Private schools lock in clever kids early as scholarship demand rises

Victorian private schools are competing to offer academically gifted students scholarships from as early as year 4, as demand grows in response to rising living costs.

Competition for places prompted parents to pay registration fees at multiple schools, ranging from $90 to $300 if late fees were included, as well as up to $595 on workshops to tutor students in how to approach scholarship tests.

Year 4 student Aveen is going for scholarship this year.Credit:Eddie Jim

But experts said parents considered it a small price to pay compared with the $30,000 to $50,000 they could save if their children snared a lucrative scholarship spot.

Academic Assessment Services director Robert Allwell – whose scholarship testing service represents about 65 schools in Victoria and about 250 nationally – said there had been about a 10 per cent increase in those registering for scholarships in Victoria and about a 25 per cent increase in NSW since 2018.

He said this was likely due to the economic climate.

“If people have mortgages and with the cost of living as well, and then school fees on top … if a school is charging $30,000 a year, parents at minimum have to end up earning $45,000-$50,000 a year to cover those fees before tax,” Allwell said.

He also said more schools were offering academic scholarships from an earlier age – 12 schools began offering year 5 scholarships in Victoria in the past few years, some offer them in year 3 and year 4.

He said it was quite common for schools to test year 5 students for year 7 scholarships, but in Victoria “you get a bit of everything”.

“We have quite a few schools here that test literally every year level from 4 upwards,” he said.

Annette Paroissien, executive director of Hendersons, which tutors students sitting tests for scholarships or select-entry high schools, said some schools were testing almost two years in advance for the 2024 intake.

“We have assumed that schools started to compete for the truly gifted and therefore started to bring their exams earlier to make the offers at the same time or earlier,” she said.

Kingswood College in Box Hill South tested for year 7 students in February 2022, St Margaret’s and Berwick Grammar tested in May 2022 and Korowa Anglican Girl’s tested in September and October 2022 for 2024 scholarships.

Kingswood College director of community engagement Lynelle Dudman said more schools were testing early because of the competition.

“There are a lot of schools with empty places, a lot of schools are using it to fill places,” she said. “There are people putting out scholarships at least two years ahead.”

She said Kingswood had always offered year 7 places in year 5, but some schools were offering more than two years out.

Hendersons executive director Annette Paroissien says there’s been an increase demand for scholarship testing.Credit:Justin McManus

“I think some are offering in year 4 just to lock in students basically.”

Paroissien said she had “absolutely” seen an increase in demand for scholarships. In December, they had a 68 per cent increase in demand for their services from the previous year, and 14 per cent growth in demand for tuition in the six months to December.

She attributed this to COVID-19 making more parents aware of the impacts of teacher shortages in public schools, but also due to financial strain through the pandemic.

Scholarships can be for everything from choral, general excellence, sport, STEM and leadership, with entry requirements including everything from NAPLAN tests to 30 second videos of children introducing themselves and their interests.

“We have assumed that schools started to compete for the truly gifted and therefore started to bring their exams earlier to make the offers at the same time or earlier.”

Principals or schools decide what percentage of a scholarship is awarded based on varying factors, in some cases based on stipulations from a bequeathment.

But Edutest and ACER representatives said their registrations were fairly stable from last year, and at this stage they had not seen a notable increase or decrease.

Deborah Holtham has two children at Wesley College, both of whom are on scholarships – son Campbell, in year 9, is on an academic scholarship and daughter Shala, in year 7, is on a general excellence scholarship.

Deborah Holtham, with daughter Shala and son Campbell outside Wesley College, says she has prioritised school fees to support her children’s musical interests.Credit:

Holtham said the scholarships brought fee discounts of 50 per cent and 40 per cent, saving thousands of dollars a year, though she still makes sacrifices for her children’s education.

“I don’t take many holidays and I drive a 20-year-old car, because school fees are the priority,” she said.

For some families who apply to multiple schools, or enroll in a coaching course, the costs can stack up. Each school sets their own fee to sit for the tests, with three main providers; AAS, Edutest and ACER.

The fee ranges from $90 to $300 (which includes a late registration fee). Workshops can cost up to $595. This year, Wesley reduced the cost of the registration fee to allow greater access.

Year 4 student Aveen and his parents Thepul Seekkuge ( father ) and Layanga Seekkuge ( mother ) at home. Aveen is going for scholarship this year.Credit:Eddie Jim.

The scholarships are competitive, though Holtham said she did not push either of her children to study harder than they ordinarily would, or hire private tutors.

“We were a bit casual about it, I guess, but I think most families are much less casual than we are.”

Glen Iris mother Layanga Seekkuge’s two sons, Akein, 11, and Aveen, 9, have just sat a scholarship test for year 7 and year 5 and did coaching with Hendersons to prepare.

Seekkuge said her sons were hoping to get general excellence and academic scholarships at Wesley College or Caulfield Grammar.

“On the day of the exam they were a bit nervous,” she said, “but at the end I think they were alright.”

She said they found the workshops helpful and weren’t worried about the cost of the tests, as she said it was reasonable considering the economic advantage you’d get if you won the scholarship.

Ballarat Clarendon College principal David Shepherd said their enrolments had been increasing by about 100 each year, so it made sense that registrations to sit for scholarship tests had also increased.

“I don’t think parents enrolling students to sit scholarship exams should be stressful,” Shepherd said.

But Paroissien said for a young child, sitting an exam in an unfamiliar school without familiar teachers or friends could “be extremely stressful and overwhelming”. She said children should emotionally prepare.

“It is not unusual for us to hear of students crying in exams if they haven’t prepared, which affects their ability to perform at their best on the day,” she said.

Edutest general manager Fiona Sherry said there was no real way to prepare for a scholarship test, because they are designed for students to be able to interpret, think critically, infer and problem-solve.

Practice tests can help students understand style, structure and format but would not replicate the difficulty.

“We always say to parents that to prepare for the test, they really just need to tell their child to do their best on the day.”

ACER runs cooperative program scholarship tests, where multiple scholarship tests are held at the same time, the next one is February 25 and held across NSW, NT, QLD, Victoria and WA.

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