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Selective schools offer ‘more than just academic extension’

Mark Long, principal of Penrith High School, writes about the value of gifted and talented education for his students.

Two students, one boy and one girl, stand smiling at the camera, with the boy's arm around her shoulders

Siblings Zoe and Max Peters with student peers at Penrith High School.

The release of HSC results last week prompted the usual media focus on school and student performance. As principal of Penrith High School, a fully selective secondary school, I am proud that the class of 2018 equalled our best-ever HSC results. In addition to their academic excellence, I also know our students are well equipped to make a positive impact on the future of Australian society.

This week the NSW Department of Education released its review into selective education access. It brings welcome recognition of the value of selective schools while highlighting the need to do more to ensure that students from disadvantaged groups don’t face barriers to accessing selective education.

At Penrith we are a proud part of the large, dynamic and comprehensive NSW public education system. As the most westerly located selective high school in metropolitan Sydney, students at Penrith have the opportunity to attend school with other gifted students and work with a talented, committed teaching staff who understand their unique needs. Our inspiring students and engaged parent body help make ours a diverse, friendly and supportive learning community which allows students to thrive.

We let our students soar

Selective schools offer more than just academic extension. On any given day, in addition to their regular classes, a student at Penrith is also likely to participate in one or more of almost 50 student-led clubs, including social justice, politics, music, art, coding, philosophy, sport, fitness, and model United Nations. These activities strengthen the connections between students, staff and alumni.

We often need to stand back, hold the safety net and just let the students soar. Our students may be volunteering to run the breakfast club or an enrichment program at neighbouring Penrith Public School, or leaving school at lunchtime to complete a subject at university. In fact, this year two of our Year 12 students are helping to teach the university course they excelled in last year—while also completing their HSC, playing sport, and running multiple student clubs at school.

Strive for your personal best

We encourage our students to have their say and articulate their views on the school’s continuous improvement. We do have one rule, however: student voice must be respectful. We know our students will be the future leaders of our society, and so we ensure that the lessons taught at Penrith are not just academic but also span the domains of leadership, social justice, fairness, and equity.

When incoming Year 7 students are offered a position at Penrith, we meet each of the 150 students and their family individually before orientation day. It provides a chance to start a discussion about each student’s strengths and interests as well as ensuring that families get to know the school on a personal level. It’s a common refrain from families that they hope their child will be well-rounded and happy.  Our mantra is the same to incoming Year 7 or outgoing Year 12 students: you are more than a number from a test, but we expect you to strive for your personal best.

Gifted students with disability

The department’s review also highlighted the need to better recognise and support the ‘twice exceptionality’ of gifted students with disability. This year I visited Bridges Academy, a leading school for twice exceptional (2e) students in Los Angeles.

Pre-eminent 2e experts Dr Susan Baum and Dr Robin Schader travelled from Bridges to work with the Penrith High staff and teachers from many other schools we invited from across NSW and interstate. It helped us to all build upon our knowledge and to think carefully about how we meet the needs of a very special group of the gifted population. Many of the great change-makers in the world easily fit within the 2e category and many students enrolled in our selective schools do as well.

The recent review of selective education access and published findings will certainly help ensure a discussion so our gifted students are catered for in NSW public schools in the decades to come.

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