Sunday 07 April 2002

Last gasp of the Anglophiles

Every June in New South Wales, tens of thousands of sixth graders sit for the Selective Schools Examination in the hope of gaining enrolment in one of 23 government-funded selective schools. The successful students will spend their high school years being taught by excellent teachers in smaller classes with better facilities—at almost negligible cost to their parents. A comparable education in a private school (such as Sydney Grammar School) can cost as much as $15,575 (US$8,255) per pupil per year.

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald disclosed that an influential group of Sydney Boys High School graduates is arguing for a change in government policy so that the sons and grandsons of former students may attend the school without sitting for the test or meeting the requirement that they live within the school’s catchment area.

At first glance this appears to be a classic case of self interest, as former students seek an advantage for their sons and grandsons. In fact, such “sibling rights” had been allowed since the school’s establishment in the 19th century but were abolished thirty years ago. Still, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone in democratic Australia could argue for a return to a system in which privileges are granted according to heredity rather than merit. There must be a compelling reason for such an argument to be mounted.

The answer is found in an article in the current issue of the old boys’ magazine, which points out that:

The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian…

Not surprisingly, this statement provoked an immediate charge of racism that, as it turns out, misses the point entirely.

With more than half its residents born overseas, Sydney is not just the most culturally diverse city in Australia, it is also a strongly Asian city. According to City Council statistics:

  • the two largest migrant groups are Chinese (14.6%) and Indonesian (10.7%)
  • one in five residents speaks a dialect of Chinese
  • four of the top five languages spoken in Sydney are Asian, with one-third of the population proficient in an Asian language

While this Asian influence is the main reason I enjoy living in Sydney, many older Australians—particularly those outside the large cities—do not share my delight. Some of them have never forgiven the Japanese for their treatment of Australian prisoners-of-war; others pine for the halcyon days when Australia was nothing more but an Antipodean outpost of British traditions and values.

But Sydney has absorbed the influx of Asian immigrants with minimal discord. So, even though many of the Sydney High old boys belong to that Anglophile generation, their desire for the reinstatement of “sibling rights” is motivated hardly at all by racism, partly by self-interest, and actually by something else entirely.

Just as everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation, every single phenomenon in Australia—social, political, cultural—is never more than three degrees of separation from the most important influence in Australian life: sport. The City Council may suggest that “more than one-third of City of Sydney residents (35.1%) do not claim to belong to an organised religion” but that statistic fails to recognize that every Australian resident (native-born or immigrant) is compulsorily enrolled in the Church of Sport.

The full sentence in old boys’s magazine article reads:

The demographic of the school are [sic] fast evolving and year 7 is currently 90 per cent Asian, which has the flow-on effect on the school’s traditional sports of rowing, cricket and rugby.

Sydney Boys High is the only government school whose students compete in the GPS (Great Private Schools) sporting competition with seven (exclusive and expensive) private boys schools. It is hardly coincidental that rowing, cricket, and rugby are the favored sports of the British aristocracy and ruling class.

So the problem is not that 90 per cent of the current 7th grade students are Asian. It’s that 90 percent of the current 7th grade students are, for the most part, slightly-built boys with physiques ill-suited for excelling in rowing, cricket, and rugby. Their skins could be purple and they could speak Mesopotamian for all the Sydney High old boys care—if only Asian students were all six feet tall and weighed at least 85kg (190lb). Which they aren’t and they don’t.

The old boys’ campaign hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of succeeding. The Sydney Boys High principal, Dr Kim Jagger, has already been quoted as saying that “those seeking government intervention on sibling rights and geographic boundaries for selective schools were ‘crying in the wilderness’.” The Labor government in New South Wales is no more likely to grant the old boys’ wish than it is to ban trade unions.

Instead of trying to prop up the last vestiges of the British influence in Australia by stacking Sydney Boys High with their dunderheaded sons and grandsons, the old boys should devote their energies to persuading the GPS to replace cricket with baseball and rugby with soccer. Then we’d all be better off.

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WOW. Thanks for the education. I just stumbled on your blog, and the writing is wonderful and you really have something to say. Thanks for your efforts. I learned something tonight.

Posted by Desert Mermaid on 6 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Great stuff Jonathon. Your last paragraph sums it up beautifully.

Posted by Allan on 6 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The very academic and expensive Sydney Grammar (private) had a related situation with their rugby team in the GPS competition, they solved it by subcontracting / outsourcing to a team from Armidale ( country NSW) who had big beefy country boys who were happy to play in the elite city competion. In the USA, I think colleges have sporting scholarships for much the same reasons.

Posted by Gerrit Fokkema on 7 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Wow. What a mess, but good to hear they're not getting their way. My mother's family's from around Armidale, and my cousins all played rugby in school, they did have the physique for it. The private school I went to for my last two years of high school (I'm in the US) ended up turning a wonderful idea for an all-school center into a pathetic excuse for an athletic center after running over budget on the design. They're certiainly not seeing any money from me.

Posted by Nicholas Riley on 7 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, as you point out this story is not about blatant elitism, but a perception that a high proportion of students from an Asian lineage are eroding traditional sports at the school. If this is so - and let's be fair, there is probably some truth in it for all sorts of cultural reasons - then I can't think of a more stupid solution than stacking the place with Anglo-Saxon sons and grandsons. Excuse me, I thought we had established a principle of equal opportunity sometime over the last 30 years? I was shocked when I read the story, not because of the elitism per se, but because supposedly intellgent old boys had come up with such a dickhead idea.
Someone needs to ask some fundamental questions: WHY are they abandoning traditional sports? (Assuming this is actually the case, and not just because SBHS is losing at these sports); what other more creative ways are there to generate more participation?; does it ultimately matter if one city-based selective school doesn't produce sports champions but instead great neurologists and judges with Asian names? I could go on but I won't.
I'm also interested in the fact that the story was front page news, given that the old boys' idea is basically a non-issue and isn't going to happen. The answer is that Sydney has a bottomless fascination with elites and high society. If you want a story which will get Sydney talking, dig up some shenanigans about elite society looking after (or even better, ratting on) its own. Guaranteed to make it onto the front page!

Posted by webman on 8 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour