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The secret life of them

What it takes to shift class in Australia

Students sitting a selective school entrance exam. © Peter Rae / Fairfax Syndication
Students sitting a selective school entrance exam. © Peter Rae / Fairfax Syndication
Cover: February 2013February 2013Medium length read
 

Tina Huang, 15, is what the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development classifies as a “gifted” child. The Year 9 student is undertaking the Select Entry Accelerated Learning (SEAL) program at Box Hill High School. Running in 36 government schools throughout the state, the program was designed to stem the flow of talented  students from public to private education by creating an environment that would challenge and stimulate bright children. Students begin Year 8 work in Year 7, and can complete their secondary education in five years instead of six, or they can choose to undertake a more comprehensive Victorian Certificate of Education that takes three years instead of two.

Tina’s parents were granted permanent Australian residency after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. With a university degree apiece, the Huangs wanted to give their future children, Tina and her younger sister Nicole, a better life in Australia. They bought a small business, Mussel’s Fish and Chippery, across the road from Tina’s Catholic primary school at the end of a short ribbon of boutique cafes and gift shops in Elwood. London plane trees dapple the enormous Edwardian and Queen Anne–style houses with shade and lend the neighbourhood an ambience of class and continuity, but for a concrete block of rental flats. “That’s where we used to live,” Tina says, pointing to one of the balconies jutting from the building.

The beach is a few minutes’ walk away, but Tina never went there much. She just wasn’t interested – hers was not that kind of childhood. Primary school plays and concerts were seen as indulgences; Tina rarely took part. Every weekend, her parents would drive the 35 minutes to the Asian stores in Springvale, in Melbourne’s south-east, to buy cheap groceries. When her mum and dad were not working, they were usually sleeping, because their shop was open till late. Tina would clean, or watch over her little sister, or practise doing sums. Her parents drilled into her that maths was the most important subject. Maths made sense, particularly in their shop. When Tina was asked at school to write about her weekend, her parents wondered what on earth the school was teaching her, not fathoming that in the surrounding brick houses, children’s lives ruled entire Saturdays and Sundays. “Looking back, I sort of get why other kids gave me such a hard time,” Tina says. “I was an unforgiving, obnoxious brat who didn’t think much of creative writing or playing around.”

“When I was about five,” she tells me, “family friends came over, and their daughter had got into MacRobertson Girls’ High School. From then on, that was what my parents kind of expected of me too.” Tina’s mum and dad understood it to be a good school because it required students to pass an entrance examination; only the smartest students were sifted through. Also, it was a government school, which meant education was essentially free.

Tina’s extracurricular activities promptly became curricular. She had always been a bright child, but her parents believed she could be further ahead than she was. Soon, she was spending most of her free hours in after-school tutoring, including on weekends and during school holidays. At this early age, none of it was her choice, and the extra work set her apart from her schoolmates. It also instilled in her the idea that time had to be “used constructively”.

At age ten, Tina was enrolled at a popular coaching college, one with more than 40 branches across Australia. Every Thursday after school, Tina would take a three-hour scholarship-preparation class. “I sat in a classroom and did a maths and an English test, followed by two writing pieces,” Tina explains. “For an extra $25 you could also do an abstract-reasoning test. They run the tests through a machine and tah-dah, you have your results and self-worth all summed up in a pretty blue graph.”

There are now hundreds of such colleges around Australia, dedicated to drilling students in the skills needed to win scholarships to private schools, to get into selective state schools like MacRobertson or North Sydney Boys High, or to gain admission to state schools’ SEAL programs. These coaching colleges do not require any form of certification from state educational departments and are free to set their own curricula. The more successful companies, such as James An College, have many satellite offices in suburbs where there is a high concentration of Asian parents, many of whom work long hours, like Tina’s, putting their earnings into their kids’ education. Courses are often booked out months ahead. The companies kill two birds with one stone: not only do they alleviate the guilt parents face at leaving their kids at home alone for long stretches, they also make that ‘idle’ time productive.

I went to an information night held by one such college. When I phoned beforehand, I was advised the company did not teach “generalised maths and English skills”, but focused on “techniques for taking scholarship or selective entry–school examinations”. The session took place on a Sunday evening in the small hall of a leafy primary school. On arrival I was handed a clipboard, a stack of papers, a highlighter and a red pen, then told to take a seat. There were five Chinese and Indian families. With the exception of a boy and girl in Year 8, the children were in Years 3 to 5. The three Caucasian attendees had come without their children.

The woman who gave the presentation (and ran the company) had the demeanour of the kind of old-fashioned school mistress who would post the results of every student on the board at the end of each week. She spoke as if addressing a much larger audience and urged parents to find schools that filtered the brightest students from the rest. She singled out a small Catholic school in the outer-eastern suburbs, which one of the Indian children, a shy girl, was attending in the hope of winning a Year 9 scholarship to a private school. “Half the numbers in this school,” the presenter said, not hiding her sarcasm, “are studying vocational education subjects: fascinating subjects like horse studies.” One of the mothers laughed loudly.

The presenter asked the Year 8 boy which maths book he was using in class, then told him he was already lagging behind because the SEAL students at state schools were studying Year 9 maths. She mentioned how some schools wanted “well-rounded” students who were engaged with their communities, and advised parents that they could get around this by finding a topical issue in their local paper and getting their child to write a letter to the council opposing the cutting down of a tree or the installation of new poker machines. The letter could then be included in the student’s portfolio should they get an interview with a school. She told us there was “no need to lock little Johnny up in a room all afternoon, forcing him to read about the war in Sudan” because scholarship tests do not cover foreign affairs or ethical issues. She knew the details of each company that administered tests for the different schools, the contents of past tests and exactly how many students had sat for each one. Again and again, the same mother hooted with glee: she had clearly found herself a kindred spirit. No pain, no gain.

Near the end of the session, the presenter put up slides with sample multiple-choice questions from previous exams for us to answer. One asked us to measure the amount of liquid in a vial if two-thirds of it was poured into a different jar. Another question had us pick out the antonym of an archaic word. Finally, the presenter reminded parents that before a student embarked on this month-long program of practice tests, her company offered a three-and-a-half-hour pre-practice test – at a cost of $150 – to judge whether the child should even bother.

“The scholarship classes I took were soul-crushing,” says Tina. “A coaching college! Dude, there are five-year-olds walking around that place. What are you possibly coaching them?” Still, Tina muses: “I am yet to meet an Asian child who doesn’t do some form of consistent tutoring.”

 

*

 

After years of preparation, Tina sat the various entrance examinations for selective state high schools, private schools offering scholarships and schools offering accelerated education programs. She was eight, nine, ten, then 11. That time now seems a blur to Tina. Each year rolled by in vain. The entrance exams usually took place on a Saturday morning or afternoon, and the women and men in the community – the small-business vendors and managers and migrants with dormant university degrees, as well as the factory workers and at-home sewing-machine operators with their Year 4 educations – sent their sons and daughters along to these exams.

Raised in a culture that since 605 AD has employed a merit-based civil-service examination system to reward academic excellence with tangible, life-changing consequences, many Chinese-Australian parents understand education as a way to shift class. With insufficient time, energy or resources to change their own circumstances, first-generation migrant parents generally encourage their children to work within the system. This has led to the almost exclusive emphasis on examination results, and often leaves the entire burden on the small shoulders of the students themselves. (When I was 13, my parents hired a maths tutor for a month to help me pass the test to get into MacRobertson, the only selective girls’ state high school in Victoria. I did not get in.)

At the age of 14, instead of visiting friends or holding slumber parties, Tina spent a few weeks sitting in scholarship coaching classes after school, to “test them out” for her younger sister, who was in Year 5. “I didn’t want her to go through the same awful experience I did,” she explains.

 “I didn’t get into MacRob. I didn’t get into a private school through a scholarship. None of them.”

Instead, Tina made it into the SEAL program at Box Hill High, and she is flourishing. She has joined the debating team, become class captain and even taken a creative-writing class. Earlier this year, when the class was asked to write about a piece of creative nonfiction, Tina chose the Gospels. Her teacher, Imogen Melgaard, tells me, “Tina’s intellect is frightening sometimes, because it is so easy to forget that she is only a kid. At times I have to stop myself from speaking to her like she’s an adult and my equal.”

Each SEAL school is responsible for determining its own selection criteria, which means students are not siphoned off by a single test. The inclusion of interviews and Year 6 reports means that the SEAL program takes a broader approach to determining which students to admit. Their personalities and characters matter. Melgaard notes that SEAL students feel a level of acceptance here that might be absent if they’d remained in ordinary classes: “They would be the one or two kids who would stand out and be picked on. But here, they have their Doctor Who club and their chess club, and they bring textbooks to school camps. There is a strong culture of pride in doing well.”

Half of Melgaard’s SEAL class is Asian. She remarks that “it is fascinating how much Asian pride these kids have. They will joke to me about the ‘Asian Five’ subjects that students study for VCE” – two maths, physics, chemistry and English – “and also about the ‘Asian fail’, which is an A minus.”

Box Hill High used to be a working-class boys’ college. But its SEAL program has done more than just revitalise the school; it has helped change the demographics of a suburb. In 1996, the median house price in Box Hill was $150,000. Yet as more and more parents moved to be within the school zone, property prices soared. In 2001 the median house price was $280,000. Ten years later it was $960,000.

Now when you emerge from Box Hill’s train station, 14 kilometres east of Melbourne’s CBD, you step into a shopping mall that would not look out of place in Singapore. There is a Giordano store selling polo shirts in every conceivable bright colour, and well-made pants in conservative cuts. There are Chinese cake shops and bubble tea outlets, and the whole centre gleams Domestos-white. Youths wear flip-flops down the street, but they wear them with designer jeans.

Beyond Box Hill Centro lies an inner-city foodie’s dream – stretches of dumpling restaurants and kopitiams. The largest group of overseas-born residents in Box Hill is from mainland China. Almost all shopfronts have signage in Chinese, in addition to English. It is said, half-jokingly among Asians here, that a person could live in Box Hill and never have to deal with the English-speaking populace: they could shop, eat, bank and even bury their loved ones in their own dialect. It was recently expressed in more charged terms through a now-banned Facebook page called “Playing ‘Spot the Aussie’ in Box Hill”. While it was up, the Facebook page was liked by nearly 12,000 people, many of whom posted rants about unhygienic, job-stealing, unassimilated Asians.

One thing is clear, though – there is a sense of community. The new migrants in Box Hill have added an air of cosmopolitan sophistication. Restaurants now open later at night, and the eating strip near Whitehorse Road teems with families and fast patter. For new arrivals seeking manual or market work, this is where you can make connections and find out where to send your kids to school. Lined woollen blazers, alumni networks and new swimming pools don’t mean much to people who might have been in this country for only a handful of years, but they’re quick to switch to a system that boasts the greatest number of graduates to top universities, or the highest Australian Tertiary Admissions Rankings.

 Recently, Tina was invited to talk at Melbourne University about the SEAL program to a postgraduate class studying “gifted education”. “I was a SEAL student for three years before my mum heard my speech and went, ‘Oh, so that’s what you’re doing, Tina. Well, good luck. Is that why everyone else is doing it?’”

 

*

 

At the Box Hill library, I meet Tina’s friend and classmate Aaron, who is 16. He lives locally but, like Tina, does not go out much. After school, he walks his three younger sisters home, prepares some food for them and returns to his studies. Aaron’s father, an engineer, arrived in Australia in the early 1980s from Vietnam, and his mother migrated two years later. They moved to Box Hill after hearing about the local SEAL program.

Aaron is shy. He wants to become a corporate lawyer. Asked why, he replies he’s keen on “security”. “Are you happy?” I ask him. He looks at me for a long moment before replying: “What is happiness?”

“You know it when you feel it,” I suggest.

No, it’s more complicated than that, Aaron insists. “It’s different for everyone.” Happiness, he tells me, has a lot to do with security.

Aaron keeps glancing to check on his sisters, who are also at the library. At the back are small carrels – tiny rooms where a person can sequester themselves all afternoon to study. On the library noticeboard, in addition to flyers for the Henry Lawson society and Chinese-language classes on internet use, there is an advertisement for a parents’ forum on “Supporting Stressed, Anxious or Depressed Teenagers”.

 

*

 

Tina and I are walking down her favourite running track. “I hate running,” she tells me, “but it makes me feel good afterwards.” We are in her new suburb. Her parents moved to Balwyn so that Nicole would be within the catchment zone of Balwyn High School, which also has a SEAL program and whose students regularly top the state’s Year 12 results. The family relocated their Elwood fish-and-chip shop, where business was good, to “The Happy Snapper” in Canterbury, closer to where they now live. Meanwhile Tina continues to commute to Box Hill.

I ask her what she is most afraid of.

“Failure,” she answers instantly.

“But when was the last time you failed?”

“Does burning toast in the morning count?” Then she says, “I think the fear comes from not being able to come back from being stuck in a horrible place.”

On the day of Tina’s Year 12 biology exam, she is hyperventilating and breathing into a paper bag. (At the end of Year 8, 25 of the 75 SEAL students at Tina’s school are selected to study a VCE science subject. “So I’m like the accelerated of the accelerated,” she tells me.) Confessing that she gets sick after every exam, to the point where she has to take antibiotics, Tina tells me that this one is particularly nerve-racking because the marks count towards her Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. To prepare, Tina has completed 50 practice biology exams – 150 hours’ worth. She sourced the practice exams from teachers, tutors and friends, and bought more online.

Over the six months I spend getting to know her, Tina’s self-esteem seems precariously balanced between soaring confidence and debilitating anxiety. This is the price paid by a constantly coached student: underneath all that stoicism, there is a quiet resentment at being forced into a system that judges you by very narrow parameters.

Even private schools are beginning to acknowledge that a coached student may not necessarily have the type of rounded, inquisitive mind they are after. Sydney Grammar School, for instance, strongly discourages academic coaching as preparation for its scholarship exam. If the purpose behind education for the gifted is to ensure that the brightest students are sufficiently challenged, then this idea of extra, relentless tutoring cranks the dial all the way back around to the beginning, where naturally curious intellects are no longer being challenged in the ways that matter, and students’ skills are limited to test-taking and thinking within the rules.

Indeed, when Julia Gillard declared that the Asian Century begins in the classroom, coaching colleges were hardly what she meant. Amy Chua’s controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, raised an unsettling question about education: is giftedness inherent, or is it all about the hard slog? Asian cities such as Shanghai may top OECD charts for educational attainment, but many teachers in Australia are sceptical about whether the rigid, rote-learning techniques used there will create the sort of adaptive and flexible future workers and leaders needed in the decades ahead.

My last meeting with Tina takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant in Balwyn. She tells me about her sister, Nicole. Tina’s careful scoping exercise for a suitable coaching college eventually yielded the same one that hosted the information session I attended. “It cost $2000 for a month, and Nicole cried every week of that month,” Tina confesses. “But it worked.” So much so, that Tina’s sister didn’t even end up going to Balwyn High, the school that was the reason for their parents’ relocation. Nicole won a scholarship to Camberwell Girls’ Grammar School, which has annual fees of around $20,000. “She did better than me,” says Tina with a half-laugh, half-sigh. Then she is pensive. “You know, I’ve never really met any Asian parents who believe the whole ‘not everything that counts can be counted’ thing,” she says. “But I have that phrase plastered next to the ‘How to Succeed in Year 12 Biology’ sheets on my wall. It keeps me sane.”

About the author Alice Pung
Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Her Father’s Daughter and Unpolished Gem, and the editor of Growing up Asian in Australia.
 
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