White flight

That’s today’s big story in the SMH: the growing trend over the last decade, in NSW especially, whereby white parents choose not to send their kids to the local public school, particularly for high school education, meaning the public schools have become predominated by indigenous and immigrant children of Middle Eastern descent. The trend has also started to affect selective public high schools on Sydney’s North Shore with large numbers of Asian children. School principals are expressing grave concerns for the implications this trend holds for social cohesion.

One principal also made the point that it’s not only private schools that are contributing to the segregation of children:

Social cohesion was under threat, Dr Reid said, from increasing segregation in education according to race, class and academic achievement.

Public schools were becoming increasingly selective on the basis of academic achievement, sporting and artistic ability.

“We have increased segregation inside public schools into the smart and the dumb, the sports capable and the creative. It’s that crude,” Dr Reid said. “It has implications for social cohesion. What do we do if kids are no longer growing up together?”

I grew up attending several schools because my dad had a public service job that meant we moved around. My favourite school was in Newcastle, in an area of high immigrant population, where I was surrounded by a bunch of non-Anglo-Celtic Europeans, considered at the time to be very non-U. Certainly I found that those schools were better both academically and socially than several others I attended which were virtually wall-to-wall WASPs, largely because the kids came from so many different backgrounds that ethnicity became a very low-level concern: we pretty much just rubbed along. I have very little reason to believe that things would be that much different these days, even though the ethnicity of the immigrants considered most non-U has certainly changed. So why the changed perception, especially in Sydney, that if one doesn’t private educate one’s kids one mustn’t really care for their future advancement, and certainly not for their current safety?

Several of my neighbours appear to have succumbed to the perception that their kids would be disadvantaged by sticking with the local public school, although I don’t know whether they have consciously acknowledged a discomfort with the numbers of Aboriginal and/or Lebanese and/or Muslim students: they certainly haven’t voiced such sentiments to me. Their kids go to Catholic schools or expensive private schools, where the majority of the students are Anglo-Celtic and Western European.

My kids go to a public high school (although not our nearest one, because they wanted to go to a technology high school, and our nearest high school is a language high school), and I find myself increasingly given the raised eyebrow when my fellow middle-class urbanite parent-types find this out. This saddens me: we could certainly afford to send our kids to a Catholic school, or to one of the many private schools in Sydney, but we don’t want to. We believe in public education despite the current funding problems: it’s not just about what goes on in the classroom, it’s also about learning about others in your community. The proportion of immigrant and indigenous pupils at our high school is quite high, just as it was at our inner-west public primary school, and I like that. I like it that a few years ago, when my kids were having some troubles with some neighbour kids, they described them to me as “the boy with the curly ginger hair and his brothers” instead of highlighting their aboriginality.

The way in which “white flight” in the USA has contributed to their ongoing crisis in race relations has been well documented. I’m horrified to see the same short-sighted and destructive tendency happening here.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, relationships, social justice

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17 replies

  1. I’m new in this country, and the whole private school thing has got me puzzled. We live just a few hundred metres from an excellent public primary school, and even closer to a superb public secondary school, the best in the state. Yet when we say we intend to send our girls there, we get the raised eyebrow treatment. I wrote about it here.
    The ethnic mix angle hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s a good point. This country, and most Western countries, are incorrigibly diverse. No matter where our children go to school, they will have to function in a society where difference is normal. I’m sure the WASP schools can talk about living with diversity, but it’s a completely different, and better, thing to learn about diversity through living it.
    The local secondary school does seem to have a diverse group of students, from what I can tell based on the students walking past our gate. (BTW – how is it that some schoolgirls can make their uniforms look incredibly sophisticated? I always looked like a complete frump in mine!) Lots of hard working migrant families, I think.
    Deborah’s last blog post..The lady meme

  2. I’m here to blogwhore just to give you an idea of
    how segregation works in a “progressive” American city
    Red Queen’s last blog post..The great debate demystified.

  3. I didn’t have any choice about going to a public secondary school; in fact the only school that I could go to was one of the lowest ranked in the state. In spite of that I had some really excellent teachers whose quality and dedication would easily match any teacher in a private school. Mind you, I had some duds too, but again, the same happens in private schools.
    Since I grew up in a rural area, there wasn’t too much racial diversity– we were mostly Anglo, with a handful of Indigenous kids. It’s probably a function of my white privilege that I didn’t even notice that the Indigenous kids in my year 7 class actually were Aboriginal until someone pointed it out to me: I mean, I’m glad that I didn’t see skin colour as their defining characteristic, but at the same time, I think I was just coding everyone as “white”, and I had the privilege of not having to face up to discrimination etc, so I could do that. But yeah, if I’d been able to go to the local private school (which was too far away from where I lived to even be an option), I probably wouldn’t even have that to reflect back on, in order to examine the way that my own prejudices/privilege can function.

  4. Bah.
    We live in Strathfield. The girls go to Burwood Public (long story; irrelevant here). The demographic is ~80% Asian, ~15% Indian and the remainder honky, mostly Italian, and there are nearly 600 on the roll.
    Our girls stand out.
    They love it, we love it, they have lots of friends and are adored by staff and students alike. They are growing up colour-blind.
    In the last round of key stage assessments the school pissed over the competition (including the fee-paid schools) in the local area, and scored among the highest in the state.
    So two fingers to the dickheads.
    rpg’s last blog post..Be proud

  5. Unfortunately this is just going to perpetuate the whole ‘scared of what you are ignorant of’ process. Especially in Primary school, kids are just kids. Let them get to know each other.
    I did wonder though, with selective schools that have a majority of Asian students if parents are choosing other schools so their darling can be top of the class without having to compete with hard working Asian students (cultural stereotype I know).
    Mindy’s last blog post..Is this a Lemming frock or some freaky coincidence?

  6. How much is this a chicken and egg thing – middle class anglos moving to private schools (for John-Howard-encouraged reasons) makes the public schools more ‘ethnic’ and then the middle class anglos want to avoid them for that reason (as well as the ‘Howard-aspirational’ reasons)?
    It’s depressing.
    susoz’s last blog post..postcard from virginia

  7. It’s possibly a media beat up. What do the newspapers mean by ‘white’ flight? ‘White’ is a dud tag, it doesn’t describe any actual ethnic or national grouping; in these stories, it seems to here stand in for whatever definition the writers/editors want it to stand in for. (One of the linked stories defines ‘white’ as ‘Anglo-European’; another, as ‘Anglo-Celtic’.) And of course, it’s important to know whether the report itself uses the definition ‘White’, or ‘Anglo-European’, or ‘Anglo-Celtic’, and if it does successfully identify the cause of this demographic shift.
    There are other ambiguities, too: is this really a bad trend? It could be a sign of growing family ambition (not in itself really good or bad), or of families wanting more varieties of education, which often can’t be adequately provided by government schools (a good thing, I’d say).
    I spent two years at a richer private school, and I know in certain ways it gives children exposure to a more diverse society than they would otherwise have known – ie, children from overseas or from other parts of Australia who have been sent to be educated at the local private school. I don’t know if many government schools can accommodate people like this.
    On the whole, I don’t feel as if this is a negative trend. It’s certainly true that most politicians, when questioned about the ‘shift to private school education’, generally say that it’s a bad thing – thus aiding to the general negative view in which private schools are held, in comparison to public schools. But, in and of itself, I can’t see why this is so bad.
    TimT’s last blog post..Paradox of the day!

  8. I’m not sure that I understand you comment TimT. Government schools are supposed to, and do accommodate just about everyone. I suspect that at your private school you were probably exposed to diversity in terms of ethnic background, but a distinct lack of diversity in terms of monied priviledge.
    Mindy’s last blog post..Well, it sounds like they’ve got the ladies covered…

  9. At the school at which I was a boarder, there were a number of kids from Burma, the Pacific Islands, one Aboriginal Australian with his family based in rural Australia, a number of kids from farming families from regional NSW, boarders from Hong Kong (etc, etc). This was all in my year. People don’t generally come halfway around the country, or the world to attend a local public school. (There were also a number of well-off Asian kids and Anglos from the neighbourhood; this was just in my year.)
    If there are significant cultural and personal differences for children in different economic classes – something that I’m not all that sure about – sure, exposure to that sort of diversity is a good thing. But it’s worth remembering that private schools do have a number of scholarships that allow bright kids from not-so-well-off families to attend their school.
    TimT’s last blog post..Paradox of the day!

  10. It’s true there are foreign-country exchange programs, but I don’t think public schools ever have boarding facilities, something which would probably be politically quite unpopular. (And, by the same token, there can only ever be a limited number of scholarships at private schools). Because of the nature of popular democracy in Australia, I’d imagine that accommodating international students in this manner would be seen as giving ‘Australian’ money to non-Australian citizens, and criticised as such. Well, both systems have something to say for them, I just think the private/public school cliches which are generally deployed are suspect and worth being interrogated.
    Incidentally, I don’t think my family was so well off – Dad worked for a regional NSW council as a health/building administrator, Mum didn’t work; they must have saved up enough money to get us through two years at a boarding school; in my case it was a significantly better choice than the local school I would have otherwise attended for years 11 and 12.
    TimT’s last blog post..Paradox of the day!

  11. At private school, I was expoesd to rich white city kids, rich white country kids, and hyper-rich international students, mostly from Asian countries. Diversity? Only if you’re going purely by Pantone.
    Me and the other scholarship student in my year were both slightly-less-rich white city kids.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..Shame file: Haven Backpackers Resort Hostel, Alice Springs

  12. Tim, did you ever go to school with kids who wore shoes with holes, because they couldn’t afford new ones just yet? Or whose Mum sent them to school for the last two days of a pay fortnight without money or lunch, because there was only Weetbix and rice in the cupboard till Centrelink came through again? Or whose parents expected them not to attend University (told them that even if they were smart, it was a waste of time and money) or go into a job other than labour work?
    I went to a public selective highschool and these were some of the things I noticed in my classmates’ lives, from the vantage-point of my middle-class background (where there was always food, even if it was the same and cheap brand every day, my shoes weren’t the newest, but didn’t have holes, and I would certainly be taking advantage of the HECS scheme and go on to tertiary education, unless I could find an entry-level position or similar white collar work).
    Aphie’s last blog post..29 weeks

  13. I take your point, Aphie. The public school I went to was in a small country town – I went there from Kindergarten through to year 10. There were people from a wide range of different economic backgrounds, and they were not served well by generally low educational standards, lack of opportunity, and lack of discipline at the school itself. (I remember years 7-10 being particularly out of control, making learning almost impossible.)
    TimT’s last blog post..Paradox of the day!

  14. I suspect if you ask the people who are putting their kids into private schools why they do it, they’ll murmur something about academic standards and similar – private schools are certainly perceived to be “better” because they have a number of high achievers on the honour rolls at the end of year twelve. I find it rather interesting, because if I went by my family for an example, I’d be recommending to my former sister-in-law that she send her daughters to the country high school my cousin attended, rather than the suburban one nearest to her (which had been attended by most of their adult relations).
    Yes, prestigious private schools have a number of high achievers on their lists. However, prestigious private schools also have the funds to be able to afford scholarships, and to pick and choose from their pupil list. A public school has to accept all comers, and yes, it will tend to reflect the attitudinal culture of the majority of people in the area. I went through my primary and secondary schooling at public schools, and I don’t think I suffered for it. What I suffered for, in later years, was a lack of growing up in an upper-middle class culture. I was in the first generation of my family to achieve university studies, and nobody in the family was prepared for the differences from a high school system.
    Of course, the other reason which is common for sending kids to private schools (particularly church-sponsored ones) is because they think it’ll give the kids a moral background – as though this isn’t something a child picks up at home. Public schools, simply because they’re required to accept all comers, cannot afford to contract morality into a single religious creed these days. A church-based school can, but I do tend to wonder whether this is a good thing. I think I’d still recommend a public school to anyone who was interested in their kids getting a good, diverse education. About the only thing it won’t do is get your kids linked into the “old school tie” privilege system.
    Meg Thornton’s last blog post..My birthday list

  15. Or link you into it. I’ve heard of parents sending their kids to private schools so that the parents can hobnob with the affluent and well-connected, so that they can increase their own business opportunities. New school tie.
    susoz’s last blog post..that’s so gay!

  16. Surely, by now everyone realises that the statistics do not support the hypothesis that Private Schools have higher academic standards. So the racial thing is a real worry in our supposedly inclusive society.
    I went to a public school in a community that was almost exclusively Anglo-Celtic. This (the community as much as the school) left me with an unfortunate legacy of discomfort around those who were different because of their skin colour, accent or behaviour. On an intellectual level I was deeply troubled by this and it’s taken me a long time to get over it. I am very thankful that my kids go to an ethnically diverse (public) school and won’t have to wrestle with that particular demon.


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