

    People do not abandon their values when they step off the plane at Mascot. Nor should it seem strange to us that parents may behave (though not always) in terms of what they know. There is a strong tendency in all of us to assess current situations in terms of what happened to us; hence some Old Boys may interpret the school in 2002 through a lens fashioned by their own unique vision of the school ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago.

    Just as many of us make adjustments to suit changed circumstances, so do many migrant families. It is interesting to note that Mainland Chinese society does not display the same intensity about coaching (which is hardly known there) as Korean society does–a good illustration of the folly of generalising about “Asians”. In coming to a new country, however, many parents feel their children are at a disadvantage and tend to embrace anything which promises to overcome that disadvantage. The range of adjustments migrants must make is of course enormous.

    Main Herald story.

    Good old boys push to keep Sydney High in the family
    By Gerard Noonan

    April 6 2002 (Sydney Morning Herald)

    A group of influential old boys at one of NSW’s top government schools is pushing for a change in government policy to allow sons and grandsons to attend the school without sitting the selective high school test.

    Sydney High is the state’s oldest selective school and the alma mater of more prominent Australians than any other school except Victoria’s Geelong Grammar.

    Its old boy union has recently formed a committee – including a former Wallaby, a sitting judge and a retired judge – to devise ways of balancing the highly selective entrance test with the perceived need to bind the school community by involving succeeding generations of students.

    But the formation of the committee has caused ructions in the extensive old boy network.

    One committee member, John Goddard*, a former senior government bureaucrat, said that “sibling rights” had been allowed since the school’s founding in the 19th century. Sons and grandsons of former pupils had been allowed entry even though they may not have met the selective criteria or even live in the school’s catchment area.

    The principal, Kim Jaggar, said yesterday that he understood the wish of old boys to preserve the school’s ethos, but those seeking government intervention on sibling rights and geographic boundaries for selective schools were “crying in the wilderness”.

    Those arrangements had ended in the 1970s under changes brought in by the Wran government.

    Mr Goddard said the fact that a selective test was the only benchmark was having a big impact on the ability of the school community to pull together.

    “The problem we’re facing these days is that we’re losing the family tradition where we got tremendous support for the school in all sorts of areas – we’ve lost all that.”

    But Dr Jagger said that while he had a mandate from the staff to preserve and enhance the school’s ethos, the approaches of sibling rights and geographical eligibility were “dead issues”.

    Instead, he is exploring ways of ensuring greater parental contact, especially through Saturday sport programs.

    “What ethos are we trying achieve? It’s the excellent all-rounder, a modern renaissance man, that we’re trying to produce – the image of the kid with football boots around his neck and carrying a violin case and his school bag may seem romantic, but training in teamwork and leadership are important,” Dr Jaggar said.

    The current edition of the old boys’ magazine has an interview with Graham King, a graduate of the school in 1950, who says the departmental rules about selective entry are “weakening the school”.

    “It’s obvious that sons of old boys should be allowed to go to the school,” he said.

    The article notes: “The demographic of the school are fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby. Old boys also argue that where former graduates living in the community have sons and guardians at the school there is greater parental involvement at the school.”

    The lobbying committee includes a former principal of the school, Bob Outterside, who played rugby union for Australia; Peter Anderson, the former state Labor minister; the retired federal judge Marcus Einfeld; and the sitting judge Rod Madgwick. Sydney High is the only government high school which is a member of the Greater Public Schools – the group of elite private schools which compete with each other in sport.

    Articles in the Old Boys Bulletin.

    “The demographics of the school are fast evolving and Year 7 is currently 90% Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby.”

    “‘It is obvious that sons of old boys should be allowed to go to the school,’ says Graham (King–class of 1950) ‘I have a mate whose grandsons are approaching the age to enrol at High, yet they won’t be able to under the selective criteria….'”

    It seems to have all begun in April 2001 with this letter:

    CLIVE GALEA (50) writes: “As an old boy, the father of three old boys, two of whom were prefects and one the School Vice-Captain and the grandfather of five boys (the oldest eight, the youngest 8 months) all of whom I had hoped would go to High I read with some interest Dr Jaggar’s open letter which accompanied the November OBU Bulletin. Despite the fact High remains, in Dr Jaggar’s words ‘The State Flagship in the East’ and has good academic results I fear the School is no longer the one which I and my sons attended.

    High has always been in the forefront of welcoming newcomers to our country and to assimilating them into the School community but under the new selection process that is no longer happening. When I was at the School, 1945-50 and during the 70s when I was the P&C Secretary for six years a strong racial and religious mix did not prevent most students joining in and partaking of the many and varied aspects of school life. Unfortunately, the students having most success with the new primary school entrance exam appear to have no interest in the School other than as a “Swot” factory and in denying themselves a rounded education could bring this fine school down.

    This comment is not intended as a racist statement but the imbalance in the make up of the student body is a fact. As a GPS School High is in a special position and like the other schools who specialise in music, agriculture and sports for example and which are now firmly established within the state system has special needs. Those special needs are a sufficient number of students in any Year 7 intake who can bring to the School something more than mere academic excellence and are prepared to give a firm undertaking to involve themselves in the School Family, particularly the Saturday GPS activities.

    During my time as P&C Secretary it was clear it was sons of old boys and indeed the old boy parents themselves who played a big and willing part in the School’s activities and while I would not expect sons of old boys to be given an easy entr? I am certain there would be sufficient numbers of such boys and other gifted boys who would be academically competitive and whose involvement could turn the School around. This could be done without prejudicing the rights of the boys who succeed in the selection exam.

    Like the fight to retain selective schools during the seventies this problem requires a political solution.

    At that time High P&C was at the forefront of the fight — and that battle was won. Now it is time to fight for High’s survival as a fit and proper representative of the State school system in the GPS.”

    *John Goddard’s letters

    The Editor
    Letters, S.M.H.

    The article in the S.M.H.on Saturday April 6 by Gerard Noonan relating to Sydney High School contains a factual error. It quotes me saying that sons and grandsons of Old Boys could in the past gain entry to the School without meeting the Selective Entry Test requirements. This has never been the case.

    At one period the School was area based on a drawing area of the Eastern Suburbs. Sons and grandsons of Old Boys were allowed entry if they lived outside that area provided they met the Selective Entry Test standards. This is no longer relevant as the School now draws from the whole of N.S.W.

    The Old Boys Union has formed a committee to work with the Principal to review the Selection Criteria. This review is in early days and as yet no clear outcomes have been determined. However the criteria for entry to Sydney High School will always include the Selective Entry Test even for sons and grandsons of Old Boys.

    John Goddard
    Sydney High School Old Boys Union

    John Goddard wrote a similar letter to the Telegraph following their editorial of April 18 2002. I omit the final paragraph as it duplicates the Herald one:

    In the Editorial of the Daily Telegraph of April 18 concern was expressed regarding entry to Sydney High School by sons of Old Boys. The Sydney High Old Boys Union totally agrees with these comments.

    Sydney High Old Boys are proud of their School, its traditions and achievements. In the Arts, academic and Sporting fields it has excelled for over a century. It makes no sense whatsoever that the Old Boys would in any way seek to lower any of the levels on which the school is based…

    Fair enough. Yet has not there been an explicit and implicit rhetoric of “decline” and “weakening” in some of what we have been hearing? Where has that come from? What, precisely, is declining, or has declined, or is about to decline? (N.W.)

    Some email responses

    From a parent

    I am the mother of ***** who is now in year ** of the school. I would like to let you know how grateful I am for your letter to the SMH. Although it does not appear in the front page of the Herald and may not have the impact of the article appeared on Sat, I hope it will at least correct some of the damaging impression about the school and its current students created by the comments of some of the “old boys”.

    The March issue of the [Old Boys’] Bulletin is the first issue that I have received and have a chance to read. I can’t describe to you how disturbed and upset I was (and still am) after reading it. The letters and comments made by some of the old boys were clearly directed at the current students with Asian background.

    They commented that the Asian students are “weakening” the school and some of the old boys complaining that their sons are not able to get into the school because they do not want to subject their sons to coaching! Since their sons/grandsons cannot gain entry, they are not going to support the school any more etc etc.

    Then part of an article from the Bulletin appeared on the front page of SMH and these old boys made comments attacking current students who unlike them do not have the social status and power to state their side of the story. I was thinking all over the weekend, what can I do and because I don’t think I can do much, I feel I have disappointed my son that I can’t stand up for him when these criticisms are clearly directed against students like him.

    He gained entry to the school because of his abilities. He works very hard and because the entry requirements are based on merits and not based on social status, he receives his chance to a good education. If what is being suggested by the old boys that old boys’ sons/grandsons/greatgrandsons will have automatic entry to the school, students like my son (newly arrived immigrants, with his father (my husband) working as a small clerk with low salary, parents not speaking excellent English) will never have a chance to enter Sydney High.

    Although I don’t think these old boys will get their way but their comments hurt the students and their parents with Asian background.

    From an ex-student, K C Lee.

    Having migrated to Australia from Malaysia back in 1988, it certainly was a definite culture shock for me and my family. Luckily however, English was never a problem as it is widely used as the country’s 2nd language (although with a rather odd sounding accent I must admit!) and as such communication with other people was never a problem for me. I was thrust straight into the Australian life and being one of two Asian students in the whole year, we basically had to assimilate into the culture which at that age wasn’t very hard at all. My parents were always happy to see that I settled into my new surroundings and always encouraged me to be a part of the community whether it be by joining Scouts, joining the local sailing club, etc.

    I count myself fortunate to have been brought up with 2 sets of values, one being the Australian one which I believe places a slightly higher emphasis on sports and the other being of a more general Asian value of academic achievement. I’ve always struggled to find a balance between the two and being not particularly gifted in either of them doesn’t help matters!

    So as we entered SBHS, most of us realised that yes it was a ‘special’ school as there were many gifted students both scholastically and sportingly. I myself was never a strong contender in either field; however I tried to my best ability to find a right balance between the two areas.

    From experience though, I strongly believe that most if not all the Asians in the school thoroughly enjoyed sports and the few that were physically lucky enough to be able to excel in any arena were always admired by their peers.

    Generally I totally agree with the thought that Asians above other groups concentrated highly on studies and placed sporting ability further down the ladder of priorities, due largely to their upbringing as most Asian parents have a popular belief that academic prowess was the be all and end all to a successful future and if you were good at sports, well then that’s just a bonus!

    While going through your sites and reading all the articles a simple question occured to me which I think some of the Old Boys should ponder. Would there still be any debate if the Asians in the school were successful in the traditional sports that the school partakes in? If Asians were to excel in both academia and sports and be more rounded individuals, and at the same time the school still maintain a large population of Asians, would there still be an issue or is the whole ‘weakening’ theory then simply a racially spurred on argument disguising itself as an attempt in maintaining the schools heritage?

    To tell you the truth, being an Asian on the outside, but feeling quite Australian on the inside, I’ve often found being amidst such large numbers of Asians quite daunting especially when they converse in their native tonque in complete disregard for others around them. Some might argue “Well, why should they care?”…but why come to Australia and pretend you’re overseas? Guess i’m moving off onto a bit of a tangent with this, but I’m presuming that because the segregation in the schools is quite apparent and you only have to look around during lunchtime for proof of that, that this is certainly going to be another key part of the argument?

    (It is, but with the greater numbers one finds a greater range, from those who seem to avoid contact with ‘homesick Chinese’ to those who do socialise with their own almost exclusively. The games on Moore Park are very often very multicultural, on the other hand. Consider this, though: do not English and Anglo-Australians also exhibit a range of mixing behaviour?–N W)

    Anyway, excuse my rather un-structured e-mail response as I have all these thoughts in my head regarding the issue and its hard to bring ’em all together into a cohesive form, but I guess its just an indication of this whole debate, that there are many more not so apparent issues surrounding it and underlying themes involved. This will continue though I’m sure with the structure of the current educational system in Australia and method in which students gain entry into selective high schools coupled with differences in background values as well as the ever changing population of Australia.

    Well, thats my two pence worth 🙂 from over here in London, where you’d be hard pressed at even finding an Asian in Chinatown! (Well not really, but we most definitely are a minority over here!)…and in the end, should this all even matter?

    In the words of a really wise person…”Peace!” 🙂

    Letters to newspapers

    I publish these without comment, except to say that the Herald did a pretty good job abridging mine. However, here are some missing bits, just out of interest:

    1. First, the school as a whole is about 78% non-English-speaking background at the moment. In Year 7 this figure stands at 86.6%. In that “NESB” figure are between 30 and 40 different language and dialect groups. Some local primary schools far exceed us: Eastlakes for example runs at about 98% NESB; the average in the Bondi District schools is approximately 45%. Our school is on the high end of the statistics because it draws on Greater Sydney, not just the Bondi District. No student in the school enters at Year 7 without having done all components of the Selective Schools Test. All of them speak and write English, as do the majority of their parents. Some students may have been speaking English for a comparatively short time, four years or less, and still require some consideration if they are to show their undoubted potential in academic English under examination conditions. The very top marks in English at the HSC in 2000 and 2002 went to “NESB” students, both “Asian” as it happens.

  • Sydney old boys’ only lesson is racial intolerance*

    * SMH Letters Page Headline 9 April, not a statement of fact! It is however a powerful former of perception…

    2. So the members of the Sydney Boys High old boy union (“Good old boys push to keep Sydney High in the family”, Herald, April 6-7) are calling for more balance in the school intake because “year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian”. Aside from its implicit racist overtones, this push, when taken to its logical conclusion, is illogical and self-defeating because the school will, over time, become either academically non-selective or more “Asian”, since their siblings, sons and grandsons will be able to attend the school – unless, of course, the rules will be changed again to allow only “non-Asian” siblings, sons and grandsons.
    David Leung, Alfords Point, April 7.

    3. As ESL teacher at Sydney Boys High I have been amazed to read that our school is “90 per cent Asian”. Since I am the one who compiles the statistics, I can assure readers this is nonsense.

    Sydney Boys High is currently 78 per cent non-English-speaking background. This means that 78 per cent of the students have someone in the family (as far back as grandparents if they have regular contact) who speaks a language other than English. In year 7, this figure is 86.6 per cent. It includes 30-40 language and dialect groups.

    Students in year 7 have gained entry through a transparent selection process with no questions asked about socio-economic status or ethnicity. All sat for the English component of the selective schools test.

    Many of our students are truly bilingual, an asset to be treasured by them personally and by the nation – for sound social and economic reasons.

    Sydney Boys High has long been a school that attracts migrant families who wish to see their sons prosper in their new land. The school is 100 per cent Australian, but it is 21st-century Australia and that makes all the difference.
    Neil James Whitfield, Surry Hills, April 8.

    4. I’m disgusted at the push to allow sons and grandsons of previous students to attend the school without sitting the selective schools test. This is clearly driven by racial and cultural intolerance: the older generation obsessed with poor results in rowing and rugby likewise ignore the school’s outstanding academic results.

    By the way, while rugby and rowing continue performing badly, volleyball and soccer are doing well.
    Mathew Dornan, Sydney High School class of 2000, Stanmore, April 6.

    5. I came from Vietnam but I am an Australian citizen. I believe that I am just a typical member of a very large group of Australians who are refugees and migrants. For 25 years I have been working and paying tax. Our children were born in Ryde and are attending a government selective school in Carlingford.

    In order to pay back our new country, which has kindly accepted us, we have been working hard and paying all our taxes. We have been struggling to balance family life with social obligations, both around the neighbourhood and at school, and at the same time, trying to raise our children to be good citizens.

    The only language my children have excelled in is English; the only anthem they know is Advance Australia Fair. Their physical bodies, like mine, are not built to play heavy sports, but they are trying and are average in most, from swimming to athletics, from soccer to tennis.

    I am sad when I continually read all the arguments relating to “students with Asian background”. What else do we have to do to satisfy what Jennifer Hewett says is a “balanced” criterion? Why can’t we just all be Australians?
    Christopher T. Nguyen, Ryde, April 12.

    6. Clive Galea (Letters, April 17) writes about the “community” and “culture” at Sydney High. I remember them only too well. The latter came in two forms.

    Culture with a capital “C” consisted largely of the fawning attention lavished on the muddied oafs and flannelled fools (and, even more adoringly, on the demi-gods of the rowing shed) who strutted about in their beribboned blazers, and from whose burly ranks the prefects were chosen, and whose gormless activities were held up to us each week at assembly as the summit of schoolboy achievement.

    Culture with a small “c” was Shakespeare, art, poetry, music, debating and other “sissy” pursuits.

    However, the two cultures usually sorted themselves out at final exam time, when the swots and sissies went on to university, and the muddied oafs (with a few exceptions) were visited by the lower horizons of mere physicality. So I can understand why some parents of today’s SHS students distance themselves from that community and culture. It was as transitory then as it is today, and even less significant.
    Robert Darroch, Bondi, April 17.

    7. The Daily Telegraph Saturday 20 April 2002

    I am pleased the Daily Telegraph editorial of April 18 has taken up the Sydney Boys High School issue. As an old boy of recent vintage (class of 2000) whose academic leanings rather than ethnicity dominated any interest in sport, I observe that SBHS has not won a Head of the River since 1959 nor the first grade Rugby premiership since 1973. That is to say, we have been unsuccessful in the traditional sports for much longer than we have had a high intake of Asian students.

    We cannot hope to be the academic heavyweights we are and mix it with the likes of Joeys and Shore at Rugby and rowing. If that leaves some old boys unsatisfied then they should bite the bullet and start their own “tradition” at one of those schools, where their sons’ moderate intelligence would go unnoticed in the selection process.
    Mitchell Todd Comans, Chipping Norton

  • By email from a parent

    Peter Renkert, 20 April 2002

    The issue currently before us would seem to be about the appropriateness and fairness(to all) of the selection process.

    If you choose to post media articles on this site wouldn’t it be appropriate to post all of them, or maybe just a few which have a different view to your own. If an issue cannot be debated without the race card being played we are in a sorry state.

    Your agenda seems quite obvious-how about some evenhandedness? The Old Boys’ quoted ramblings (which they now deny) have played right into your hands by muddying the water. We all know what the real issue is so let’s have the debate without the innuendo.

    Examples you might consider:

    Alan Jones segment- available from 2GB- Tues or Wed of this week
    David West article SMH 19/4 ‘Some students lose when the test is unfair’
    Deidre Macken article SMH 13/4 ‘TER’s and the dangers of a cultural deficit’
    Fran Brew SMH Letters to the Editor 12/4
    Jennifer Hewitt SMH 11/4 ‘Let’s not shun the school race debate’ etc etc.

    20 April 2002

    Just when we thought it was safe! One would have hoped Dr Jaggar’s statement should have been the last word on the subject, but no…

    On Thursday The Telegraph had an editorial; today Gerard Noonan writes another article in The Sydney Morning Herald.

    The most interesting part of Noonan’s article was the contribution from Dr Miraca Gross:

    Professor Miraca Gross, director of the Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre at the University of NSW, has dealt with gifted students for several decades. She says students selected were not simply those who could successfully complete a “tick-a-box” test.

    “It’s a kid who’s been performing extremely well and able to cope with the advanced and fast-paced work in selective high schools,” she said.

    Gross said students from immigrant backgrounds – Jewish in earlier years and East Asian in more recent times – shared a common factor, she said. There was almost a worship of work which was nowhere near as evident in students from an Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic background.

    “There’s a kind of wanting to honour the potential that one has and wanting to take in knowledge – it’s almost a worship of learning,” she said.

    Citing a Confucian notion that it was a pleasure to learn and regularly review things already learnt, Professor Gross said people imbued with a Confucian ethic absorbed education like food and drink.

    “For them, learning is not artificially confined to the period of 8.30am to 3.30pm Monday to Friday,” she said.

    “This is very far from the Australian, laid-back, ‘it’s cool to be a fool’ … approach.”

    But Gross had detected a shift in Australian attitudes. “Fifteen years ago it was not the done thing to admit you were bright, or that your kids were bright,” she said.

    “There’s been a cultural shift in our attitudes towards gifted children, although, tragically, not a cultural shift towards Asian migrants.”

    I received another letter from the Chinese mother quoted on this site; she wanted to know how to help. Let us hope this desire is widespread; it could be the breakthrough we have sought.

  • Mr John Goddard’s letter (above) eventually appeared in the Telegraph.

    A system in need of closer examination

    By Jennifer Hewett
    April 25 2002

    The commentary within this article in this font is by Neil Whitfield and is representative of his views only; its object is to encourage critical reading of this and similar articles.

    Jostling for a position in selective schools in our increasingly competitive society is creating multicultural frictions.

    Or, a range of degrees of acceptance of multiculturalism and “otherness” is reflected in much reporting and thinking about this topic?

    My column about the extremely high percentage of students of Asian background at selective high schools (April 11) provoked such an extraordinary rush of emails and calls and letters to the editor that I think it’s worth another go.

    Certainly it was a vigorous start to a debate that clearly has been fermenting furiously below the surface. Some of the responses were highly critical – including plenty of references to racism – but many correspondents wanted to add their views to a sensitive and complicated issue.

    These fell into two broadly defined lines of argument. One was the general belief that academic excellence, as defined by the selective schools test, was ultimately the only fair way of choosing students and that any discussion of cultural background was inherently racist and divisive.

    The other was the view that the selective school test was leading to severe imbalances in producing well-rounded students with a range of interests – as opposed to too many products of coaching colleges devoted to getting the highest marks possible.

    Despite the following paragraph, the article here immediately runs into a problem by attempting to reduce the discussion to two terms only, a good example of the tendency in Western thought to fall into dichotomies, into binary opposites, what S I Hayakawa in Language in Thought and Action called the “two-valued orientation.” It is possible for many cases to be in fact combinations of both terms–to be a “product” of a coaching college and have a wide range of interests, to combine “getting the highest marks possible” with a broader approach to life. Similarly, not all discussion of “balance of talent” is “racist and divisive,” though some undoubtedly owes more than a little to the “we are being swamped by Asians” school of analysis.

    Within those rough boundaries, of course, there are many nuances and politically fraught questions – from the role of selective schools to the standard of public schools generally to the evolving nature of Australian multicultural society.

    The many responses from students of Asian background and their parents I found particularly interesting. Victor Leung, a self-identified Asian parent of a Year 7 student at Fort Street High, for example, said it was neither “healthy nor desirable” for anyone that so many selective schools were dominated by Asian students and that more “diversity” was needed.

    He suggested a mix of two selection standards, including one which also recognised special achievements in areas such as music, sports, drama, computers and debating. It was a view backed by a 1998 graduate from James Ruse. Kim-Son Nguyen said the proposal by a committee of old boys at Sydney High School to give some extra weighting to siblings or sons of old boys went against the meritocratic ethos that underpinned the whole idea of selective schools.

    But he suggested a place in the selection process for extracurricular activities and said that interviews might be necessary as well. “While I did participate in some extracurricular activities, as did a lot of my classmates, it seemed that every new lot of Year 7s was more academically orientated, a product of the coaching college and the parental pressure gravy train,” he wrote.

    Another parent of European background – who has two children at a selective high – said he and his wife had decided not to try to send their third child because of their disillusionment.

    “As an immigrant myself, I find that one of the great things about Australia is the racial mix,” he wrote. “However, there is no real mix at this school: it is for all intents and purposes monocultural. That in itself wouldn’t be a problem if it were not for the fact that one feature of this culture is its view of education as a meal ticket.”

    But is that wrong?

    To begin with the parent of European background (“I am an immigrant myself”): this is a broad-brush view that falls apart as soon as one looks at actual individual people and their lives and aspirations. It could equally have been applied to the European Jewish families whose sons attended Sydney Boys High in the 1950s onwards–and possibly was at the time, by some.

    All Australians are entitled, in fact, to see a good education as a “meal ticket”. I, an Anglo-Australian who was the first in my family to attend Sydney Boys High and University (quite a while after our ancestor arrived in chains in 1821) was also taught that a good education was a meal ticket. What’s the difference? (Except to say it is not always true!)

    The “monocultural” argument does not hold up either. This school (and other selective schools) operates inevitably in an Australian context with Australian curricula and Australian values. The student mix is much more various than “lumpers” allow, even if the furphy of 90% “Asian” had been true. Whatever their backgrounds, the students range from those born in and/or totally educated in Australia (the vast majority) to those who have arrived within the last five years. They automatically spend their recess/lunch, very many of them, playing handball, basketball, touch football, soccer, cricket, and other pursuits that have hardly altered in the past decades. They are not all “weedy little swots” by any means. Why, some are even rebellious and/or bone idle. Ask any Year Adviser! The degree of hybridity among the students, the degree to which they make a mockery of broad cultural generalisations, is what has been the strongest lesson for me in my almost twelve years working with adult and school-age English language learners.

    It is interesting that Victor Leung’s suggestion is in fact what is practised in China, according to a member of the SBHS class of 2001 who was born in and educated up to Year 8 in Shanghai. There the top selective schools take a proportion of their intake on additional criteria, such as sports or music, in order to have a more rounded population. Coaching is not a feature of Chinese life, and in fact the Chinese Government in recent years has attempted to crack down on excessive homework! (You may find that story in a High Notes in early 2000.) The scene in some other countries in the region has been very different. Again, generalising about “Asians” proves to be as fatuous as generalising about “Caucasians”. (The ABC-TV documentary series A Yen for a Dollar has some relevance here.)

    It is interesting to reflect a little more on the discussion I had with that member of the class of 2001. He had himself (in common with many recently arrived bilingual students) not had coaching, at least not until Year 12 when he acquired an English tutor, being well aware that he was severely disadvantaged in that subject and needed to do the best he could since two units of English count in the UAI. He achieved his goals through sheer hard work. He also confirmed what I had suspected, that Chinese parents (such as his own) applied to Sydney the rules they had known in China, where one did not get into a good university unless one had gone to a good school. His advice, he now says, to parents is to say that although he was happy with Sydney Boys High, it is not necessary to sacrifice everything to get into a “good school.” If the child is happy to go to a local school, the child should go there; you have just as good a chance from there to get into a University and a good job.

    He had also been keen to play sport, but distance and the pressure of having to achieve a very good English mark from behind the starting line made this very difficult. In China he had played sport.*

    In 1990-1991 I taught English in a Language College, mainly to Mainland Chinese who had come over after Tiananmen. These thousands of people are the parents of many we now find at selective schools. In China, very many of them had occupied good positions and were often university graduates–teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, artists, writers, engineers, even sports teachers and administrators, as well as some factory workers and tradespeople. (Peasants were rather under-represented.) They were most often unable to operate here at the level they had in China, but they were determined their children would be able to. This cohort, along with those leaving Hong Kong around 1997, has given us a particularly select band of Chinese parents. Given the Chinese population of Sydney has quadrupled (at least) since 1985, it is not surprising that large numbers now appear in selective schools.

    Coaching did begin mostly in the Korean community, who have replicated the hagwon and kwawoe schools of their home country. However, many parents of non-English-speaking background (Chinese, Tamils, others), perceiving their children may be at a disadvantage compared to native speakers, felt(however spuriously in some cases) such places offered their children a chance to compete.

    There is no coaching college I know of that would knock back paying customers on ethnic lines, so any one could play if they wanted to. You did not have to be filthy rich to buy a term at least of tuition. Mind you there have been some colleges that screen their intakes so only those students who would pass anyway actually get coached; this makes the college look really good! Now that the tests are free on line, the whole industry may have to fight a bit, I would think, and the situation should be seen to be fairer as primary schools may (though technically they should not) give practice tests to anyone who wants them.

    As to Kim-Song Nguyen’s perception of Year 7 students, he may find that exactly the same was said of his cohort when they were in Year 7. A lot of changes happen between ages 11 and 18, and it is a commonplace that there is always a “generation gap” in perceptions by senior students of those five years or so below them.

    It is a legitimate role of the school to encourage students and parents to participate as much as possible in all a school has to offer, to facilitate that by overcoming logistical or cultural impediments that may arise, and to do this positively so that the benefits of such particpation come to be accepted by the majority.

    Many other correspondents complained the arguments about selective schools reflected little more than middle-class angst from parents of Anglo background whose own kids weren’t prepared to work hard enough to be competitive.

    Andrew Chia said that if there was a lack of Anglo Australian students in selective schools, it was a problem with not having enough selective schools.

    “Don’t make the people the problem; this is the path of stereotyping and ultimately, bigotry and hatred.”

    Andrew Chia is right in the second paragraph, but the idea of solving the problem with more selective schools is quite odd. Having no selective schools would definitely solve the problem, and put many coaching colleges out of business, in many cases a rather good idea. Having more selective schools would be self-defeating for the system–the “other” schools would become even more depressed, the city/country divide would become even sharper, the selective schools would merely become less selective and the “name” schools would attract as much competition as ever!

    Another university student of Bangladeshi parents said that as someone who worked and studied hard at public school, he “was constantly harassed by Anglo peers for being a ‘square”‘ while some parents complained about the school system being “overrun with ‘f—ing Asians’.”

    Despite the disagreements, the overwhelming message was the passionate desire to achieve the best education for life in an inclusive, multicultural and increasingly competitive society. But the jostling for position is creating the normal frictions and fears of being left out – from people of all sorts of backgrounds for all sorts of reasons.

    Talking about that – and whether the system can work better – still seems a good idea to me.

    Right on, Jennifer Hewett! Can’t disagree with that, as long as we are all clear about what we are discussing. In sum, this is quite a useful article.

    * * *


    About five hours after putting Jennifer Hewett’s story on the site I received an email from the Year 12 2001 student I have been referring to:

    I think that sums up a whole bunch of what I have said. Truly, I think a school like Sydney High has offered me a lot, not only academically, but socially and with other commitments (compared to my previous school). And indeed, I really intended to do something more for the school, but was put off by the pressure and school work.

    And one thing I probably forgot to tell you about, was I actually said to my dad’s work-mates (4 of them), who all have kids in Year 8 in SBHS : “Participate in everything being offered now, and enjoy the school life until Year 10. And when you are in Year 11, try to get back a bit on to study, and then in Year 12, try to work hard.

    In this way, you are not going to regret that you have missed out 6 years of school life,you can make the most out of SBHS–in terms of your all-round-personality, and you will actually do better in the end anyway.” (Because I implied that if you work too hard from the beginning, by the time you get to Year 12, you will be sick of it.)

    I suspect some of the changes people are hoping for in increased participation in school life are just a matter of talking with the people involved, showing tact and cultural sensitivity, and being patient. Thanks for the thoughtful letter, X., and the frank discussion the day before.

    And thanks to Jennifer Hewett for quite a friendly note received about the same time as X’s letter!

    Racism No Way

    This site is designed and edited from the Department of Education and Training in Sydney, but is endorsed by all Departments of Education in Australia.

    I urge all members of the school family to visit it.

    There is something there for everyone–students, teachers, parents. By visiting their library section you can access all the relevant policies of NSW and all Australia. You may also learn about migration issues, about the changing policies towards migrants, and many other things.

    There is a section called What is Racism? Here is part that may be well worth considering in the light of current arguments about Sydney Boys High:

    Institutional racism (or systemic racism) describes forms of racism which are structured into political and social institutions. It occurs when organisations, institutions or governments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights.

    This form of racism reflects the cultural assumptions of the dominant group, so that the practices of that group are seen as the norm to which other cultural practices should conform. It regularly and systematically advantages some ethnic and cultural groups and disadvantages and marginalises others.

    Institutional racism is often the most difficult to recognise and counter, particularly when it is perpetrated by institutions and governments who do not view themselves as racist. When present in a range of social contexts, this form of racism reinforces the disadvantage already experienced by some members of the community. For example, racism experienced by students at school may result in early school dropout and lower educational outcomes. Together with discrimination in employment, this may lead to fewer employment opportunities and higher levels of unemployment for these students when they leave school. In turn, lower income levels combined with discrimination in the provision of goods and services restrict access to housing, health care and life opportunities generally. In this way, institutional racism may be particularly damaging for minority groups and further restrict their access to services and participation in society.

    This page, which is purely an archive of some historical interest perhaps, has been attracting a lot of spam. I am therefore closing comments. If you have something you want to say, use the contact page.