Do selective schools add value, or skim the cream?

In Australia, the selective schools debate has so far been pretty much fact-free. By definition, selective schools get more academically talented kids, so the fact that they also do well in final exams doesn’t tell us whether these schools are adding value – relative to other schools. But if the findings of a new UK study apply in Oz, the answer should perhaps be that selective schools add a bit of value, but not much.

Selective Schools and Academic Achievement
Damon Clark
In this paper I consider the impact of attending a selective high school in the UK. Students are assigned to these schools on the basis of a test taken in primary school and, using data on these assignment test scores for a particular district, I exploit this rule to estimate the causal effects of selective schools on test scores, high school course taking and university enrollment. Despite the huge peer advantage enjoyed by selective school students, I show that four years of selective school attendance generates at best small effects on test scores. Selective schools do however have positive effects on course-taking and university enrollment, evidence suggesting they may have important longer run impacts.

Incidentally, I tried about five years ago to get data from New South Wales and Victoria to perform a similar exercise (using regression discontinuity on the selective schools entrance exams). Both states refused to provide it.

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14 Responses to Do selective schools add value, or skim the cream?

  1. This interests me. I am a high school teacher and I have taught in both public and private systems. I have taught classrooms full of geniuses and classrooms full of potential criminals.

    One thing that public schools have, which private schools generally lack, is the presence of disruptive students. The actions of a disruptive student means that a teacher spends an inordinate amount of time trying to control this student – or a group of disruptive students – while the rest of the class remains untaught and bored. In fact, I found it very difficult to remember certain students in my classes because they were quiet most of the the time.

    I have often wondered what would happen if I had the ability to eject a disruptive student from a class permanently. First of all, this would be a “win-win” situation – the student doesn’t want to be there and I don’t want him there. Everybody wins. Secondly, without the disruptive student present, more time could be spent in quality education. Although most students moan and groan about school, I have found that the majority of students do actually want to learn – even those in public schools. Once a disruptive influence is removed, students have a greater amount of time spent on actual learning.

    In essence, therefore, a “trade off” does exist between keeping disruptive students in class and removing them permanently. I think that the educational loss experienced by the disruptive student will be more than made up by the gain that the other students in class would have.

    Personally, I believe that the cause of low educational outcomes in public schools can be attributed to the influence and presence of disruptive individuals.

    Private schools do have disruptive students as well (I have been in private schools that have them). The advantage that private schools have is that, firstly, that the sheer number of disruptive students is quite small in comparison with the rest of the student body and, secondly, that the school has the ability to expel disruptive students more easily than public schools.

    I think alternative forms of schooling for disruptive students is a good solution – even if the alternative is to be found within the institution itself. I have often wished, as a teacher, to have the power to permanently remove disruptive students from my class. Most teachers would feel the same.

    I’ve rambled, but you can see the economic benefits of what I’ve rambled about surely?

  2. Graham Young says:

    Andrew, I’ve always thought that one of the biggest benefits of private schooling was not strictly academic, but in terms of social networking. Are there any surveys taking a long-term view of where students end up in terms of career, controlling for socio-demographic factors?

    I also wonder whether a small benefit in terms of educational outcomes at a crucial stage in someone’s career might not have an effect which is extremely disproportionate on their eventual success. For example, getting into medicine, or not getting into medicine might be a matter of a couple of points of educational performance, but those couple of points could be worth a huge amount of lifetime earnings, not to mention the social status they can confer.

  3. Eric says:

    Selective schools confer advantages to those in them, but by taking the best students, they leave other schools worse off. Perhaps the more important question is whether the whole system is better of or not.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    OSO, my understanding of the peer effects literature is that the ‘shining star effect’ tends to be smaller in magnitude than the ‘rotten apple effect’: which would bear out your own experience. Interestingly, this also suggests that Eric may be overplaying the loss to other schools. I agree that the systemwide approach is worth studying, but if the shining star effect is small, then non-selective schools aren’t losing much from having the class nerd plucked out.

    Graham, perhaps the university enrolment findings in the paper suggest the kind of effect you suggest – though my suspicion is that ‘networking’ is less important than merely being around a lot of other people who are applying to university.

  5. backroom girl says:

    Interesting to speculate on why NSW and Vic refused to supply you with the data you wanted to test the effectiveness of selective schools. Does this suggest that they only have them because of political pressure, not because they believe they actually work?

  6. Brendan says:

    I do believe that the NSW and Vic governments believe in selective schools but that the powerful Teachers Unions oppose them on ideological grounds. They are probably scared of upsetting the teachers unions if the findings are positive.

  7. conrad says:

    Looking at the discussion, perhaps it should be State schools losing values, rather than private schools increasing it.

  8. Graham – That could only be true of a relatively small number of top private schools. It can’t explain the long-term growth in private school enrolments, driven by low-fee schools few people have ever heard of with unetworked parents.

  9. reason says:

    OSO has made what I consider THE critical observation. The finding of only a small benefit from selective schools (in spite of an almost certain large reduction in disruptive pupil effects) suggests that handling disruptive pupils should be the cost-effective approach to improving overall school outcomes.

    Suggesting that some children are not problems, in and of themselves is the greatest mistake made during the liberal concensus that formed in the 1960s and 1970s. “Childhood innocence” is an unfortunate intellectual invention.

  10. reason says:

    You see I don’t believe you “teach” children. You allow them to learn. OSO has it right!

  11. Chris Curtis says:


    What powerful teachers union? There isn’t one in Victoria.

  12. Hi Andrew,

    The NSWDET recently made a great deal of their “value-added” data reflecting that selective schools add an average of 2 points to their students projected HSC subject scores. Seemed to me to be a very small increase but the DET were excited about it. My own research supports the creaming off the top thesis, see op-ed piece above.

    Linda Graham
    Faculty of Education & Social Work
    The University of Sydney

  13. katie says:

    i ama kid and i hate selctive high schools because they put so much pressure on us to get in. parents send kids to coaching3 days a week.

  14. Patrick says:

    I went to a selective school, and I made them deal with a disruptive student 🙂 They did pretty well.

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