The photographs that line the halls of some of Sydney’s most competitive public schools show a gradual change in the make-up of the student population over the past three decades – from mostly white to largely Asian. The children of Asian migrants have come to dominate the selective secondary school system not just in Sydney, but across Australia – they now account for between 80 and 90 per cent of students. The names of selective schools in New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital city, that cater to the state’s best and brightest students almost always appear in the lists of high achievers in statewide exams. Graduates of these schools often go on to university, and to study in fields where outstanding academic achievement is required: medicine, law and economics. In terms of student achievement, selective schools (which test and accept high-achieving students, unlike comprehensive schools which accept all students) often rank alongside New South Wales’ elite private schools – which charge tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition fees. The success of Asian students in winning places at selective schools is sometimes resented in the wider Australian community. The disproportionate success of students with Asian backgrounds in attaining places in top government-run schools is mirrored across the English-speaking world, including in the United States and Britain . This is not an easy subject to discuss, says Christina Ho, 46, an associate professor of social and political science at the University of Technology Sydney. Chinese-Australians hunt white men who hit Asian delivery rider The Hong Kong-born author and academic, who migrated to Australia in the 1970s as a young child, went to a selective school herself; she graduated from North Sydney Girls High School in the 1980s. She is the author of the book Aspiration and Anxiety: Asian Migrants and Australian Schooling , published last month. Ho, looking to inspire an “honest conversation” that extends beyond the racial stereotypes of so-called tiger moms (strict mothers) and dragon children (ambitious, focused ones), says she has found that nations tend to discuss race and the ethnic mix in schools in very different ways. “New York has a similar scenario, dominated by Asian migrants, which is politicised as it includes the exclusion of African-Americans and Latino people from the selective school system,” she says. “However, Americans are comfortable talking about race , whereas Australia is not. I wanted to write a book that shows the background, the aspiration and anxiety you [have] as a migrant. As a newcomer, you’re worried about a lot of things, and getting a good education is your insurance policy against discrimination.” “A lot of people think these tiger mothers are just crazy, and that builds resentment from non-Asians,” Ho adds. “I like to joke that my own mother would have been a tiger mum if the resources were there.” In some Korean, Chinese and South Asian communities, it can be like a badge of honour. On the flip side, it’s also one of family shame if you don’t get in Christina Ho, associate professor of social and political science at the University of Technology Sydney The fear of social inequality is grounded in reality for migrants, Ho says. She notes a labour market experiment in 2011 found that Australians with Chinese names had to submit 68 per cent more job applications than people with English-sounding names to land the same number of interviews. For many migrant parents, securing a place at a selective school for their child is a small leg-up in an unequal society, she says. “In some Korean, Chinese and South Asian communities, it can be like a badge of honour. On the flip side, it’s also one of family shame if you don’t get in.” In 2020, there were more than 15,000 applications for roughly 4,200 places in 50 selective and partly selective schools in New South Wales. Non-selective schools are competing for top students, too. “A lot of local public high schools set up gifted and talented streams with internal exams as a way of declaring they’re just as academically serious as selective schools,” says Helen Proctor, an associate professor of education at the University of Sydney. Proctor, 60, co-wrote School Choice: How Parents Negotiate the New School Market in Australia , a book published in 2009. One factor that’s often missing from the debate on selective schools is that a resurgence of the latter coincided with the introduction of skilled migration programmes, she says. In the early 20th century, when New South Wales was at the forefront of education reform in Australia, secondary schooling was largely selective, Proctor explains. It was only in the 1950s that a government-commissioned report, called the Wyndham Report, recommended eliminating entrance exams. “At that time, some schools were made no longer selective; others were watered down,” she says. In the 1980s, new research challenged the concept of universal schooling and how it affected students considered gifted, she adds. “Whether that was true or not, it was certainly a very strong discourse.” Gifted and talented education programmes were revived under the leadership of Terry Metherell, state education minister from 1988 to 1990. The decade also saw a rise in skilled migration , first by Chinese applicants and then by Indians. These new waves of migration differed from the labour-oriented programmes of earlier years, Proctor notes, bringing a wealthier class of semi-professional and professional settlers. Among Asian migrants, ‘giftedness’ is neither here nor there. They never spoke of giftedness or talent; they only spoke about working hard. The whole concept of giftedness is a Western idea a lot of migrants don’t buy into. Christina Ho “It’s always been the case that public schools have been places where migrants have gone,” Proctor says. “Private schools had certain barriers, not only money but traditions.” Megan Watkins, University of Western Sydney professor and co-author of Disposed to Learn: Schooling, Ethnicity and the Scholarly Habitus (2013), says that she found links between the habits of Chinese families and wealthier white households while working on her book. “What was interesting is that Chinese parents made sure children had a particular routine where their children worked for a certain period of time each night,” she says. “In high SES [socio-economic status] Anglo households, there was a similar pattern. A good number of [high] SES families were very attuned to the fact that it was important to have a routine.” Children learn to focus on their homework, she adds. “Concentration is something that is acquired, that doesn’t come easily. It’s the same kind of understanding you would apply to a skill.” A fundamental difference in attitudes towards education can be seen in the notions of “giftedness” and decisions about sending children to be tutored, Ho says. “Anglo parents often perceive giftedness to be something you are or you’re not,” she explains. “This leads to a form of resentment toward Asian children who receive tutoring , often accused of ‘cramming their way in’,” she adds. “That is a real source of racialised resentment which reveals a very different approach to education. ‘He said Asians were freaks. I didn’t know how to respond’ “Among Asian migrants, giftedness is neither here nor there. They never spoke of giftedness or talent; they only spoke about working hard. The whole concept of giftedness is a Western idea a lot of migrants don’t buy into.” Sydney comedian Neel Kolhatkar, 26, who graduated from selective Caringbah High School in 2011, says the pressure on him was usually self-imposed. “I remember knowing about the general hierarchy of selective schools, but my parents are quite relaxed in that regard,” he says. “I personally wanted to go, so if there was any pressure it was probably coming from myself.” His school was often seen as one of the more relaxed selective schools, and he says it was less racially diverse than his primary school, Hurstville South. As an Australian of Indian heritage, Kolhatkar says most people he meets don’t really care about selective high schools. “Some will have the classic response, ‘Oh, so you must be smart’, but most of the time I’m met with indifference,” he says. “I don’t think it’s in the consciousness of the average Sydneysider as it is in the Southeast Asian and Indian communities. “There was a little bit of teasing on the bus. We’d get called nerds and all of that, as there was a sports high school opposite us, but I don’t really recall any prejudice.” Watkins says few people understand the reality and nuances of migrant success in education. By speculating that children with Asian backgrounds are forced to forgo playtime and cram for selective school entrance exams, the media engages in “simplistic stereotypes”, she says. Instead, it is a matter of different cultures having different priorities – and families with Asian backgrounds prioritise education, including making space and time for children to study. Even in less wealthy Chinese families, Watkins says, “parents still made a space for the child to work and concentrate where it was quiet”.