This coming Tuesday, students across NSW will sit down to take their English examination, the opening salvo of this year's HSC exams. But students at one particular high school in Sydney's north-west will be carrying a unique burden into their already stressful exams.
The class of 2020 at James Ruse Agricultural High School will be aiming to be the 25th consecutive year 12 class from that school to top the NSW HSC.
Take a moment to consider this incredible fact. The last time James Ruse did not top the HSC was in 1994. That was eight years before the current crop of year 12 students were born! Much of the technology used today in homes and classrooms did not exist then. "Wireless", for example, was what older people called radios.
1994 was also the last time that the Canberra Raiders won a premiership. Unlikely grand final hero Paul Osborne starred alongside David Furner and Ken Nagas, and Mal Meninga enjoyed a fairytale finish to his career by icing a 32-16 win over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Times have indeed changed.
However, to illustrate the remarkable success of James Ruse, let us stick with the rugby league analogy for a moment longer. In 2020, the Sydney Roosters (they were still called "Eastern Suburbs" in 1994) were a chance of winning their third straight grand final up until their loss to the Raiders last Friday. Just imagine, God forbid, that this year they had been aiming for their 25th consecutive premiership.
Sporting experts from all over the world would be visiting Bondi Junction to identify and emulate the Roosters' "culture". Every rugby league team in Australia would have been studying and copying their playing tactics and coaching methods. Coaches and players who contributed to the team's premiership streak would have become legends, not only in rugby league, but in Australian popular culture.
Needless to say, none of this obsession has been visited upon James Ruse during its extraordinary streak of success. Indeed, a marked lack of curiosity has surrounded the remarkable achievements of the students and staff there, particularly outside of NSW education circles. For instance, many of my teaching colleagues in the ACT seem barely aware of this impending silver anniversary of excellence.
Why does this strange silence hover over James Ruse High's continued educational achievement? When the James Ruse success story is mentioned, many blithely dismiss this sustained ascendency by pointing out that James Ruse is a selective school. However, there are 25 selective high schools in NSW and 25 other partially selective high schools. Why is this one selective school so much more successful than the others over such a long period of time?
This is an especially pertinent question given that some of these other selective schools, such as Sydney Boys High and Fort Street High, have a much more illustrious pedigree than James Ruse. Further, James Ruse is an agricultural high school, and all James Ruse students are mandated to study agriculture in years 7 to 10. This is a burden most of the other academically selective schools in NSW do not have to bear.
As a perhaps more philosophical question, do we really accept that James Ruse is so phenomenally successful purely because it has the smartest kids? Could we swap the entire staff from James Ruse with the staff from the lowest-performing high school in NSW and continue to get the same results? To return to the rugby league analogy, is success really just about the cattle?
If this is true, it really does pose some awkward questions about teaching as a profession. Perhaps this explains the strange silence that has greeted James Ruse's HSC streak.
However, as a teacher with nearly 20 years' experience, I do not believe that this is so. I believe that the culture of schools and the actions of teachers do have a powerful role to play in the successful education of our students.
As such, I would like to see more interest in the example of James Ruse. Perhaps teachers from all over Australia could visit the school to watch education excellence in practice. Instead of teachers listening to in-services from "education experts" who haven't taught a class in a decade, we could host our counterparts from James Ruse. Maybe our students should be allowed to view work samples from James Ruse students as exemplars of outstanding student achievement.
We will need to wait until December to find out if James Ruse has recorded a quarter-century as the leading high school in NSW. If this is the case, let us ask: why? And what can we emulate in our schools to help our students to achieve academically?
- Michael Castrission is a high school history teacher in Canberra.