Over Friday and Saturday, The Age (as commenter Brendan pointed out) ran its own version of the SMH‘s ‘white flight’ from government schools story, adding in refugees in Victoria to the Lebanese and Aboriginal students in NSW allegedly causing an Anglo-Asian flight to private schools. The news hook was statements by Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, that refugees needed to be spread more widely rather than concentrating them in particular areas.
As with the SMH story, no statistical evidence was provided of the scale (or indeed, beyond principal’s unverified reports, reality) of this white flight. But let’s assume it’s true to some extent. If as we know parental background is an important predictor of school success, then the children of parents with poor English language skills, and who in the case of African refugees particularly may not be literate in any language, are not going to be ideal classmates, whatever exotic opportunities they may provide for cross-cultural experiences.
In a government school system still based primarily on people attending their closest school, the concentration of refugees in public housing that is also geographically concentrated means that refugee kids will form a large percentage of students in some schools.
There is no question on refugee status in the census, but in my home suburb of Carlton, which has a lot of public housing, less than 30% of the female parents of dependent children report speaking only English. It is primarily the intersection of government schooling and housing policies that limits contact between refugees and the majority population. And if local schools reaching a tipping point of students with troubled backgrounds, it is hardly surprising that middle class parents look for alternatives. Ferguson’s ‘black spread’ solution seems far more sensible than trying to limit ‘white flight’ through cutting private school funding.
AEU State President Mary Bluett claims that Victoria is in a better position than NSW:
“Victoria in particular has done multiculturalism pretty well … and the strong reason for that is public education,” she said. “That melting pot that is many of our government schools means that we haven’t had the riots like they have had elsewhere, such as NSW.”
While the Cronulla riots cannot in my view be put down to failings of the school system, the reality is that public school zoning limits rather than creates ethnic mixing in cities where diversity does not exist in the local area. The Cronulla riots Bluett is referring to are a good example. According to the 2006 census, 80% of people living in Cronulla who answered the ancestry question gave their ancestry as ‘Australian’ or somewhere in the British Isles. By contrast, 80% of people living in heavily Lebanese Bankstown gave their ancestry as somewhere other than Australia or the British Isles.
The assumption that local areas are mixed, and therefore create opportunities for ethnic mixing when schooling is zoned, is true only sometimes. By drawing on a wider geographic area, private schools can actually achieve more diversity along some lines. For example, they could be mostly Catholic or mostly middle class, but have an ethnic make-up that more closely resembles the general population than that of the people living in the surrounding areas.
Similarly the selective government schools that the public education lobby complain about also recruit from byeond their local area and so do not reflect any of its ethnic concentrations. I’d take a bet that the Sydney selective government schools are more ethnically mixed than schools in Cronulla or Bankstown.