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Learn from Asian culture of success

"Our school system is fundamentally sound. The extreme disparities in results reflect extreme disparities in culture."

"Our school system is fundamentally sound. The extreme disparities in results reflect extreme disparities in culture." Photo: Virginia Star

Anglo-Celtic men may still dominate the leadership of Australia, but they are relegated to the second rank at this time of year. The relegation is even more pronounced this time.

The list of best performers in the 2012 Higher School Certificate results in NSW has been released and what leaps out among the 119 students who topped the state, or scored in the highest band of results, is the dominance of young women.

The list also has a minority of Anglo-Celtic names, with a distinct paucity of students with Irish names like mine. Out of 119, I found just four: Burke, Kelly, Madigan and Cronin.

In contrast, the elite list contained the now usual plethora of east Asian surnames: Tan, Yu, Liu, Ma, Wang, Leong, Saw, Chiam, Fang, Qian, Meng, Ye, Jin, Sun, Nagao, Yoo, Kusworo, Lee, Kim, Lim, Yeoh, Zhang, Okamatsu, Yun, Guo, Lo, Chong, Heng, Lee (again), Xu, Nguyen, Tan (again), She, Fan, Guo (again), Zhu, and Nguyen (again).

It's a formidable cultural performance given that east Asians represent about 9 per cent of the state's resident population, yet make up almost a third of the top HSC winners. Even allowing for the percentage of Asian students in the high school population, the disparity is significant.

Young women were also formidable. They dominated, taking 68 per cent of the places, a more than two-to-one advantage over young men.

The female-male performance gap in high school has become entrenched and may be widening. Among the top 40 high schools in NSW last year, only eight were boys schools, 19 were girls schools and 13 were co-educational, as ranked by the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test.

On Wednesday we heard almost a cry of anguish from the federal Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, about another performance gap, one that has become a chasm that appears to be getting deeper with erosion.

He described ''the appalling statistic'' that only 8.6 per cent of indigenous students in remote schools in the Northern Territory reached national minimum standards, compared with 94 per cent of non-indigenous students in these schools. Garrett has a long history of commitment to indigenous issues, so the failure clearly hurts.

Predictably, nine of the 10 schools in NSW which score the lowest on the NAPLAN socio-economic index, so low that their academic performances are not even ranked, are predominantly Aboriginal rural schools. The NAPLAN scores show little progress there.

The Education Minister's response is predictable: more money, but Australian governments have been pouring billions into indigenous communities for years with few measurable improvements and billions more dollars on education with little change in the basic template.

The basic template is this: the gender gap is not closing. The indigenous gap is still a chasm. The performance gap between rich and poor schools remains implacable. Some immigrant streams are doing brilliantly, some are doing poorly. All despite governments, state and federal, being committed to the ideal of improving education.

Why the stasis? Because culture matters more than money. As one retired headmaster told me: ''The elephant in the room is not money or autonomy, it is parents. Whilst private schools and selective schools can separate their students from the undisciplined, the unmotivated, the dysfunctional, the irresponsible, the handicapped, we will continue to have a class system in our schools.''

''Until state schools have the power to set and enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application comparable to the powers taken for granted in private schools, we will continue to have one system for the bright, ambitious and/or wealthy and one for the rest.''

As if to underline that cultural context matters more than anything else, the latest NAPLAN results show the ACT continues to lead the nation in most categories of literacy and numeracy performance. Because Canberra is a middle-class city.

Our school system is fundamentally sound. The extreme disparities in results reflect extreme disparities in domestic culture. At one end of the spectrum, the disproportionate success of east Asian immigrant students reflects a tradition of fierce family commitment to academic success, of tutored and pressured kids, while at the other end of the spectrum are indigenous kids from non-Western traditions living in welfare-bound communities.

Social engineering can only go so far. We've given the bureaucrats tens of billions of dollars and they have failed dismally to change the template. Because families matter more than social engineers.

One final note: it is hard to write about schools and not mention the murder of 20 children and six staff in Newtown, Connecticut, the umpteenth such massacre in the US. Only if this finally leads to restrictions on access to guns in America will the loss and suffering have a greater meaning.

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