Coaching colleges create educational inequity that undermines HSC

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Educators and families in NSW have raised fears that the HSC is being undermined, following claims from some of Sydney’s coaching colleges that they have been involved in tutoring hundreds of the state’s top-performing year 12 students.

One of the state’s coaching colleges awarded up to $3000 in cash prizes to students who achieved a state ranking in the 2023 HSC.

The booming private coaching industry has seen hundreds of colleges across the city promote term-long courses in year 11 and 12 HSC subjects – mostly in STEM subjects that include chemistry, physics and higher-level maths.

Business is booming for coaching colleges

A former public selective high school principal has described an explosion in the number of high-performing secondary school students attending coaching centres – something they say has occurred since the early 2000s.

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“It crept up gradually and now the colleges are this mega-industry. In the past few years more than 95 per cent of our year 12 students had outside coaching,” the principal says.

Chirag Mandhani is a recent graduate from Girraween High, a selective school in Sydney’s western suburbs, and says almost all students were tutored in advanced and extension maths to “gain a competitive edge”. The additional coaching meant they learned concepts weeks before they were taught in the school classroom.

“I know students who went to multiple colleges for a single HSC subject. It can be exhausting to travel to the centres and spend hours there after school,” he says.

Cash rewards offer incentives for coaching students to excel

On the website of Sydney coaching centre Dr Du Education, the business claims to have tutored almost 660 students who achieved a mark of 90 or above in HSC advanced or extension maths last year. Students applying for a place at the centre are asked to sit an entrance test. The business also claims to have paid more than $23,000 in prize money to students from their centres who achieved a state ranking, with cash awards that ranged from $800 for top 10 in chemistry to $3000 for placing first in maths extension 2.

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Two other Sydney centres, Peak HSC and Zhang’s HSC Coaching, also promote classes available for students attending public selective high schools in NSW, with tutoring fees for one term of maths coaching at some coaching colleges tallying $1700.

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council head Craig Petersen said the coaching industry was experiencing “exponential growth” that was driving division and segregation in the education system.

“Either coaching is restricted to families that can afford it, or for those prepared to make enormous sacrifices. It is a trend that undermines the level playing field that should be the HSC. It is also hard to know how much the tutoring is contributing to high marks. Not long ago, it was the exception rather than the rule,” he says.

Mainstream education is being undermined

Associate Professor Christina Ho, a social scientist at the University of Technology Sydney agrees – saying that the rise in coaching has created a shadow education system that undermines mainstream schooling.

“Students are learning content well ahead of time in tutoring, so the school classroom is for revision. It fuels the culture and raises a lot of questions about what happens in class when the students have covered concepts with tutors,” she says.

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“Tutoring was once reserved for students needing extra support or remedial instruction, and in those cases, it can be helpful. But in competitive environments, like selective schools, it drives that pressure for the highest-performing students to be coached.”

Many of the students, Associate Professor Ho says, are from Asian migrant families that place high value on education, and that being vital for social mobility.

“Parents also want to be told explicitly how their child is performing, and where they rank among their peers,” she says.

Australian Tutoring Association chief executive Mohan Dhall estimates there are more than 600 businesses in Sydney offering HSC tutoring, with about a dozen major centres opening new branches in the past five years. In the unregulated industry, many of the tutors are not qualified teachers.

“Students who benefit most are those where the tutoring matches their individual traits and needs. This is not likely to be achieved in any tutoring centre with a commercial focus,” Dhall says.

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But because the highest academic achievers are “generally self-motivated and highly driven”, Mr Dhall says “it’s unclear how much tutoring college actually contributes to the academic success of the student – if at all”.

Economic disadvantage can lead to academic inequity

A NSW Department of Education spokesperson said it did not have oversight over the tutoring industry sector, and that “private tutoring businesses are not allowed to use department data to promote their businesses”.

With concerns growing that economically disadvantaged students will become increasingly academically disadvantaged and unable to compete with hot-housed students with the resources to access additional coaching, many families and educators are keen to see greater regulation within the sector.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live