Seven schools have tumbled out of the top 10 on this year's higher-level English merit list, while for higher-level maths a new rising star has leapt an astounding 65 places to storm into the top 10.
Selective school James Ruse topped the merit list for English (Advanced), Extension 1 and Extension 2 this year, toppling fellow selective school Sydney Girls, which plunged to 10th - the biggest fall among the top 10 schools.
Balgowlah Boys was the only non-selective public school to make the top 20 this year.
"It's so nice knocking off our local selective school [Northern Beaches Secondary College] Manly," said Balgowlah's deputy principal, Benjamin Seldon.
"To be honest we are pretty competitive. We have been the bridesmaid for a few years to a range of schools. It's been so rewarding to be able to knock them off and smash it out, and to say we are the top comprehensive school, not just the top comprehensive boys school."
Mr Seldon said the key to the school's success was not just hoping students could interpret texts like Shakespeare's Hamlet or George Orwell's 1984, but actually providing a scaffolding upon which they could build their understanding.
"The most important things are industry, passion and engagement," he said. "There is a belief that English is full of waffle but its not, it's so important to everything and the HSC is a test of character and that's what gets you through life."
Private Catholic girls school Kincoppal in Rose Bay and Balgowlah Boys fought a tough battle, both leapfrogging more than 10 places to land at equal third. Balgowlah finished at 15th last year, hot on the heels of Kincoppal, at 14th.
Storming into the top three was the independent Reddam House, which rocketed 39 places from 41st.
Only three schools from last year's top 10 managed to retain their place at the front of the pack: James Ruse, Baulkham Hills (up five places to 5th) and SHORE (retaining 6th place).
The state's wealthier private schools tend to dominate higher-level English, this year accounting for 16 of the top 20 schools. But when it comes to higher-level maths, it's selective schools' time to shine.
James Ruse claimed the top spot on the merit list for Mathematics, Extension 1 and Extension 2, rounding out the trifecta: 1st overall, 1st for higher Maths and 1st for higher English.
North Sydney Boys retained its second-place ranking, while Baulkham Hills skipped ahead two places to 3rd, from 5th last year.
Top 10 newcomers included Normanhurst Boys at 5th, up from 16th last year, and Knox Grammar, which surged 19 places from 26th.
But this year's rising star was independent Islamic school Al-Faisal College, which soared into 10th place from 75th in 2015.
Killara High was the only non-selective public school to feature in this year's top 20 for higher-level maths - a feat none of its peers achieved last year.
English ESL and Standard
Reddam House was the top-ranked school on the merit list for English (ESL) and English (Standard), followed by north shore private school Pymble Ladies College and non-selective public school Cheltenham Girls.
Strathfield Girls tumbled from the top perch in 2015 to 15th this year.
Northern beaches selective school Manly topped the merit list for Mathematics General, toppling private girls school Ascham in the eastern suburbs.
Selective school Hurlstone Agricultural and the independent Reddam House ranked 2nd and 3rd.
Note: A school must have at least 20 entries across the relevant courses to be included on the Herald's English or Mathematics merit lists.