Last week’s articles in The Sydney Morning Herald, drawing on survey statistics gathered by the New South Wales Secondary Principals Association, are unsettling. They indicate that in 60 per cent of the public schools surveyed, the proportion of “Anglo”, or “white”, students has declined in recent years. The principals surveyed believe that this is due to Anglo parents leaving or avoiding schools with a high proportion of students from certain ethnic groups. The main groups in question seem to be Aboriginal, Lebanese and Islander.
The interpretation put on this is that “white flight” is endemic across NSW schools. This term means that white parents choose a school for their children based on the colour of its students. While it would be foolish to deny that there are racist parents in Australia, it is difficult to believe that racism, by which I mean an irrational prejudice, is the only, or even the main factor for many parents.
Indeed it is impossible to glean this from the report’s findings. The report was never intended for publication, let alone for the sort of analysis it was subjected to, and would not pass tests of statistical validity. It delves no further than principals’ perceptions.
Nonetheless, commentators have been eager to embrace the report’s findings, or at least the SMH’s spin on them.
Both Gerard Noonan, the SMH’s social affairs editor, and Chris Bonnor, a former principal, have laid the blame squarely at the feet of policies that allow parents to choose among schools.
The alternative to this, where parents are forced to enroll their child at the closest public school, would presumably usher in a return to the halcyon days of Bonnor and Noonan’s youths, where children of all creeds and colours mingled happily and productively and there were no racial tensions. Education academic Ken Gannicott once called this the “nirvana fallacy”. It would not and could not happen. In reality, public school enrolments reflect the demographic characteristics of their local areas. NSW Education Minister John Della Bosca has made precisely this point.
Given that Australia’s cities and towns are so socioeconomically and ethnically stratified, does anyone really believe that reintroducing public school zoning would create an even mix of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion and academic ability in every school? I went to school during the times of zoning and there were only two Asian students in my 1,000-student public high school. I would be willing to bet there was not a single Muslim. In other words, it was not quite a microcosm of multicultural Australia.
Despite the report clearly showing that just as much of the sorting of students along racial and ethnic lines is occurring among public schools, Bonnor uses the findings as a stick to beat non-government schools.
It is possible that non-government schools do have a case to answer in regard to their relatively lower representation of Indigenous, low income and special-needs students. However, it is equally possible that government policies are restricting the access of these students to the non-government school sector. Students with disabilities, for example, have access to many thousands of dollars worth of government-funded assistance in public schools that they are not entitled to in a non-government school. Likewise, if Indigenous kids could take the amount of money spent on them in a public school to any school of their choice, they may well be more likely to enroll in a non-government school.
Calling increased ethic segregation in schools “white flight” makes the assumption that it is only white parents who are making race-based choices about schools. Take Aboriginal students as an example. A school with a high representation of Aboriginal students can reach that point in two ways. One is that there have been increases in the numbers of Aboriginal students. If this is followed by a decrease in the number of Anglo students, the change is compounded, but it is important to acknowledge the first factor.
If a school has a disproportionate growth in enrolments of one particular ethnic group, there should be some analysis of the reasons. Is it because of demographic change, or changes in the zoning (NSW public schools still have zoning of sorts) and should this be reviewed? Is it because families of these students are actively choosing schools because there are a lot of students of the same ethnic background? If so, why are these families less culpable than white families who do the same thing?
A lot of questions arise from the SMH’s coverage of this issue and the public discussion that has ensued. The question of social segregation in schools looms large in the minds of many people, even though it is far from clear whether it matters as much as many believe. Unfortunately, the responses have been characterised more by alarmism than the thoughtfulness such a complex issue deserves.