Sam Lipski
Journalist | Commentator | Analyst

Partisan column - Australian Jewish News
December 24, 2004

It's that time of year again. Last week the top Year 12 Jewish day school students were on the AJN Mebourne edition's front page. This week it's Sydney's turn. I happen to think the individual achievements and the school successes are worth reporting because they meet the test of being news. But more than that: they're worth celebrating.  

Now I understand, and even empathise with, the perennial critics who argue that, as a community, we tend to overdo the ballyhoo around the Year 12 results; that we put too much pressure on our day school students; and that we make it harder psychologically and socially for many who aren't amongst the super high flyers.

But this is one of those "on-balance" judgments. And on balance, while our day school system has its serious limitations in some areas, I much prefer the continuing emphasis on academic results to any of the conceivable alternatives that would inevitably end up as excuses for mediocrity.

Certainly, I fully agree that considering academic results on their own, without the essential accompanying values of "menshlichkeit" - (ethical values) -- and "Yiddishkeit" - Jewish tradition-can be a pretty hollow exercise. And at the risk of repeating yet again what I've been writing for more than 40 years, too many of our schools are still a long way from according Jewish studies the same status as secular subjects.

But I also believe that as Jews and as Australians we benefit our own community and the greater social good, as well as all the students themselves, when the Jewish day schools set high aspirational educational standards in their general studies and take pride in achieving them.

Consider this year's Year 12 results in Victoria . Although not quite as spectacular as in some previous years, when Jewish schools scored the first five places in the top 10, they were still very impressive. Leibler Yavneh College was third in the state; Bialik College and Yeshiva College came fourth and fifth sharing the same study scores. Mount Scopus College was ninth, Beth Rivkah Ladies College 12 th , and The King David School, 13 th .

Note that these rankings are out of some 500 schools in Victoria . It means that each of the Jewish schools offering Year 12 was in the top 15, ie in the top one to two percent.

(INSERT new para here)

Although the New  South Wales  educational system  has more  than a dozen selective  government high schools, compared to Victoria's two, and although this makes it  harder for the Sydney Jewish day schools  to achieve high rankings compared to Melbourne's, they've also scored very highly. Moriah College's  success as the leading private school and its overall seventh place ranking was most impressive,  and together with strong results at The Emanuel School, Masada College and the Yeshiva College, Sydney's results add to the general picture. And over the years, on a smaller scale, the story's been similar at Adelaide's Massada College and Perth's Carmel School.

What explains the ongoing academic success story at Jewish day schools?

Some of our pundits will simply put it all down to "the Yiddisheh kop", much the same explanation often offered for the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Prize Winners, and the droves of Jewish scientists.

Not very illuminating. So mostly I prefer the explanations of educationists and sociologists. Amongst the more familiar ones: the traditional Jewish emphasis on the importance of education for its own sake and as a means of upward social mobility; family and community networks which megaphone that importance; a strong peer culture amongst most students which believes it's "cool" to get high marks; private schools which have more flexibility in choosing and paying for the best teachers; and a sizeable percentage of parents who can afford, or are willing to pay even if they can't afford, for extra tutors.

Until about 30 years ago many of us would have added " the strong desire of immigrant families to succeed." But the great majority of today's Year 12 Jewish students, were not only born here, but are mostly the sons and daughters of those who were born here. They are no longer immigrants.

Still, it may help us to understand where we've come from as a community if we consider the two schools that this year ranked first and second in Victoria - as they did last year: MacRobertson Girls High and Melbourne Boys High.

In the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, before the growth of Jewish schools, these two schools had significant Jewish student populations, children of immigrants keen to make it in Australia . Today, each has barely a handful.

But in other ways, nothing has changed. They remain selective government schools. But most tellingly, at least half the students in each school come from immigrant families with recent Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian origins and they dominate the prizes and results.

In its own way this is a very Australian story, and one which may help us to understand better that part of the story which was, and continues to be, Jewish.