How a selective school in Sydney is trying to attract more girls

University of Technology social scientist Christina Ho said the gender gap in select schools likely begins in the elementary school years, when the casual fifth- and sixth-grade classes are dominated by boys.

Data obtained through the herald shows that 59 per cent of participants in NSW’s opportunity classes that year were boys, up from 58 per cent in 2022.

“When speaking to teachers of casual classes in elementary schools, they often comment on the gender gap and in particular the number of boys who are genuinely interested in math. And math ability is often oversized – and dominated by boys.”

Ho said once there is a gender gap in high schools, parents of girls can then avoid them, which “can make the gender gap even bigger and then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The selective school test was revised after a 2018 review found entrance exams favored boys and students with exceptional math skills over those with strong literacy skills.

But the new test hasn’t increased the proportion of girls offered a place. Of 4,253 initial offers for targeted school placement this year, 43 percent went to girls.

Jaclyn Cush, the exculpatory principal at Penrith High School, said the fully selective school now has two teachers who are designated advocates for female students and many after-school programs aimed at girls.

About 42 percent of students are girls, and Cush said the focus has been on increasing the number of female students.

“The school captain, the senior prefect and the SRC president are all girls. And when parents come to open houses and events, they see strong female leaders at the school,” she said. “Schools are a microcosm of society, so it’s important that your school is representative of the real world.”

Penrith Pupil Council President Cassidy Lauguico said when she started at the school in 2019, there were few extracurricular activities. “The school has rejuvenated our after-school program and expanded the number of school clubs, and we now have a competitive dance and theater company, a girls-only basketball enrichment program, and speaker and debate teams.”


Cush said the school has more than 50 enrichment programs and clubs, with girls being heavily represented in the social justice and fair trade clubs.

“Overall, girls are taking on more extracurricular activities, including enrichment and clubs, both as participants and as student leaders.”

Genevieve Thraves of the University of New England School of Education said one reason female students are more likely to turn down a place is their strong social connections.

“It’s possible that for girls entering casual classes in 5th grade — and select schools in 7th grade — their need to maintain social relationships with friends might compete with their desire to pursue an academic opportunity. “

“Girls may be less likely to transfer schools in 5th grade if they’ve made strong friendships.”

Last year, a new equity model for select schools and gifted classes was introduced, with 20 percent of places reserved for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous students, students with disabilities, and students from rural and remote areas.

A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education said the department was working to attract more girls to selected schools. “More diverse schools benefit everyone,” they said.

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Justin Scaccy

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