Data shows ‘white flight’ to private schools

A mismatch between the cultural make-up of schools and the suburbs in which they are located could lead to social problems in future, according to a Sydney researcher who analysed the trend.

Using data from the government’s My School website, Dr Christina Ho from the University of Technology Sydney identified a sharp cultural polarisation between public and private schools in Sydney.

The elite private schools were overwhelmingly white, in contrast to the more multicultural suburbs in which they were located.

Many public and selective schools were overwhelmingly made up of children from non-English speaking backgrounds, a mix that did not accurately reflect the areas in which they were built.

“I think it raises alarm bells,” Dr Ho told The Conversation. “Just looking at the statistics, it does seem like families are self-segregating on the basis of cultural background.”

A generation of students is graduating without having mixed in the playground with others from the range of backgrounds that reflected broader Australian society, she said.

“For multiculturalism to succeed in Australia, there needs to be an every day level of competence in dealing with difference,” said Dr Ho. “You can have a fabulous curriculum with world history, geography and so on but nothing replaces that every day experience of being confronted with people of other backgrounds, not to mention the friendships that form between people of different backgrounds.”

The data showed that 52 percent of public school students in Sydney came from a language background other than English, while in private schools the figure was 22 percent. In Catholic schools, 37 percent came from language background other than English.

Comparing the My School figures to census data showed that the cultural background of the student body at many schools did not match the cultural background of the suburbs in which they were found.

Private schools had overwhelmingly more Anglo Australian students than the broader communities in which they were located.

For example, in North Sydney’s Wenona School, no students identified as being from a language background other than English but 23 percent of the broader community in that area did. At Kambala School in Rose Bay, 5 percent of students identified as being from a non-English speaking background while 19 percent of the broader communities in that area did.

The mismatch also occurred in public schools, but the student body of those schools was often more multicultural than the surrounding suburb, suggesting Anglo Australian parents in the area were picking private schools over the local public school.

As many as 98 percent of students at Auburn Girls High school in Sydney’s west were from a language background other than English, but census data showed that 83 percent of residents in that area were.

For Punchbowl High School, in Sydney’s south-west, 98 percent of students were from non-English speaking backgrounds but only 77 percent of local residents were.

Dr Ho said the federal government’s funding formula had disadvantaged public schools over private schools, helping create a ‘white flight’ to private schools.

“Private schools are looking more attractive and anyone with the means is more likely to look at sending their kids there,” she said.

The high proportion of Asian students at selective schools was also helping to create student bodies with a cultural mix that do not reflect broader Australian society and was fuelling resentment by others that Asians were ‘taking over’, she said.

That could be addressed by broadening the selection criteria to include more sports, arts and humanities topics, she said.

Failing to address these issues could lead to social problems for all students – whether in public, private, or selective schools – when they grew older, said Dr Ho.

“I think they will be less equipped to deal with a very cosmopolitan society in future,” she said. “The last thing you want is for kids to grow up in a monoculture environment where they are completely unaccustomed to dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds.”

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