How going to a selective high school crushed my son's spirit

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I remember the first time a teacher uttered the words "selective high school".

We had been called in to see our son's Year Two teacher when talk soon turned to his advanced school work and what appeared to be a photographic memory when it came to recalling facts.

When she started talking about "G  and T kids" I honestly didn't know what she was talking about. He was our first child, and while his previous two teachers had mentioned he was bright, that was as far as the conversation went.

Over the next few years, it was pretty clear which kids were being groomed for a spot in one of the sough-after selective high spots.

Most of their parents were carting them off to tutors each week to give them an edge when it came time for the all-important test at the start of year 6. We took a different approach, waiting until a few months before and asking a teenage friend of the family to go through a few practice tests with him so he knew what to expect.

But our son was never really on board. While several of his classmates spoke of their desire to get in to a selective school, he made it clear from the start it was not for him and wanted to join his friends at a local high school.

So when he did get in, over some of the kids who had been working towards it for years, he had mixed feelings. We insisted he go and give it a try, and at the end of his first day were heartened with his proclamation that he loved his new school.

But over the next few weeks, cracks began to appear.

While many of the students had come with a large group of friends courtesy of an Opportunity Class placement in primary school, and others seemed to have at least one good friend when they arrived, he knew virtually no one.


Despite being a very outgoing and friendly kid his whole life, he struggled to make friends.

An extremely sporty kid, he was not happy about the limited sports choices (three on rotation, with no choice of the order you did them in), or the fact kids could elect to sit out of PE after 20 minutes, leaving those remaining to struggle to continue a game they had started due to lack of numbers.

In class, he felt ill-prepared and even "dumb" beside some of the other students, and in subjects where he once excelled without too much effort, he soon found himself struggling to keep up.

At his first maths lesson, the teacher asked students to raise their hands if they were tutored prior to sitting the selective high school entrance exam. All but a handful put their hands up. He then asked if they did one, two, three hours, etc. of tutoring each week. He gave up when he got to six hours and several hands remained up.

With so many students having already learnt Year Seven maths in OC lessons or at tutoring, my son found the teacher would skip the basics, leaving him floundering.

At first he raised his hand for help, but after a few weeks he stopped due to embarrassment.

In another class, where he had worked hard for weeks on an assignment for which he got a respectable 'B', he fixated on a teacher's comment when his work was handed back, leading to more self-doubt.

Then the bullying started.

According to our son, two boys in his class took a dislike to him and soon others followed suit. He tried being the class clown to win back favour, but only angered his teachers.

Soon, our bright, beautiful boy started to withdraw. His shoulders stooped, his eyes were almost constantly down cast.

School avoidance also became a big issue. Most mornings he would say he felt sick, and probably did due to anxiety, and would beg to stay home from school.

Anger outbursts soon followed, as did the begging to be allowed to change schools.

We were at our wit's end.

Eventually, about halfway through the year, we met with a senior staff member.

She vowed to do all she could to help, and asked that in return he commit to at least one more term to see if things could be turned around. But his year adviser couldn't have been less supportive and offered nothing in the way of encouragement.

From our end, we encouraged, cajoled, threatened and rewarded. But our boy was disappearing before our eyes, such was his misery.

He eventually saw a school counsellor who told me afterwards he just didn't feel he fitted in amongst his peers. He said he had nothing in common with the other students, had few shared likes and felt he couldn't be himself.

While we didn't feel it was time to give up, in the end a trip to our GP was all that was needed to change our minds. Our boy was miserable and something needed to be done to fix it.

Within a week, after discussions with a sympathetic local high school principal, we decided to admit defeat, cut our losses and run.

The transition hasn't been easy. When a child's self-esteem is shattered into a million pieces, it takes time to put it back together. Changing school's mid-year and mid-term is no picnic. Swapping feeling like an outcast at one school for another takes its toll.

But gradually our son is coming back, growing in confidence and hopefully gaining some resilience along the way.

A great result in an entrance exam does not ensure a smooth ride once you make it to a selective high school, especially if your child does not respond well to pressure and academic competition, or is prone to self-doubt.

As a parent, I wish there was more emphasis on the personality of a child and selection did not just come down to one test score.

If I had my time again, I probably wouldn't have sent him to a selective high school. Deep down, he knew it wasn't the right environment for him. As his mum, I should have listened.