Social Segregation in Sydney Schools

A new study has raised concern about the growing ethnic segregation of Australian schools. It says that if current trends continue, we risk creating highly unbalanced school communities rather than communities that reflect the full diversity of Australian society.

The study of enrolment patterns in secondary schools in Sydney found a growing unofficial creed among many Australian parents that a ‘good school’ for their children is one where ethnic students are in the minority. It found a clear pattern of ethnic polarisation in schools across the board, including in wealthy elite suburbs, which suggests that Anglo-Australians have abandoned public schools in many areas.

The study is based on data from My School and shows a marked split between public and private schools in the enrolment of students from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). Across Sydney, more than half 52 per cent of public school students are from LBOTE, while for Independent schools the figure is just 22% and for Catholic schools it is 37%.

The study was done by Christina Ho from the University of Technology in Sydney and published in the latest issue of the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

The polarisation is particularly marked among schools that record the strongest performances in the Higher School Certificate (HSC). For example, among the top 50 Sydney schools in the 2010 HSC examination, sixteen private schools have less than 20 per cent of students from a language background other than English. For example, Kambala had 5%, SHORE 9%, SCEGGS 12% and Ascham 14%.

Within wealthy Sydney suburbs, public schools routinely educate a much higher proportion of migrant-background students than do private schools. For instance, while St Ignatius College in Lane Cove on Sydney’s wealthy North Shore has just 8% of its students from a language background other than English. The figure for nearby Hunters Hill High School is 22%, while another nearby local school, Chatswood High School, has 67% from a LBOTE.

Other examples from the North Shore include Queenwood School in Mosman with 10% LBOTE which contrasts with Mosman High at 26%. Similarly Ravenswood’s 13% LBOTE contrasts dramatically with nearby Killara High’s 45% and St Ives High’s 49%.

The association between public schools and migrant students is even stronger when at public academically-selective schools, which are, in almost all cases, overwhelmingly dominated by students from a language background other than English. For example, 97% of students at James Ruse are from LBOTE, at North Sydney Girls HS LBOTE are 93% of enrolments, Baulkham Hills HS has 92%, Sydney Boys HS 91% and North Sydney Boys HS 90%.

In explaining this polarisation between public and private schools, Ms. Ho suggests that families are self-segregating on the basis of cultural background. Migrant families are opting for the public system, which she says seems understandable given the outstanding academic outcomes achieved by selective schools and the exorbitant fees of private schools. Migrant parents appear to be less willing to pay for superior grounds, facilities and other private school attractions, even when they can afford to do so.

She says that the shunning of public selective schools by Anglo-Australians is less explicable. The ‘white flight’ from these schools must partly reflect an unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children, which simply further entrenches this domination.

Public schools also appear to have been abandoned by Anglo-Australians in some of the poorer suburbs of Sydney. The study found that the schools with the highest proportions of students from LBOTE are located in Western Sydney. Many schools have over 95% of their students from LBOTE such as Auburn Girls HS (98%0, Punchbowl Boys HS (98%), Canley Vale HS (97%), Granville Boys HS (97%), Bankstown Girls HS (96%) and Belmore Boys HS (96%). Many others have over 90% of their students from LBOTE.

While these schools are located in suburbs where migrants are concentrated, the school communities are disproportionately migrant-dominated. The proportions of LBOTE students in the respective suburbs are much lower than the school proportions. The average percentage of LBOTE students in 12 western suburbs public schools reported in the study is 95% compared to an average proportion in the respective suburbs of 72%.

The study shows that there has been a marked ethnic consolidation in these schools in the last decade. In 2000, the NSW districts with the highest percentages of students from non-English speaking backgrounds in public schools were Granville with 81% LBOTE and Fairfield 75%. Unlike today, there were no schools with 90 per cent or more LBOTE.

It appears more Anglo-Australian children going to private schools in these areas. In the central Western corridor running from Parramatta through Auburn to Bankstown, the private schools all have much lower LBOTE levels than do their public counterparts. Examples include Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta (49%), St Euphemia College, Bankstown (54%) and Condell Park Christian School (56%).

The lower LBOTE levels in private schools are particularly pronounced in the outer Western suburbs. For example, private schools in the Campbelltown area, on the southwest fringe of Sydney, have an average of 14% LBOTE, while those in the Penrith area, on the western outskirts of Sydney, average 24% LBOTE. While these outer suburbs are generally more Anglo-dominated than other areas of Western Sydney, it may also be the case that Anglo-Australian students are travelling further to attend these schools.

The study states that the shift to private schools by Anglo-Australians is not entirely surprising given the policy changes that have occurred in the last two decades that have imposed market principles on the schooling system. A series of government policies in the name of supporting ‘choice’ has led to increased support for private schools, which has increased the resource disparity between public and private schools, and exacerbated the perception of public education as the inferior choice.

The study concludes by saying we should be concerned about ethnic segregation in schools. It says that the success of multiculturalism in large part relies on Australians having the skills and outlook to effectively negotiate across cultural difference. Schools are a crucial institution for instilling an understanding of, and respect for, cultural difference. Indeed, it one of the goals of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.

Much can be achieved by school curricula that expose students to diverse worldviews, histories and cultural practices. However, nothing can replicate the experiential knowledge gained by being personally confronted with cultural difference and learning how to negotiate across difference, not to mention the benefits gained from cross-cultural friendship. Scholars of ‘everyday multiculturalism’ argue that the success of Australian multiculturalism has much to do with the ordinary encounters between people of different cultural backgrounds that happen every day, in neighbourhoods, workplaces, parks – and schools.

Mono-cultural schools, regardless of the quality of their teaching programs, cannot socialise students for the reality of a cosmopolitan Australian society. Nor do heavily migrant-dominated schools, bereft of Anglo-Australians, provide a balanced microcosm of Australian society for socialising young people.

The study says that the challenge is to provide better opportunities for Australians to implement their in principle support for diverse schools by ensuring that public schools are not seen as the inferior choice.

Trevor Cobbold

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