Exclusivity, mental illness and privilege: the dark edge of the model minority
Words by Bridget Harilaou
Trigger Warning - The following article discusses suicide and may be distressing to some readers.
Yoo Kyung* was just 9 years old when she first began attending a coaching college to prepare for the Opportunity Class (OC) test.
The OC is a streaming system for primary school children to attend accelerated classes in years 5 and 6, and prepares them for entry into selective high schools in year 7.
When Yoo didn’t gain acceptance into any schools with an OC stream, her parents were disappointed. The solution? More tutoring.
Three times a week and every school holiday, Yoo attended countless maths, general ability, English and writing classes to prepare her for the next test. They were tiring lessons with seemingly endless amounts of homework, she and many other children never enjoyed going.
“In Korean culture, family reputation and being able to boast about your children’s achievements is really important. After the selective schools test I locked myself in the bathroom and just cried… because I knew I wouldn’t get in.”
When the results came out, Yoo’s mother lied to other parents claiming she had gotten into Manly Selective - “She was embarrassed I didn’t get in… so I lied to my friends too.”
Yoo’s story is common, many other Asian Australians have gone through similar experiences with coaching colleges and the selective schools test. A huge majority of students who utilise tutoring services belong to East Asian and South Asian communities.
Aliza Chin, who attended the selective stream at Tempe High School, found that her parents were influenced by other parents, estimating that 90% of her peers attended coaching colleges.
“She said that everyone’s parents were doing it, and she was scared I wouldn’t be able to keep up and lose opportunities in life if I didn’t go to coaching.”
Private tutoring and coaching to gain acceptance into NSW selective schools is also a privilege for only those who can pay. Steven Kwon, who began coaching at 7 years old, estimates his private tutoring cost $50,000 over his school life. “I went to all the main colleges, Pre-Uni, James An, I went to over 8 altogether.”
In Year 12 alone Steven’s Dad told him his tutoring cost $10,000. An anonymous student placed her childhood tutoring costs at $500 per week for intensive school holiday courses.
In 2016, the two most popular coaching colleges, James An and Pre-Uni New College offer a range of programs from kindergarten to Higher School Certificate tutoring with special focuses on the OC test, selective school test and holiday classes. James An currently charge around $440 per term for HSC-level tutoring while Pre-Uni charges $450 a term for English and $550 for Maths. Selective school tutoring is even more expensive at $650 a term or $65 per test simulation in Maths, English, Writing and General Ability. Over one year, HSC-tutoring could easily cost $2,200 per two unit subject, and therefore up to $11,000 for all subjects. The price, while less than most elite private schools, is still a huge cost to bear.
Migrant parents may see selective schools as a cheap way to get a better education and more opportunities, particularly if their own education wasn’t acknowledged in Australia. However the price of tutoring begs the question, if coaching for the selective schools test costs so much, who has access to selective schools and all the ‘opportunities’ they afford?
In 2015, James Ruse, Baulkham Hills, North Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls enrolled 75-86% of students from the top quartile in the national Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA). This means that more than three quarters of all their students came from the most socio-economically privileged social group in the country. For Sydney’s top public schools, these numbers clearly illustrate how selective schools are segregating children based on socio-economic status (SES).
Absolutely none of the enrollments from any of these schools were from the lowest SES quartile.
In comparison to The Scots College or even Methodist Ladies College, which sit at 75% and 81% enrollments from the top quartile, these selective high schools have equal if not higher amounts of students from the most privileged group of children in NSW.
The data shows that working class children no longer have a hope of accessing selective schools, and that the system has become a replication of private school education in which higher ATARs, more experienced teachers, and top HSC marks are the privilege of the rich.
Despite being the target of racist complaints about ‘a great divide’ and unfair opportunities for ‘Asian automatons’, Asian Australians do aggressively participate in this culture of coaching, competition and class hierarchy. The average price for private tutoring, as opposed to coaching colleges, can easily reach $100 per hour, not to mention many children receive tutoring for multiple subjects and musical instruments.
Tabitha Prado attended an OC school in years 5 and 6, and then Fort Street Selective High School. Her working class background meant she could never afford tutoring. This only increased the pressure for her to succeed amongst her peers and “prove her talent”.
At Fort Street, an emphasis on results, rankings and well-scaled subjects was pushed by both the students and teachers. Higher ATAR courses like Arts (Advanced), Arts (Languages) and International and Global Studies were clearly seen as superior of entry into a ‘plain’ Arts degree.
Additionally, Tabitha described how Fort Street did not advertise any support to lower-SES students to participate in extracurricular activities. If they couldn’t afford it, many missed out on music studies and ensembles, overseas trips and school contributions.
“I remember there was a case where I couldn’t graduate without paying school fees, but I couldn’t afford them. When I talked to a teacher about it they said the fees could be waived, but that was never clear beforehand.”
Tabitha’s experience shows that economic privilege was clearly taken for granted, with no extra support for low-SES students.
By participating in a culture that requires and thrives on economic privilege, the My School data reveals over and over that top selective high schools have enrollments even more skewed towards the top quartile of socio-economic privilege than many private schools - as private schools do offer scholarships for disadvantaged and minority children.
The price of tutoring, the achievement of high ATAR scores and entry into prestigious universities all rests on socio-economic background. If the selective school system replicates education inequality, people of colour need to reflect on their place within this structure.
It is up to middle-upper class people of colour to interrogate the way in which their class privilege and pursuit of capital interests can be harmful to the education and development of children across society. We must ask if the model minority myth has both negative consequences for our own children and working class children across the country.
In 2002, Tony Vinson, an academic from the University of New South Wales chaired the Independent Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in New South Wales and stated that “wherever possible, talented students should be able to remain within mainstream schools to maximise social cohesion and an inclusive school community".
By streaming children, based on class privilege or intellectual ability, the concentration of children who are struggling in school increases. Kids with behavioural issues, learning disabilities or no money for tutoring are lumped together, and the kids who could help motivate or balance out classes are shipped off to ‘better’ schools.
The patterns in the data show that low-SES kids, like Indigenous children and refugees are locked out of high-achieving schools.
Finally, the negative psychological consequences of high pressure academic environments show that mental health outcomes should be a consideration in education. Here’s what a few people had to say:
“I was actually told once by a teacher during a period of severe panic attacks that she ‘didn’t want to hear it’ and that I needed to ‘grow up’... Overall, the culture was definitely one of pressure.” - Aryan Golanjan
“There is very limited scope to explore what we wanted to do with our life… If you are a free-thinking person you feel very stifled by the environment.” - Steven Kwon
“The culture was very insular. I felt like we were restricted from art and sport. There was very little career or life advice – we were mostly motivated to maintain the school’s prestigious reputation. We were never taught to be good people.” - Anonymous
And these psychological consequences can have absolutely dangerous consequences, as Yoo, a graduate of Sydney Girls, devastatingly described to me.
“I had so much going on in my life on top of school that I had a breakdown right before trials… The idea of failure to me was so abhorrent that it got to the point that I was considering committing suicide, because when I believed that I couldn’t achieve anything, I felt I had no life ahead of me.”
Both private schools and selective schools show extremely skewed enrollments towards privileged, high-SES children, and this class segregation disadvantages all working class children. With what we know about Indigenous children and refugee children, there is no way to address racism without looking at poverty, and challenging a system of education that privileges the rich.
People of colour, particularly middle class East Asian and South Asian communities must question their participation in a toxic culture that constantly pursues capitalist definitions of success. If we don’t fight back against this system, we risk creating social inequality in our communities and in education for generations to come.