The SMH this week has been taken with the idea of ‘white flight’ from public schools. On Monday they told us that:
WHITE students are fleeing public schools, leaving behind those of Aboriginal and Middle Eastern origin, a secret report by high school principals reveals. …
In New England, in towns such as Armidale, white middle-class students are flocking to Catholic and independent schools. In their report, principals say this is so the students can “get away from their local school”.
“This is almost certainly white flight from towns in which the public school’s enrolment consists increasingly of indigenous students,” the report says. “The pattern is repeated in the Sydney region. Based on comments from principals, this most likely consists of flight to avoid Islamic students and communities.”
As usual, parental choice is described as bad for ‘social cohesion’: According to UWS academic Carol Reid:
“I’m concerned that social cohesion is going to be at risk through this. I see signs of that. You have a lot of segregation going on.”
And in this morning’s paper, public school lobbyist Chris Bonnor makes his standard claim that the shortcomings of public education are the fault of private schools:
The former president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council Chris Bonnor said having fee-charging schools next to free schools, each with different obligations, had always been a recipe for social division and inequity.
“We need our schools to create strong and united communities, not to build barricades.”
But what is the link between ‘social cohesion’ and groups mixing at school? Behind all this is the theory, most famously expressed in Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, that contact between groups will reduce prejudice. At least under the fairly stringent conditions outlined by Allport – equal group status within the situation, common goals, intergroup cooperation and support of authorities or custom – the research I have seen suggests that generally prejudice is reduced. Stereotypes are diminished through experience with individual members of the stereotyped group.
In Australia’s case, all three school sectors provide opportunities for the Australian-born to mix with the children of migrants, and vice-versa. Among the respondents to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005, each school type has around 25% parents of students born overseas (the private schools are slightly higher, but we’d need a bigger sample to know if that is real or not). In many cases the contact is unnecessary to change attitudes, which are fine as they are, but it is occurring.
But if there are negative attitudes, just putting two groups together in a classroom won’t necessarily have the desired effect. The US experimented with this in forced racial desegregation of schools. Studies reported in H.D. Forbes’ book on ethnic conflict suggest that in some cases, at least, prejudice among whites in desegregated schools towards blacks was slightly increased. And even after decades of official desegration, informal segregation remains common.
I don’t know why things turned out the way they did in the US, but racial prejudice isn’t necessarily based on attitudes with no basis in reality. The poor average school results of Aboriginal Australians provide some objective basis for parental concerns about ‘peer effects’ in heavily Indigenous schools. In my brief days as a university tutor, a tutorial on Indigenous issues was derailed by complaints from my students about disruptive Indigenous students at their former schools. In those cases, contact hadn’t cured prejudice, it had reinforced it or perhaps created it.
The pragmatic approach in these circumstances would be to worry less about creating ‘social cohesion’ – which is not necessary in most circumstances – and focus on preserving social peace, which is almost always necessary. As I have argued before, there is a big difference between holding prejudiced attitudes and acting on them. Strong discipline in schools is obviously important to preventing kids acting on any ill-feeling. But I would not criticise parents for sending their kids somewhere else. Parents cannot be expected to sacrifice the interests of their own children for the uncertain benefit of other people’s children.