Do public schools create ‘melting pots’?

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.

13 thoughts on “Do public schools create ‘melting pots’?

  1. The idea of “black-spread” is bound to fail in Melbourne given that there is a record low rental vacancies (where are you going to spread people?). Its worthwhile noting that this is in fact part of the problem of white-flight. With expensive housing, a lot of middle-class people were essentially pushed into neighborhoods with these sorts of problems and attitudes (and occasionally it was brought to them), and now they complain about it since they have to put up with it when once they could just live somewhere else. I might note that in my somewhat ethnically diverse neighborhood (McKinnon) that gets almost no refugees and few low SES families (excluding the train lines junkies) thanks to the lack of public housing and rather expensive property prices, parents appear quite happy to send their kids to the public schools (McKinnon High is a big draw-card, and another one close by appears to be going well), so I definitely agree with you that its a class problem and not so much a racial problem.


  2. An anecdotal example: My town and those around it are some of the most monocultural in Victoria. We had two asian children and two pacific islander children in a school of 1000 or so. Basically everyone else was anglo-celtic.

    However, from what I can tell racist attitudes were far rarer at our school than schools with high levels of diversity. A neighbouring school had trouble with gang violence between anglos, maoris and skaters.

    Which points towards one problem in this whole ‘white flight, black scatter’ “problem”, mere contact between ethnic groups doesn’t do anything to dissapate prejudice, and can often make it worse.


  3. “…Sydney selective government schools are more ethnically mixed than schools in Cronulla or Bankstown.”

    Not necessarily so. James Ruse Agricultural High School in Carlingford NSW is easily the best performing academically selective high school in NSW (going by HSC results) but is almost exclusively populated by Chinese and Indians. The students in these ethnic groups are intensively coached to “pass” selective school “exams” to the exclusion of any balancing activities in their lives such as participation in the arts or sports. Carlingford is an area of heavy anglo population but is near suburbs like Eastwood and Epping which are now heavily populated by middle class Asians and Indians.

    There is quite a lot of white flight in these middle class suburbs. Public high schools like Cheltenham Girls High and Epping Boys High (neither selective) are heavily Asian and Indian. A lot of Anglos send their kids to private schools in the area, which while they are attended by many Asians, have a far more diverse student group.


  4. Andrew, the SMH series of stories did contain statistics on the changing backgrounds of children enrolling in state schools throughout NSW. These may not have been published online.

    Ferguson’s “solution” is disingenuous for a number of reasons. His electorate in Sydney contains quite a few just-arrived migrants, because it contains some of the cheapest rents in the city. I’d love to see him try to appeal for more funds in the immigration budget in order to distribute people around different parts of Sydney where rents are more expensive, and in higher demand from taxpaying renters unable to enter the property market.

    It’s also true, if ironic, that migrant groups assimilate best after they have initially established something of a ghetto. By the time new migrants from Italy had come to dominate Carlton, rather than entrench themselves by demanding that schools teach in Italian or whatever, they began to move away and form part of the wider community (while also changing that community, but that’s a matter for another debate).


  5. Andrew E – The only data in the online article were a survey of principals’ perceptions and the growing Aboriginal population of a school, neither of which can really put a number on it given we need to know how the population of surrounding areas is changing as well. While I think it is perfectly plausible that parents want to remove their kids from daily contact with troubled populations, I think we need careful analysis of census data to see if there is much of this going on. As in my Carlton example, in some areas there simply aren’t many Anglo children in the first place anymore, and given the likely socieconomic status of their parents many of them would attend private schools regardless of what the local schools are like.


  6. If it were not for the Asian scholarship kids in more expensive schools, the results ranking of many of them would fall significantly behind the state sector, as would the percentage of “top” placements at universities going to private school kids. So yeah, there is a reason for a mix in the “private sector”, partly so that native born Aussie principals can scam unsuspecting native born Aussie parents with skewed statistics.
    Money does not equal intelligence in a truly cashless society.

    There is no reason Cronulla style riots couldn’t happen in Melbourne.
    Just that the powers that be (as they perceive themselves) allowed it to happen in Cronulla. If it were politicians being yelled at let alone bashed it would have been quickly contained in a manner similar to g8, g20, WEF protests etc. Nothing to do with schooling differences between states, agreed on that point. However it does seem that Sydney is more geographically segmented than Melbourne along a number of vectors including culture, economics, sexual orientation, sporting preferences etc.. Although the difference between the two cities is essentially splitting hairs as they are more similar to each other than any overseas comparisons.


  7. whyisitso: I had the opposite impression of Epping Boys High, that the white parents wanted to get their kids into the school, but couldn’t, although I don’t have the evidence for that (its the same sort of problem where I live with McKinnon High — far more parents want their kids to get in that can be allowed — but I don’t believe there is any great level of racial skewing, unlike Epping Boys). Alternatively, there is evidence for that at James Ruse (or at least people were complaining about it on TV some years ago), where the Asian kids were displacing the white kids, but that wasn’t because the white parents didn’t want their kids going there, and hence your observation about coaching. I might pointing out too that “coaching” and “excluding other activities” are all rather hard to define terms. One might relabel them “homework” and “studying hard” and I don’t see how you would differentiate them, esepecially because the Asian kids are getting better marks throughout high school overall (at least it appears like that if we look at who gets into the top uni courses — I’m not sure of any racial data that is available for Year 12 performance). It seems to me that this is more white people complaining than Asian people doing anything that a fair chunk of the rest of the world wouldn’t do, and we should encourage white people to do it too and Australia might be a better place (i.e., help with and help pay for their kids education). I might also note that culturally, at least for the Chinese kids, they are not excluding other activities — most people don’t care less about sport in many parts of China. In Hong Kong, I think the two main sports are eating and horse racing, for example. In Korea (many Koreans live in Eastwood/Carlinford), its computer games. Alternatively, most Indians I know are cricket mad, so I doubt they are excluding sport. Also, I don’t know that you are correct about excluding the arts (again its empirical), especially if you compare to the normal population. I don’t seem to remember too much of this going on when I was at school — I think the average expsoure for most kids that didn’t do music was approximately zero.


  8. Indeed a lot of non-Asian families will not send their children to James Ruse and some of the selective Highs because they are so freakily monoethnic. I am sorry, but going to a school that is 95% Asian kids with violin cases and glasses whose parents fork out an extra $100 a week extra for private tuition don’t say like no party, it sure ain’t no disco, there ain’t no foolin’ around. You would get a more well-rounded education at Kings.


  9. Actually John, I think there are really three groups of non-Asian families you need to consider when wondering about “white-flight”. One group is those that don’t want their children to go to Asian schools for whatever reasons (like those you mention and probably a host of others). A second group is those that want their children to go there because they are the best performing schools. An interesting question is whether this second group is likely to benefit or not. On the one hand, it might be that sending dull white kids to smart Asian schools doesn’t help them, in which case the parents are deluded. Alternatively, these schools do have quite a different culture as you note, and perhaps there is some rub-off effect — I can imagine this is certainly true of staff recruitment. A third possibility is that smart white parents want to send their smart white kids there, because they may believe they’ll be able to excel at advanced mathematics and other things that most white people seem to have given up on in the last decade or so.


  10. 9 times out of ten you get huge wobbly bums (well rounded like a Kings education if you like) and or stupid arguments from Aussie women (and no doubt men too) of European descent later in life if not during their 20s.
    So for aesthetic and peace of mind type reasons it is better for native born Aussies who can make the grade to enter high schools where they can network with flowers of the orient who can think on their own feet without all the attitude, such as the lovely Delvene Soon.


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