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Australia’s problem with ‘try hards’ at heart of selective schools coaching criticism

Coaching, many feel, confers an unfair advantage. This is certainly true from an economic perspective. Students whose parents can afford years of tutoring may gain an edge over an equally bright child whose parents lack the means for extracurricular support. Yet this applies to most fields of endeavour. Our footy star and ballerina also need parents who are able to pay for coaching.

So there’s a certain hypocrisy at play when parents are criticised for providing academic coaching but admired for supporting their child’s dream with other forms of coaching.

The NAPLAN test is often the first formal assessment a child sits.

The NAPLAN test is often the first formal assessment a child sits.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

But before you rush out and enrol your child in the closest coaching college to get that “academic advantage”, consider the following. What can coaching focused exclusively on test preparation really do for your child?

Research tells us it can reduce test anxiety. If you have never sat a test before, then you are probably going to be nervous, especially if your parents and peers have whipped you into a frenzied belief that this is the most important exam of your life.

Most Year 4 students sitting the Opportunity Class exams have only had one experience of a formal assessment, NAPLAN, so the experience of going to a large hall at a different school can itself be overwhelming.

If you have sat tests before, then you know what to do and what to expect. You know how to manage your time and not spend too long on one question. You know that tests start with easy questions and that the harder questions are at the end. You know that you should read the whole question before answering. You know that with one minute to go, you should fill in “C” for any multiple choice you have not answered.

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These are techniques that coaching colleges are adept at drilling and as the government’s selective high school review confirmed in 2018, they could make the few marks’ difference between getting a place or not. However, they are also techniques you can learn by practising with a $15 book from your local newsagent.

I am yet to see any research that shows that coaching of any description can turn a child of average ability into a gifted child. Nor is there any evidence that children who have been coached wouldn’t have got into selective high schools on their own merits – and saved their parents a great deal of money in the process.

Professor Emerita Miraca Gross, from the Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre at UNSW, was once invited to speak at a conference hosted by a prominent coaching college. She replied that she would happily speak for free if the college could provide any research that their methods increased children’s abilities. She didn’t end up speaking.

Dr Rosalind Walsh is the co-ordinator of the Catalyst program for gifted students at Queenwood School.

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