New South Wales faces testing times over tutoring

Concern that expensive tutoring is giving wealthy children an unfair advantage

The Australian state of New South Wales is looking at ways to develop tests for selective school entry to prevent students - many of whom are from Asian backgrounds - from gaining an advantage by spending thousands of dollars on private tutoring.

At selective schools in the country's largest city, Sydney, up to 97 per cent of enrolments are students from non-English backgrounds, according to government data.

An expert on education and ethnicity, Dr Christina Ho, from the University of Technology Sydney, said most of these students are from migrant families from China, South Korea, India and other countries across Asia.

The result, she said, is a "racialised" environment in which Anglo-Australian parents often feel resentful towards parents of high-achieving Asian-background students, many of whom use private tutoring.

"Some Anglo-Australian parents feel their kids might be left behind because their kids are not going for tutoring. They see it as an unfair advantage because Asian parents are pushing their children into tutoring," she told The Straits Times.

Dr Ho said the use of tutoring was also creating sharp socio-economic divides, with only a tiny proportion of students from poorer backgrounds making it into selective schools.

She said selective schools cause a brain drain from other schools and lead to segregation.

UNFAIR ADVANTAGE

Cashed-up parents are gaming the system by pushing their kids through expensive pre-admission coaching and tutoring programmes... Talented should mean talented, not rich.

AN EDITORIAL IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, on July 21.

  • KEY DATA

  • • About 13 per cent to 17 per cent of students in Australia have tutoring.

    • Main subjects for tutoring are mathematics (64 per cent of tutored students) and English (63 per cent).

    • Other popular subjects for tutoring are general science, legal studies, business studies, and physics and other sciences.

    • Of tutored students, 54 per cent spend A$60 (S$65) a week and 18 per cent spend A$101 to A$150 per week

    • In New South Wales, 14,458 students sat this year's test for entry to selective high schools, competing for 4,226 places

The concerns about the widespread use of tutoring prompted an announcement by the New South Wales Department of Education to overhaul the entry test for its selective schools. This could involve basing entry on IQ tests that assess cognitive skills, problem-solving tasks that assess critical thinking skills, and even a portfolio of the student's work.

The Department's Secretary, Mr Mark Scott, revealed the proposal in a speech on July 21, noting his concern about the growing public perception that tutoring was an essential ingredient for admission to selective schools or special classes for gifted students. He said a review of selective school entry and the overall approach to educating gifted students would be completed later this year.

"We don't want there to be a perception that the pathway into selective schools has to come through intensive and expensive coaching programmes," he said.

"Parents can spend more than A$20,000 (S$21,650) a year on preparation for OC (opportunity, or gifted, classes) or selective high-school tests."

He added: "I think there is an argument that some families might just feel that the cost involved with coaching makes it not worthwhile for their children to even apply."

The tutoring industry has grown dramatically in Australia, making it harder for those who cannot afford one-on-one lessons, which can cost more than A$100 an hour.

New South Wales has almost 50 selective schools, which are public schools but achieve some of the best results in the state. Last year, all five of the top-ranked schools in the final-year high school examination were selective schools.

"Cashed-up parents are gaming the system by pushing their kids through expensive pre-admission coaching and tutoring programmes," said an editorial in the state's biggest selling newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, on July 21. "Talented should mean talented, not rich."

The Australian Tutoring Association, the national peak body for tutors, was more cautious, saying parents were still likely to use tutors, even if it was to assist with preparing for IQ tests.

The association's chief executive, Mr Mohan Dhall, told The Straits Times he supported plans to expand the ways in which students are tested. But he expressed concern about potentially relying on subjective assessments by teachers of a student's skills or creative abilities.

"There is merit in extending the way we measure and understand what constitutes a gifted profile," he said.

"The fact is that if you change the rules about entry, hard-working families will still seek tuition... The changes will not in any way affect tutoring. It will affect how tutoring is done."

Dr Ho said she supported the government's effort to combat the use of tutoring.

"These are very welcome proposals, but I am not convinced you can come up with an admissions test that is tutoring-proof," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'New South Wales faces testing times over tutoring'. Print Edition | Subscribe