When someone says ‘selective school’, what do you think of? Two statements come to mind: ‘you must be so smart’, and ‘isn’t everyone there Asian?’ As a former selective school student, I’m glad people automatically assume intelligence, but I’m more hesitant in my response to the second remark.
Don’t get me wrong, I proudly call myself an Australian Chinese or, more recently, ‘rice’ (Australian grown, Asian origin), but there is something insidious in that one sweeping question.
It’s true that looking at the faces around the school, many of them are indeed from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). However, the question must be asked: why does this matter anyway?
In 2015, I came across an article in the Good Weekend titled ‘Testing Times and Tiger Parents’ by Anna Broinowski. Eager to see what the wider public were saying about selective schools, I began to read.
But I was disappointed. Disappointed to find the author continually coming back to the same cultural stereotypes, uninformed, and sometimes straight-out racist, comments from random parents, subtly playing on fears of the ‘changing face of Australia’.
One parent was quoted as saying, ‘[Selective schools are] 98 per cent Asian, full of kids who rote-learn’, with the author making no kind of judgement on the remark, instead preferring to let it hang there as an offensive ‘fact’. The ‘rote learning’ I can only assume they are talking about is the academic coaching and tutoring some students (non-Asian background included) undertake.
It’s baffling to me why tutoring is so often a dirty word among some parents, and certainly among authors of pieces on selective schools, treated with shame and secrecy. Rosemary Neill, in the 2016 article ‘Hyper Racialised’ Selective Schools Broaden Ethnic Divide’, wrote that it was ‘time for a confession…[she] reluctantly agreed [to allow coaching for her willing son]’. By framing it in this way, the legitimacy of a beneficial practice is undermined, which at best (but that’s not great either) creates divisions between those who do and those who don’t. At worst, they deter students who actually need additional help.
Of course, as with any extra-curricular activity, if it’s restricting a child from having a childhood, there is something amiss. However, it is widely acknowledged that to be the best at something, to improve or to succeed beyond peers, extra practice is required. The same can be said for sporting goals and performing arts dreams, so why not for academic excellence? The former especially is revered in countries like Australia, yet strangely not the latter.
Perhaps it is because academic coaching seems to be strongly linked with the wrath of the tiger parent (as summarised within Amy Chua’s book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’).
But what is a tiger parent? Seemingly, one who prioritises education, discipline and respect—in themselves not negative things. Of course, this can go to extreme,s but we must be wary about ascribing these features to the ‘right’ demographic. It’s not simply those of Asian descent, but indeed applicable to the general migrant story and, surprise surprise, Australia is filled with those (hint: everyone)!
After dismantling the White Australia Policy that forcibly restricted any non-Anglo migration, it makes sense that there appears to be more non-Anglo migrants now than ever before. As Alice Pung wrote in the Monthly Magazine in 2012, an effective way of shifting class in a society is through education, which easily explains why there is a strong focus on this in migrant families.
Selective schools were set up precisely for that reason: to help families and students who were motivated, but who did not have the financial means. Looking over yearbooks from the past, it’s easy to see the waves of immigration on the pages as faces and surnames change— Jewish, Mediterranean, Vietnamese and so on. Who knows? Perhaps by the time I return to the school, the student body will be comprising of families hailing from Northern Africa adding to the dynamic history of the school.
Most of the articles I’ve read about selective schools quote the studies of Australian Chinese academic Christina Ho, who herself attended a selective school. Her papers ‘Segregation and White Flight’ (2011) and ‘People Like Us’ (2015) discuss the issue of racial polarisations within selective schools. Not laying blame or fear to a particular group, she simply states what could have caused it and why extreme imbalances should be amended.
What is interesting is that the authors who use her source material choose to focus only on certain aspects of the paper, i.e. the ‘white flight’, and how there are higher populations of students from LBOTE. What they choose to ignore is the motivation for each demographic. Perhaps most glaring is the way they glaze over other pointed remarks Ho makes ,such as ‘The ‘white flight’ from these schools must partly reflect…unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children’.
Forgive me if I’m jumping to conclusions but it seems strange that racism, as unconscious as it may be, is not publically identified as a reason for this ‘ethnic polarisation’. Ho makes clear the motivations that families have for revering selective schools (opportunity and finances), but both Neill and Broinowski appear to pin the fear on the notion that Anglo families are being driven away from those schools.
This also feeds into the notion of the ‘Asianisation’ of Australia, implying that Asians are ‘taking over’—more specifically, changing the ethnic landscape from what Australia is (artificially) perceived to be. I can’t help but yell internally ‘HOW DARE YOU’ to the forces that be for the arrogance in thinking that this is ‘their original land’, when it was taken from Indigenous peoples (but that is another issue).
There is also a double standard at play where authors write sympathetically of Anglo students ‘sticking together’ due to feeling ‘alienated’, yet if non-Anglo students were to do the same, it’s likely to appear as ‘self segregation’ or ‘resistance to assimilation’.
Underpinning those articles is, I believe, the absurd idea that due to our ethnicity, our vibrant ‘other’ cultures, we are not fundamentally ‘Australian’. If not, why constantly mention the high number of LBOTE students? If some can’t explicitly identify this ‘ethnicness’ as reason for their distaste, they can instead point out other ‘features’ identified with the general demographic, such as selective schools themselves, academic coaching and the competitive culture.
This attitude is what leads a journalist to write, with surprise, that ‘students appear to be of Chinese…descent, but their accents are broad Aussie and they’re lively…individual’, as if we were just ‘grade chasing automatons’ and haven’t lived here for all or most of our lives.
I’m not a stereotype, so why should others comment on my life and school as if it were one? When I attended school, I was academically challenged, but also involved in sporting exchanges, pursued my interest in music and musicals and participated in volunteering initiatives.
Coming from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, we could also make fun of each other and laugh about our ‘ethnicness’, or lack of, in a manner of acceptance, mutual understanding and self-deprecation. To those outside the school, it may appear to have been centring everything along race lines, but the reality was that it afforded a new freedom where we could speak and not represent our entire race. We could be both Asian and Australian. There were no doubts about anyone else’s belonging or identity, Anglo or otherwise it was just who they were.
For some others, school may have been all about their studies, but it’d be wrong to talk on their behalf, as we all have different experiences and motivations. It’s more worthwhile to talk with those students themselves instead of using preconceived ideas and presumptions to form an opinion.
I attempted to do this by conducting a basic survey among my cohort about their time at the school. I collected responses from just under a quarter of the cohort. Two of the questions asked what was the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ thing about the school, and the results were still surprising although expected. For most, the ‘best thing’ was that they found a group of students who they could relate strongly to, however, that also helped constitute the ‘worst thing’—‘the people’, and the competitiveness that brought. While not ideal, it is rational to believe that if one has similar goals and values, they will feel as if they are ‘competing’ with their peers, causing a sometimes-stressful environment.
Indeed, selective schools should be discussed to continually find new ways of improving and managing stress. But the discussion needs to be fair, and ultimately consider the real experiences of the students who attend them—and not about outdated, uniformed assumptions of entire ethnic groups.