Growing Social Segregation in Australia’s Schools

Social segregation in Australian schools is increasing according to a research paper published last month. It says that schools are becoming more segregated in terms of both class and ethnicity and it has serious implications equity in education and for multiculturalism and social cohesion.

The research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Dr Christina Ho shows a highly divided education system, with some elite private schools operating as virtually mono-cultural bastions of whiteness, while public schools, including selective schools, are sometimes overwhelmingly dominated by students from language backgrounds other than English. 

Ho found that students from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) form more than half of all enrolments in Sydney’s public high schools (52 per cent) compared to 37 per cent in Catholic schools and only 22 per cent in Independent schools.

Segregation is particularly pronounced in some local areas. In Sydney’s lower north shore, a wealthy and culturally diverse region, LBOTE students comprise 49 per cent of students in public comprehensive high schools. This figure jumps to 61 per cent when public selective schools are included. In contrast, LBOTE enrolments comprised only 13 per cent of enrolments of private schools in the region.

Census data show that approximately 30 per cent of residents of the lower north shore spoke a language other than English at home in 2011. This means that on average, the private schools in this region are disproportionately Anglo-Australian, while the public schools are disproportionately non-Anglo.

The pattern of ethnic segregation is also evident (although to a lesser extent) in other areas. For example, the inner-west Burwood-Strathfield region is a more culturally diverse area overall, with 64 per cent speaking a language other than English but the schools are ethnically polarised. In public high schools, an average of 80 per cent of students are LBOTE, while in private schools, it is about half this figure, at 42 per cent. As Ho concludes:

More and more students are going to schools that do not represent the range of people in their neighbourhood, but rather a select group. Their families have chosen to enrol them in schools where there are more ‘people like us’. In providing more school ‘choice’ for parents, the government has created a marketplace in schools that has led to self-segregation.

Ho also found a sharp contrast in the social composition of selective public schools and elite private schools. She identified 11 private high schools in the north shore area where the proportion of students from language backgrounds other than English was at or below 20 per cent. Queenwood School for Girls in Mosman had the lowest share (2 per cent) followed by St Ignatius College Riverview in Lane Cove (5 per cent) and Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in North Sydney (6 per cent). In contrast, the proportion of students from a language background other than English in two selective public high schools in the area – North Sydney Boys and North Sydney Girls – was above 90 per cent. As Ho told the Sydney Morning Herald:

You can walk between some of these schools in a few minutes and yet one is like a white bubble and the other is like a non-white bubble.

Data from the My School website also shows strong social segregation between public and private schools nationally. Public schools in Australia have a much greater proportion of students from low income families and a much smaller proportion from high income families compared to either Catholic or Independent schools. In 2013, low income student comprised 30 per cent of all public school enrolments compared to 15 per cent in Catholic schools and only nine per cent in Independent schools. In contrast, high income students comprised 21 per cent of public school enrolments compared with 29 per cent of Catholic enrolments and 47 per cent of Independent school enrolments.

Ho says that school choice and increasing social segregation has significant implications for education and society. She says that there is now substantial evidence from around the world that the creation of a marketplace in schools increases inequality between richer and poorer schools, and between richer and poorer students. For example, an OECD report titled Equity and Quality in Education states:

Providing full parental school choice can result in segregating students by ability, socio economic background and generate greater inequities across education systems.  [p.92]

Ho also argues that in a multicultural society like Australia, it is unnatural and unhealthy for our schools to be so ethnically divided.

In private schools that are overwhelmingly Anglo-dominated, students are not being given sufficient opportunity to develop the cross-cultural awareness and skills that can only be developed through everyday encounters and friendships with people from other backgrounds. On the other hand, in public schools, especially selective schools, where the majority Anglo population are all but absent, again, students are not exposed to the multicultural social environment they will need to engage with when they leave school. There are also concerns about who gains access to well-resourced schools, and whether some schools may be reproducing highly exclusive social networks into the future.

Increasing social segregation in Australia has been driven by government funding policies designed to promote school choice. As Ho says, school choice has been a powerful mantra in Australian government policy on education for decades. However, instead of improving school performance it has led to greater inequality between rich and poor schools.

The Gonski funding plan broke with the mantra of funding school choice. Instead, it is designed to reduce the effects of disadvantage on education outcomes by directing funding increases to disadvantaged students and schools. In this sense, it is a watershed in the history of school funding in Australia.

The Gonski model is the foundation on which to build the future. It remains vital to meeting the biggest challenge facing Australian education – reducing the large achievement gap between rich and poor.

Trevor Cobbold

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